How Writers can Give Fear an Upgrade

The bedrock of our deepest fears was laid by our ancestors. Fears like the dark, heights, inclosed spaces, intimacy, loneliness, embarrassment, and death. Our ancestors’ survival depended on these base instincts. Neanderthals told tribal legends, cautioning Paleolithic people of the dangers of the game trail. Lions, tigers, and bears were the original monsters. Horror writers have been trying to reinvent them ever since.

Modern people take our survival for granted. We assume we’re going to live longer than our parents. We scan crime maps to see where threats are coming from. We watch the news to stay apprised of what the bogeymen are doing. We’re more horrified of each other than of phantoms in the dark.

I’ve written about why modern horror writers should build their own monsters, but it isn’t enough to put new creatures in the shadows. Modern horror writers need to build new structures on primal fears.

Darkness is More Than the Absence of Light

The dark doesn’t simply represent the lack of light, as it did for our cave-dwelling forbearers. It represents the lack of knowledge. It represents all those terrible things that are outside of our experience. Modern writers should be searching for the few dark spots the information age has left us with.

Magicians used to talk about techniques they learned in the far east, because no one in their audience had dared ventured that far outside of Europe. Asia was an enchanted kingdom of the unknown. Now the world is charted. We can travel to exotic islands via satellite images. Few geographical unknowns remain: the deep sea, the earth’s core, and the further reaches of our galaxy.

Urban fantasy gets around this by creating hidden nooks within familiar locations. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere the story takes place in London Below, the city’s dark reflection which is only accessible by the magically inclined. Emma Bull did the same thing for my hometown, Minneapolis, in War for the Oaks, while Joe Hill’s recent NOS4A2 reveals hidden off ramps across America that can only be accessed with the right vehicle.

This is good for fantasy authors, but where can reality based writers find the darkness they seek? They could take a page from H.P. Lovecraft and find cosmic dread in theoretically possible parallel dimensions, or they could take a closer look at the internet.

These days people have so much knowledge at their fingertips the only thing preventing them from finding the information they seek is the information in the way of it.  What happens to arcane knowledge when Google is in the process of scanning every book ever written?

The new darkness is the knowledge that requires a technical expertise to get. It’s ruled by technomancers capable of raising the ghosts from profiles past, by goblins trading illicit goods on the dark net, and trolls prowling the bridges between social networks.

We live in an era where it’s too easy to stalk someone. It’s hard to know how many secrets our digital footprints lead to, and how many of our skeletons remain in the shadows. This digital darkness is fertile ground for scary stories.

2. Bloody Finger

Gravity isn’t the only Force Pulling Us Down

The freshest frights don’t always go bump in the night. Sometimes suspense is cerebral. There is fear from without: the other coming to invade our tribe, and there’s fear from within: the shadow-self attacking us from the inside. It makes us fear failure, intimacy, and public speaking.

I’ve written about some of the mistakes writers make using mental illness as a cheap plot device, but that doesn’t mean the subject should be off limits. It just needs to be approached with nuance.

As our understanding of depression evolves so must the stories about entities that only our hero’s can see. The 2014 film The Babadook is an excellent example of a story where a woman is haunted by her own grief and stress made flesh.

Writers with depression should put it to work for them. They should use stories to articulate their ever allusive emotions. Psychological thrillers are ideal for externalizing the internal, especially if what you inflict your characters with is a condition you’ve experienced first hand.

Loneliness is a Fear Worthy of Scary Stories

We’re programed to fear loneliness because our survival depended on the rest of our tribe. Now with modern conveniences it doesn’t. Still married people live longer, perhaps because of the emotional fulfillment they experience, or simply because they have someone to call for an ambulance if something happens.

I’ve been a lone wolf for a little while now.

I fear living in a world where everything is so automated that I could go for weeks without human interaction. I fear being surrounded by people who ignore one another so they can interact with others who are off site. I fear something happening to me and no one knowing until someone realizes I haven’t tweeted in a long time.

There are scary stories in these fears. Imagine an entity that seeks out those who lag behind the heard emotionally, a creature that’s gone undocumented because it preys on people without a support system. That would scare the hell out of me.

Embarrassment is Far More Frightening in the Digital Age

I’m more frightened of a  cyber mob than of someone jumping out at me from the dark, and I’ve found squatters living in the basement of two separate apartment buildings. I’m more frightened of public humiliation than back alley attackers, and I’ve been robbed. I’m more frightened of death threats filling my inbox than encountering a killer in the flesh, and I’ve come home to find knives in my pillow (long story short: it was my then girlfriend’s sick practical joke).

In this new era of public humiliation our embarrassment spreads to places we’ve never been. Our shame is global. It comes up in search engines. Its archived for so long we have to plea with Google for the right to be forgotten.

We fear the jokes we post online will get corrupted in a game of twitter-telephone. We fear our political opinions will reach someone who feels duty bound to oppose them. We fear ex-lovers will post revenge porn on the same day we start seeing someone new.

Secret societies used to be scary. Now its the merciless mobs in underground chatrooms that have a monopoly on creepy. Who’s brave enough to write their story?

1. Upgrade Button

Death Will Always be Scary 

Death will always be scary because we don’t have first hand knowledge of it. Some people claim to have seen a bright light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s a neurological explanation for their experience. As far as most of us are concerned death is still the great unknown and we do whatever we can to avoid it.

It’s the horror writer’s job to find new places for the reaper to appear, to take the settings we’re already uneasy about and fill them with monsters. It used to be enough to spawn our demons in dark alleys, rustic ghost towns, and isolated summer camps, but these tried and true templates for terror are well trodden.

Every campfire story has been told before, but that doesn’t mean you need to repeat them verbatim. One of the best ways for an emerging writer to make a name for themselves is to upgrade one of those time-honored tales with futuristic features.

If you’re looking for a modern setting for the grim specter of death to manifest know that there’s probably an app for that. Write a story about couch sharing cutthroats, ride sharing slayers, Tinder dates with death, and Craig’s List killers.

Closing Thoughts

Most movie monsters are built on archetypes from the industrial revolution, but we have a wealth of fresh fears waiting to be exploited in this new age of information.

Technology changes faster than society, but people are changing faster than we ever have before. What scares me is being out of touch with those changes. I fear waking up one day and not understanding the lingo, being completely disconnected from the conversation, and finding that I’ve become the other, the outsider, the coming invader.

The writers who captures those fears will earn my admiration.


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22 thoughts on “How Writers can Give Fear an Upgrade”

  1. You’ve managed to articulate what I’ve been subliminally thinking for a long time. I instantly switch off when reading the blurb of an upcoming story featuring vampires or zombies. Your suggestions about using the digital age we live in for inspiration resonates. Chuck Wendig seems to have broken new ground in the sphereof influence you describe in his book ‘Zeroes.’ Now, all I need to do is go away and mix this new yeast of yours with the hops of my ideas, and hopefully create a fresh real ale that others can enjoy. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Funny you should mention Chuck Wendig, because I just got into Zeroes and started following him.

      If you’re looking for good stories that comment on modern times you should check out Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series on Netflix. It’s the closest we have to a modern take on the Twilight Zone.

    2. Also… This is the kind of thing my ego really needs to hear every once in a while “You’ve managed to articulate what I’ve been subliminally thinking for a long time.”

      My best blogs are thoughts I’ve been trying to put into words for a long time.

  2. I have worked in maintenance for a long time, first as a locksmith and then as a general maintenance man. I am very aware of the wasteland spaces in an urban landscape, abandoned properties, sewer and utilities tunnels, disused roads and railroad lines and dock spaces.

    There is a lot of it, once you start noticing it. I use that in my novels and set of a lot of the action inside darkened storefronts and back alleys that most people walk past without ever really seeing.

    One of my readers said that she would never be able to look at stripmalls in the same way after reading my work and she would always be wondering what might lurk behind those blank facades.

    1. I’m glad to hear you draw from you inventory of cool real life settings for your fiction. I’m curious which piece of yours features a strip mall setting?

      I use to work in building maintenance at the Walker Art Center. I had keys to all the storage spaces. I ate my lunch on the roof of the building and strolled through the galleries alone at night. I got a lot of story ideas in that environment.

    1. The app based sharing culture stuff still scares me. I’ve already read some real life Airbnb horror stories, but hopefully fiction writers can come up with more interesting situations.

      I’m glad this article gave you a chuckle.

      1. I almost quoted this (which I will do now) as frickin’ scary as hell: “Secret societies used to be scary. Now its the merciless mobs in underground chatrooms that have a monopoly on creepy.” I don’t know the stories you speak of, but I don’t want to. Really. I can imagine enough…

  3. Great piece, Drew.

    Scary stories have always been most effective when they reflect the fears of their particular day, but so much of today’s horror is about looking backPenny Dreadful, the Universal Monsters “shared cinematic universe” in the works, the endless remakes of ’80s slasher films — and horror loses its impact once a monster’s motivation and countenance are revealed to us. As the late Wes Craven himself once said to me, “Being successful in creating monsters ain’t easy, but it’s also a fun challenge.” The next frontier in horror — one culturally relevant to this century (the Information Age) — will be forged by those who are creative enough to rise to that challenge.


    1. We are in a prolonged period of nostalgia. I love gothic horror, Victorian thrillers, and industrial backdrops as much the next guy, but we’re living in a really interesting age worth commenting on.

      I think you’re right. Horror does lose its impact when a monster’s motivation is revealed. We need new monsters with new mysteries. New cenobites, new gremlins, and new dream demons.

      1. The current nostalgia for Gothic horror (something I love, as well) can be attributed in part to a degree of wish fulfillment — a collective longing for a pre-digital age in which facing but one monster (no matter how formidable) seems so much more manageable than our daily medusan onslaught of e-mails, text messages, voicemails, DMs, etc.; so, in many respects, it is as much a reflection of “postnarrative” anxieties and preoccupations as more au courant horror (like, say, Joe Hill’s NOS4A2).

        That said, to quote Alan Moore, the mad-genius comic-book writer of Watchmen (who, in fairness, was speaking about superheroes when he said this, but I think it applies to Dracula/Frankenstein/The Mummy/Freddy/Jason/Poltergeist, et al., just as aptly), “… it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

  4. I’m not a horror writer … but I definitely could be.

    It’s a real problem for me. Every time I see “So You Think You Can Dance,” I wish I’d been a dancer. Every Olympics, I wish I’d devoted my life to being a gymnast. Every time I see Cirque du Soleil, I want to run off and become a circus performer. Every time I hear a song that moves me, I want to go back to being a full-time singer/songwriter.

    My dreams alone (which are vivid and often) would make for horror stories the likes of which would scare the most stolid.

    Maybe someday, Drew, you and I can manage a live brainstorming session; then at least someone in the field might benefit from the terrors that for now remain in my own mind.

  5. I don’t write horror either. ^-^ However, I always appreciate ideas to help make the dark-and-creepy corners of my stories even darker and creepier. I’m fluffy by nature, so it’s hard for me to do on my own.

    This post also reminds me of a great conversation I had with my Dad, years ago, about why he loved Michael Crichton. ^-^

      1. I am definitely a fantasy writer. ^-^ I dabble in other things, but I’m most at home with magic and whatnot about me.

        And happily yes, my Dad is still alive.

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