Writing Horror That Lingers

by Josh Sippie

There’s a certain art to writing pulpy horror. You create a monster, the monster terrorizes everyone, maybe one person survives. Only maybe. But as the literary horror landscape changes and grows and reinvigorates as it’s doing now, the tropes of the genre are finding root around more sustainable qualities.

Sure, there are new monsters to create, new motivation for vengeful ghosts, but what modern horror has found new life in is shaking off the tropes of traditional, B-movie horror and moving towards a more lingering version of horror, stories that stick in your craw and don’t let go because they aren’t about cheap scares, they’re about friends, family, love. Oh, and there’s a monster, a demon, a ghost as well. But the primary attraction, the name in lights, isn’t the terror—it’s the heart of the story that the terror upsets.

There needs to be more emotional resonance in a horror story now. It can’t just be happy, sad, scared. Nothing embodies the modern horror genre more than this quote by Helen Oyeyemi:

The way that people feel changes everything. Feelings are forces. They cause us to time travel. And to leave ourselves, to leave our bodies. I would be that kind of psychologist who says, 'You're absolutely right—there are monsters under the bed.'

That monster under that bed is feeling. It’s the idea of fear more than an actual monster itself. And if there’s a monster too, hey, that’s neat, but it shouldn’t be just about the monster.

Let’s Talk Movies

You can’t have a discussion about writing great horror without at least briefly talking about horror movies. And as the former host of “Scary Movie Tuesday” while in college, I have many opinions, but the only relevant one is this—there is always a moment of reckoning in any horror movie or story. A moment when the monster is revealed. If that monster isn’t absolutely terrifying, the movie loses all its tension. It deflates like a sad balloon.

And guess what? After watching one new scary movie a week for two straight years, eventually, it becomes difficult to sustain the tension of a movie based on the monster alone. They all start to blend into one and it’s one reason why you’ll see so many horror movies landing pretty awful reviews. What is there beyond the fright? Nothing. Meaning once you lose the fright, what do you have? Nothing.

The same is true of written horror.

Don’t sacrifice your traditional story elements in favor of bigger scares, bloodier gore, more frequent startles. Your monster can only have so many teeth, your graveyard only so many bodies. Eventually, your reader is going to crave a deeper connection than what is offered by terrible, horrible, bloodcurdling scares.

Think of The Haunting of Hill House, both the TV series and the novel by Shirley Jackson. Since we’re in the movie part, let’s first talk about the Netflix adaptation.

Sure, there are some jumps and startles, some freaky moments and background terrors. But what makes this show truly scary is the fact that the paranormal circumstances are affecting people you actually care about. Characters who feel real, who have actual relationships, who love and cherish each other and, in any other scenario, would be a happy family.

Essentially, the horror is being used to disrupt the status quo. It isn’t the status quo.

Without a family you care about, without characters you’re rooting for and want to see survive and thrive and be a happy family, this show loses so much of what makes it effective. It loses the ability to linger. Even years removed from watching, I still think about the repercussions on this family. I think about how life might have been had the house not intervened. What would Luke have grown up to become? How would the family have stayed together beyond the empty nest years?

Traditional story elements. Family dynamics, sibling rivalries, loving parents. Yet so well-represented in a genre that, decades ago, didn’t show up in this department.

Now Back to Books

In the original novel by Shirley Jackson, while it’s not a family at Hill House, the thread of the story remains the same. The horror elements are actually rather tame, unseen, hearsay. A knock on the door, suspected possession, but nothing that reaches out and grabs you by the collar. No, the terror comes from the complex relationships woven by Jackson. Between Eleanor and Theodora, between Dr. Montague and Luke, between the caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Dudley.

That’s why this story stands the test of time. It’s story first, terror second. And, let’s be honest, that’s what Shirley Jackson does, Hill House and beyond. If you ever want to see what great horror looks like, horror that is built on the pillars of stellar storytelling, look no further.

But there are more and more modern examples as well. Let’s start in the middle grade sector, because there are so many wonderful, innovative scary stories for kids.

Let’s look at The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier. Two abandoned Irish siblings are going to work as servants at a decrepit English manor. Seems pretty standard for a premise. There’s something up with the house (spoiler!) and the family isn’t what they seem. And yes, the books namesake does, in fact, make an appearance.

That’s all well and good and adds a beautifully creepy element to the story, but what makes this story elevate above the rest is the fantastic sibling relationship that Auxier builds between Molly and Kip. A sibling relationship rooted in abandonment, where Molly has to serve as protector to Kip, while also nurturing like a mother and being a true friend. It’s beautifully done and what makes this and every other effective horror story stand out from the masses is: if you take the horror away, you’d still have a beautiful story.

If Auxier had written about Molly and Kip going to be servants at a perfectly normal English manor with a perfectly adequate family, you’d still take so much away from how these two adapt to having to mature much sooner than they otherwise would, and how they stick together throughout the forced growing pains.

Another example, Wonderland, by Zaje Stage. Again, when you look at the premise—a family moves onto a big swath of land in the Adirondacks and finds sinister forces lurking outside… and below—you get those goosebumps of anticipation built around fear. And again—that fear is there. It’s a really scary story.

But it’s a story built on a family. Orla and Shaw, mother and father, with their two kids, are at risk and Orla is in charge of saving the family. Without first connecting us to the family, without building such touching family dynamics and making us root for this family, Orla’s quest to ridding the family of this evil falls flat. There’s a reason this novel is likened to Shirley Jackson and The Shining. What do both have in common?

Dynamic storytelling as the entrée. Horror as the side.

It’s All in The Family

Of course there is always going to be a certain cult following around Saw-esque stories. Freddy, Jason, the Wolfman. How can we continue to re-up ourselves in the horror, torture, gore department. It’s fun to go around seeing people get ripped apart and knowing that no one will survive. I guess.

But so, so many horror stories get left behind in the times when they rely solely on their ability to scare, and not on their ability to get the reader to care. The same can be said of other genres too, though the revival of horror is the best example. You could build the best fantasy world in the history of literature, but if you don’t fill it with characters, it doesn’t matter. You could invent the greatest technology to ever cruise through space, but if you don’t fill the ship with a crew that readers root for, then who cares?

The difference is, fantasy and science fiction and most other genres have had a balance of pulpy stories and substantial narratives for quite some time, but horror is around to stay because it has found its way into the same. If you want to write horror that sticks with the reader, that suits the modern horror-scape, then tell the story first and bring the scares second.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine