Horror isn’t about the blood

Let’s play a word association game. I say something and you tell me the first thing that pops into your head.


This is what pops into Google’s mind first.

Most people first think of a monster, or of a violent, gruesome, possibly totally unrealistic death. But that isn’t what makes horror, horror.

The moment that the character is stabbed is not the moment horror is born. Horror walks the line of supsense keeping the entire world of the story contain within a tightly coiled spring. The moment the monster appears, attacks, maims, etc. that’s the moment the spring comes undone and then (if it’s not the climax) the spring begins to coil back down, ready to spring again.

The scare doesn’t come from violence. The scare comes from a delicate rhythm of tension, and release, of the unknown threat, or unseen danger finally being realized. In horror, sometimes the most powerful jolts are based on the things you don’t see, or don’t expect. It’s jarring.

But that jolt alone does not a horror story make. The best analogy I heard is that one spark does not start a fire unless there’s something surrounding it to catch flame. A single moment won’t set the way for a horror story unless you’ve done the work and set the rest of the scene. For example:

Bill and Ted were having coffee. It was Tuesday and a good day.

Stan walked over to Bill and stabbed him, ripping his belly button open and pulling out his insides.

Shocking? Maybe. Horror? Eh…..

The scene doesn’t set up anything. So rather than tension being released, you instead get a blank stare of ‘…wait, what?’ it lends itself more to confusion than to fear. There is no build-up, no tension, no fear, just blood. This is like a lighter going off in a vaccum. There’s nothing to set fire so nothing can spread.

For horror, the devil is in the details. You can’t have a scary story without tension. Think of the oldest horror cliche in the world. The woman alone in a dark house with a killer. Why is it scary? Because you know something is going to happen. You see it everywhere. Something runs down the hall? Here he comes… oh, just her dog. Phew. Wait? Her dog’s bleeding! And so it continues onwards until the tension finally snaps into action.

So, here’s a challenge for you. Write your own revised version of Ted, Bill and Stan’s Tuesday morning and share it with me!



  1. Chrysoula Said:

    Bill and Ted were having coffee. It was Tuesday, and a good day. The coffee robot was working! The dishwasher was empty! And the boss was out of the office for the rest of the week. Already, the other teams were goofing off. The screams and shouts were actually pretty loud, and Bill rolled his eyes as he handed Ted his coffee.

    Stan appeared at the break room door, holding one of the IT’s team Nerf guns. “Guess what?” he said, pointing the gun at them.

    “Hey, man,” scowled Bill. “Don’t spill my coffee.”

    Stan laughed. “You’ve got bigger things to worry about, ol’ Bill.” He cocked his head. “Actually, now that I think about it, you’ve got nothing at all to worry about.” He pulled the trigger.

    The thud was a grey sound, contrasting with the red and black emerging from Bill’s skull.

    Ted dropped his coffee as Stan’s gun shifted to point at him. “Now, /you’ve/ got more to worry about. Because you were never a jerk like Bill. So I think I’ll give you a count of five to run.” And he stepped out of the break room door, leaned against the wall, and started to whistle.

    • That was great! I really love ‘The thud was a grey sound, contrasting with the red and black emerging from Bill’s skull.’
      I also really enjoyed the surprise of it! Since you said nerf gun I wasn’t anticipating red and black but it was well done! 🙂

  2. […] why I prefer this blog post over at Judy Black Cloud about the difference between “horror” and “shock”.  It doesn’t […]

  3. Draven Ames Said:

    Great post, Judy. There are too many horror stories that try to shock or be too gory, without adding any tension or suspense. You have this dead bang. Awesome article. I’ll be sharing it.

    • Thanks! it’s just been driving me crazy lately with this confusion that horror has to always equal blood and guts. That’s not at all the case.

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