How Books Scare Us — or Not
I’ve always loved a good horror story. While I don’t always write horror, when I do, I try to emulate masters of suspense like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Thomas Olde Heuvelt. I’ve been told the Amelia Doss series, written by my co-author Andre Gonzalez, and me, is pretty darn terrifying. When I wrote Amelia, I really tried hard to make her terrifying. So I added one part serial killer, one part supernatural (reminiscent of Michael Myers in Halloween), some occult lore, and some shady friends, that could reasonably be part of Amelia’s twisted mind as well as supernatural evil lurking in the shadows. I wanted to keep readers guessing. Either way, Amelia’s friends are terrifying. I also added some vivid descriptions of Amelia’s exploits sure to horrify readers, as well as turn their stomachs. To me – that was scary.
In Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Echo (which I’m SLOWLY making my way through), he has a prologue that is absolutely horrifying. A lone woman stuck in a cabin in the mountains all alone, waiting for her brother or boyfriend/husband (I don’t recall their relationship now) to arrive, but a storm is making it difficult for him to get there. So she’s all alone in a house full of spirits/ghosts. When the lightning flashes through the sky, she sees the shadows of people there and if she closes her eyes, they get closer. If the lights go on or another flash of lightning appears, they freeze. Lights go off, they inch closer. And there’s nothing she can do about it because they’re coming no matter what and she knows they WILL get her. The chapter cuts off right before this happens. The tension built by the character’s experience and the reader knowing exactly what will happen is palpable. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve read in a horror novel in some time.
I read a lot of horror, and the crazy part is – I don’t find most of it scary. I’m not alone. I’ve read multiple comments from readers in the past year complaining of this exact thing. Horror isn’t scary anymore. It’s simply suspenseful, if even that.
But then we have to answer a single question. What is scary? What terrifies me may not terrify you and vice versa. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby terrified plenty of movie-goers back in the day. But would a modern audience still be terrified? Probably not.
If the idea of monsters and being a single parent ever terrified you — the Babadook was probably a scary movie. If not, you likely found it incredibly annoying and if you made it through to the end, you were glad when it was over. Scary is subjective to the individual watching or reading the horror.
Even Stephen King, master of horror, isn’t all that scary. I also don’t find Dean Koontz terribly horrifying. It’s not just about choppy scenes or gore. It’s about creating tension and anticipation. An impending sense of doom. Making the reader want to look behind them, knowing there’s something there, in the dark, just out of sight, waiting to get them.
If you read horror, what scares you? Feel free to share your book recs in the comments!