Horror can sometimes seem difficult to write, but the best horror is often distilled into several elements that comprise the major plot points of a story.
As humans, we often abhor excessive amounts of pain, and when confronted with it, we tend toward the path of least resistance. This avoidance of pain can be used to horrific effect in horror stories. For example, take a look at the movie Saw and its many sequels. The entire franchise is focused on two things: pain and death. How do you avoid being killed? You have to do the tasks the torturer in Saw commanded, and much of them involved incredibly painful things you had to do to yourself. Could you do it? The idea of this horrified people and made that movie an iconic story in our modern day horror mythos. Another use of pain is torture in military interrogations — recordings of people screaming in pain have been played before interrogations or during them to try to force the person to cooperate.
This element explores things that look and act differently than we do. The movie Alien is a great example of this; the Alien was not only black — a color often associated with the unfamiliar and unknown — but had vicious teeth, quick movements, and a long sinuous body and tail. The humans in that story had no way of communicating with this unfamiliar being — all they knew is that it sought to kill them. Since they couldn’t predict exactly where it would go next, it left the viewer on the edge of their seat as the heroine made her way through the ship. This also plays into the concept of the “other,” which describes any person that is not like the hero(ine). Lovecraftian horror plays into this element a lot with its fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.
- Abandonment/fear of being alone
This is perhaps one of the biggest aspects of horror fiction. The hero(ine) often gets separated from others. This fear of being alone can set a person on edge. It’s a part of human nature to seek other people to connect with. When people live alone in unpopulated areas, this is often seen as weird or creepy by society; this is also why villains in stories live alone — to play off this factor.
For people who are have vision, a lot of their sense of reality comes from visual cues. This is why sudden strange noises, especially when no discernible source can be seen, creates a profound sense of fear. For those who are blind, the sudden absence of sound and touch could be a factor that plays upon fears of not knowing where you are or what’s ahead of you. It plays into that same fear of not being able to sense directly what it is you’re experiencing. Games such as Amnesia play into this type of horror element, where you hear sounds but can’t see what is chasing you. You only know that you have to run and hide to avoid whatever it is. The Cthulhu mythos by Lovecraft uses the unknown horror element to a high degree, where unknown elements alter the environment in ways that can’t be stopped. His story “Color Out of Space” plays on this element; a meteor leaves behind a colorful residue that soon fades away, but then as time goes on, the ground around it begins to warp in unexplainable ways. Eventually it all begins to crumble into dust, and the investigator, unable to stop it, can only witness the horrifying demise of this farm community.
- Being out of control
Losing our sense of control can really destabilize and frighten a person. We like to be in control of our lives and actions, but if that is taken from us — by say a supernatural person or creature or by being manipulated or tricked — it can lead to panic. In Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, this idea is explored through the use of magic, where people are taken control by magical means. The Angel Series, a spin-off of Buffy, also used this in the season four story-arc with Cordelia. Her behaviors became more and more creepy as the season wore on, and in time, it’s discovered that she’s being controlled by something else. When Fred breaks free of the enchantment and realizes people are being manipulated to see reality differently, it adds a whole new level of horror to the series.
- Familiar gone wrong
This includes anything that defies our nature of reality. For example, in Stephen King’s books, he used the idea of a toy, that should be an inanimate object, that suddenly became animate. Chucky is a well-known toy that came to life, which has spawned many a terrifying tale. Another example is from the X-files episodes that feature the bees — what seems to be normal bees, but if stung, it warped the person, often killing them. Another was the black oil, that seemed like regular oil at first, until it moved and tried to enter the orifices of humans, where it’d control them. The black oil story-arc in X-files combined the familiar gone wrong element with the being out of control element.
- Our limitations as human beings
This is where all the supernatural creatures come into play. Vampires horrify because not only are they eternal, but they prey upon humans with inhumane strength. Ghosts are horrifying to many because they are invisible and yet can still impact the environment in unseen ways. Werewolves have super human strength, and witches can cast spells that may manipulate those around them. All of these have been horror elements in countless western stories. Another example is an evil spirit that can possess people and lead them to their deaths — the Grudge, a Japanese horror movie, is a great example of this.
- Depth of our depravity
Serial killers are people who are not bound to the same moral codes by which society abides, and often will engage in violent behaviors that terrorize their victims. This often leaves people wondering if these disturbing tendencies are buried somewhere in human nature — a potential we all could share. This factor is played up in various crime TV shows and was used in several episodes of the X-files.
Another important aspect to horror is the stakes. How high are the stakes? The higher they are, the more intense the story will be. Death is often used as one of the highest stakes in stories, but sometimes people will play with the idea of hell and heaven to try to up the stakes past death. Other stories may focus on the loss of a loved one or the loss of your sanity or identity. Death and loss are often great motivators, and they also play off some of the horror elements described above, which can only increase the horror in your tale.
One way of showing these stakes is by killing someone early in the story or by injuring or warping your protagonist (or someone close to the protagonist). You can also show it through the environment, like Lovecraft did in the “Color Out of Space” or in the video game Dead Space, where you have to investigate a station out in deep space that seems abandoned at first. How you set the horror story can tell the reader/viewer a great deal about the plot, the characters, the world building, and the stakes. Often the best place to really dig home the stakes is in the beginning of your story — let it be your hook, and then you can proceed to drive it home again and again through the use of various horror elements. This will ratchet up the tension, building upon what came before, until it all blows open in the climax.
By driving home the stakes and adding in several horror elements, you can craft a truly terrifying tale.