Why should writers study horror?

Intelligent conversations about horror are happening daily, but who’s hearing them? Despite the large number of horror aficionados in the world, many readers and writers have steered away from works of horror without fully engaging the genre as a whole.

Putting aside your genre-preferences, all writers should spend a little time unpacking works of horror to see what all the screams are about.

Preconceptions

Reactions to horror are wildly polarized in our society. This may be, in part, related to our preconceived notions about horror. As October’s two spookiest days set in this year – Friday the 13th, and Halloween – many turn their TV’s and streaming services to horror-related movies and shows.

Instagram bubbles with well-rendered work from costume designers, make-up artists, Halloween enthusiasts, and horror fans. While it may seem like horror belongs to the month of October, there is enough spectacular work produced year-round to make every month overflow with the genre. Sadly, some associate horror only with B-list movies, teen tv-shows,  and gore / slasher films. While there is a place for these creations in the horror genre, the larger reality is that the breadth and depth of horror is much richer.


Reason # 1: Author’s Craft & Audience Engagement

By reading a horror book, or simply watching a show, scene, or movie, writer’s can study the author’s craft. Author’s craft has multiple definitions; I am referring to the collection of techniques and methods that authors use to create a quality piece of literature or entertainment. Some of these techniques include character development, style, attention to detail, and use of genre-related tropes.

The most successful books, shows, and literature from the horror genre often involve well-developed characters, scenes, and worlds. Whether the world is completely fictional or set in a fictionalized reality (e.g. Stephen King’s Derry, Maine), experienced authors would agree that crafting these worlds and the people within them take time, effort and persistence.

Take Stranger Things, for example. This very popular show on Netflix is steeped with horror tropes and techniques, as well as conventions used in gothic literature. If writers dissected how this show tells a story,  they would find a wealth of lessons. Each character has their own motivations, but those motivations are revealed gradually. Likewise, the creators have also decided to reveal the most important plot details strategically, heightening the audience’s experience. Although the show is not without flaw, it is very well done!

As a result of their craft, Stranger Things grips an audience. Whether it’s references to dungeon and dragons, or apt head-nods to the popular works of horror, the show accomplishes a very important aspect of writing: audience engagement. At times, this ability to grip an audience is a lesson in itself.

The Take-Away For Writers?

Audience engagement is essential to any piece of literature or entertainment. If your audience or reader does not appreciate your craft, your storytelling, or any piece therein, they will not read your work.


Reason # 2: The Psychology of Horror

True horror pertains to more than just the physical. The human psyche is prone to countless fears that writers should understand. While developing a scene, writers should be aware of how and why their characters respond to the conflicts around them. By precisely creating scenes that work with the reader’s empathy for any character, the writer increases the quality of the reading experience.

Fear is a large component of this. Craft the character with all of his or her fears in mind – physical, mental, and spiritual. This adds a deeper dimension to the character, helping the reader psychologically engage with the character’s struggles. As human beings, we tend to empathize with characters. Sometimes, we draw parallels between ourselves and the protagonists of a book. Great horror writers capitalize on the humanity of their characters, giving reader’s a chance to identify with each scene.

Remember the last time you gripped a book in suspense? What about when a friend or family member said, “Don’t go in there!” to the television screen? As human beings we often feel the need to connect. If writers spent a short time studying how the best horror writers create these compelling scenes, we would see a lot of gripping fiction.

For scientific reasons why horror movies and literature grips us, see the suggested reading at the bottom of this post.

The Take-Away For Writers?

Creating fully-fleshed characters psychologically enhances your reader’s experience. Horror writers know this, and studying their techniques proves useful.


Reason # 3: Popular Literature

It’s difficult to write a blog post about horror without mentioning a few popular novelists and creators. Stephen King, one of the most popular contemporary novelists in the genre, has contributed over 50 novels to the world. Regardless of what you may think of his writing style and methods, King has clearly had a successful career as a writer.

Currently, I’m reading The Shining, and like King’s other books, the development of his characters and scenes is much slower and more rooted in reality than expected. While he pulls no punches, his scenes take time to develop, bringing the reader into a clear vision of what  he wants us to see. This attention to detail is one of the aforementioned techniques of author’s craft. Furthermore, King’s horror is rooted in the psychological nuances of human beings, not just the supernatural. This type of character development and scene creation lends itself to greater reader engagement, as the characters and worlds feel real.

Neil Gaiman’s creations, while not limited to horror, do the same. His work creates believable characters in situations and worlds that sometimes defy logic and expectation. Conversely, he plays with these realities he has created, ensuring his stories fit within their own logical set of rules and principles guiding their fictional worlds.

The Take-Away For Writers?

If the goal is to find out what attracts a broad audience of readers, popular authors and creators are perfect subjects of study.


Suggested Reading:

On Writing Horror (Revised Edition): A Handbook by the Horror Writer’s Association – Edited by Mort Castle (This book on GoodReads)

Horror is Good For You And Even Better For Kids – Tor.com

The Psychology of Fear: Exploring the Science Behind Horror Entertainment

Why Do We Watch Scary Films – Psychology Today


What are some horror works that you recommend?

Are there other reasons that writers should study horror?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Leave a Reply