By Nat LeBlanc
Around Halloween, even the most cowardly and craven consumers of fiction dare to read a scary story, view a fear-inducing film, or listen to a deep-voiced narrator recite The Raven once again, and nevermore (until next year). While monsters, shocks, and blood & guts can disturb and disgust the most sophisticated of audiences, there are a variety of slower themes, motifs, and occurrences that you as a writer can include in your story to ensure your readers sleep with the blankets pulled all the way up to their chins.
1. The GuiltyGuilt is the feeling of having done something wrong, and several horror writers have plagued their characters with it to great effect. Guilt can be cause by an action that your character has committed and knows is wrong, such as the murder of the old man by the narrator in Poe’sThe Tell-Tale Heart. Poe tortures his main character with the knowledge of his actions until he is eventually forced to confront his evil deed and hand himself over to the police.
The anguish of guilt can manifest itself psychologically, symbolically, or paranormally. Many popular folk legends involve the ghosts of those who have been murdered stalking their victims until they achieve revenge. Guilt is an effective tool to use in a horror story, as every rational person feels guilty or regretful over something they’ve done in their lives.
2. The Dreadful
Dread is the feeling of a negative outcome in a current situation. Comparable to excitement and anticipation, dread is the knowledge that there is no escape, no way of changing the outcome; the fear comes from the powerlessness of the characters throughout the story. The most common example of dread and hopelessness is recurring themes of premature burials. Poe was an avid use of this trope, going so far as to base an entire story (“The Premature Burial”) around the phobia. However dread can manifest itself in situations as mundane as confronting a partner about infidelity, going to a job interview where you have overstated your qualifications, or even just getting out of bed when you are convinced that you heard growling and scraping coming from under your frame.
3. The Forbidden
Reaching beyond one’s limits has been a theme in literature for millennia. The most famous and oft referenced story is that of Icarus, who was so proud of the wings his father had fashioned for him that he flew too close to the sun and plummeted to his death when the wax that held the feathers together melted. More deeply rooted in the horror fiction, however, is the story of Prometheus.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods of Mount Olympus and gifted it to mankind, forever enlightening them. For his subordinate behaviour, he was chained to a rock where a vulture pecks out his innards for eternity while they magically grow back. While the legend of Prometheus heavily influenced Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein (subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”), a more contemporary author influenced by these stories is H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was fascinated with the idea of forbidden knowledge and explored the ideas of mankind reaching far beyond its limits and being punished for their curiosity, rather than their arrogance.
4. The Human
More terrifying than anything on this list is the limits to which humanity will push themselves to for survival or entertainment. For inspiration into the truly horrific, talented writers look to real-world stories that seem beyond belief for their cruelty and malice. Stories of murders who fashioned furniture and clothing from their victims. Charismatic cannibals who felt no remorse for the deaths they caused. Monsters wearing clown costumes that would identify potential victims while entertaining them at children’s parties. Nothing is more terrifying than a story with an element of twisted humanity.
The human aspect could be the serial killer next door that looks exactly like you, or it could be the woman who had one bad day at work and was found swimming in her family’s blood, or it could be the scientist who gleefully sewed twins together and sent them out into the cold to see how long they would live. Humanity is terrifying because humanity is not just all around us, it’s inside us.