How to Scare a Skeptic

I’ve seen the northern lights stream across the sky like a special effect, but I’ve never seen an unidentified flying object. I’ve awoken to a shadow standing beside my bed post, but I can’t claim to have seen a ghost. I’ve hiked through many a forest until my legs went caput, but I’ve never laid eyes on big foot.

I’ve met people who’ve claimed to have performed exorcisms, to have had near death experiences, and to have spoken to spirits. I want to believe everything they say, because it makes the world seem magical, but there’s something I’ve learned over the years: people say a lot of things.

I’m a skeptic. I don’t bend over back to avoid stepping on a crack. I don’t turn green at the sight of the number thirteen, and I don’t knock on wood when I want something to turn out good. I see horoscopes as experiments in subjective validation. I see fortune cookies as set ups for “in bed” punchlines. I see the apocalypse as something we’re doing to the environment.

I’m more likely to encounter a squatter in my building than a Sasquatch. I’m more likely to flee an ex-girlfriend than an El Chupacabra. Creditors scare me more than cryptozoological creatures. So how can supernatural horror writers scare a person like me?

How Supernatural Stories Can Win Skeptics Over Early On

If your story is based on an age old superstition there’s bound to be a few people in the audience who know it’s origin. There may be a handful of neuroscientists who know how the perceived superstition forms in the brain, and even more people who have an inkling that it just isn’t true, enough of an inkling to risk breaking their suspension of disbelief.

The best way to draw in these skeptics is to acknowledge their skepticism. Play to their intellect. The X-Files does this by making a skeptic, Agent Dana Scully, a prominent cast member. She voices the audience’s questions.

In addition to being a forensics expert Agent Scully has a background in medicine. She can examine a body drained of blood and identify if they were bitten by someone with a dental appliance made to emulate fangs, or someone with elongated canines.

At the beginning of every X-Files episode Mulder states the obvious theory. He suspects vampires while Scully sees signs that the victims have been drugged, not something you’d expect from beings who are thought to glamour their victims.

What makes The X-Files take on this time-honored terror original is Scully’s acknowledgment that the evidence points to something different.

It turns out the suspect isn’t a Victorian vampire or a serial killer “who’s seen one too many Bela Lugosi movies.” He’s a vampire who wears false teeth, because he wishes his race was more like the Dracula of lore. Scully’s skepticism was essential to setting up this twist.

If you want to scare a skeptic take a page from The X-Files. If you’re writing a story about UFOs draw attention to the lack of evidence. Acknowledge that the look of the aliens abductees encounter changes, depending on how aliens look in movies at the time. Observe that alien abduction lore was born from regression hypnotherapy, a treatment that’s been found to corrupt memory. Point out that crops circles can be made with a board, a couple of ropes.

By having Scully shine her flashlight on an urban legend The X-Files writers let viewers know they were going to make the legend seem more plausible. They improved upon the alien abduction lore that had permeated pop culture, so that their version of events could withstand skepticism.

Horror, fantasy, and supernatural mystery writers should pull a Scully early on. They should hang a lantern on any paranormal premise that’s been thoroughly debunked, address the reasons why it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and come up with a fresh reason why their interpretation is different.


How to Use the Scientific Method to Improve Your Scares

The audience’s suspension of disbelief is a hard thing to keep balanced. The skeptics in the audience will roll their eyes at characters who believe in ghosts sight unseen, while the believers will get frustrated when characters refuse to see the truth even after staring at it head on. This is why I love scary stories that put their entities through the scientific method.

Form a Question in Your Audience’s Mind

In the 2002 film The Ring Rachel, a journalist, investigates the death of her niece. She’s told her niece was the latest victim of an urban legend: a cursed videotape that kills people seven days after they watch it.

This raises a number of questions:

  • How can a video tape kill you?
  • Where did the tape come from?
  • Why does it take seven days for the curse to work?
  • Who is responsible for creating it?

Pose a Hypothesis

More often than not the first theory you pose to the audience is going to be a red herring. If your story is based on an old superstition you can trick your audience into thinking it will play out like they’d expect before subverting their expectations.

The Ring does this by tricking you into thinking the ghost, Samara Morgan, simply wants justice for her death, like the spirits from The Sixth Sense which came out just three years before and would’ve been fresh in the audience’s mind.

Plant the Seeds for Predictions

In The Ring Rachel believes that solving the mystery behind the images on the mysterious video tape will save her and her son Aidan. Everyone she interviews about the ghost girl corroborates this theory. The consensus is Samara wants people to know the truth about her suffering.

Put Your Characters’ theories to the Test

Rachel discovers the origin of the tape and uncovers Samara’s body. It turn’s out Samara’s psychic ability allowed her to imprint her imagination on film. Rachel believes the curse was supposed to force whoever saw the tape to find Samara and put her to rest. Rachel suspects that her niece was killed because she failed to follow the clues. Turns out this theory is incorrect.

This forces Rachel to form a new hypothesis: Samara never wanted justice, she only wanted her rage to spread.

In the first Ring film Samara Morgan is governed by a set of rules:

  • She can’t get you unless you’ve watched a copy of the videotape.
  • The visions she haunts you with intensify over time.
  • She doesn’t come for you until seven days are up.
  • She spares you if you spread her curse around by making a copy of her tape and showing it to someone else.

These limitations add logic to the legend of Samara Morgan. In the sequel she is unhinged. She possesses people, uses a heard of deer as a weapon, and kills outside of her code. I didn’t like the second film because Samara seemed overpowered. The tape wasn’t a factor to ground her. She threw her methods to the wind in a desperate effort to possess Aidan.

Take a lesson from The Ring 2, if your poltergeist is too Godlike it will break your audience’s suspension of disbelief. Make your phantom’s manifestations consistent. Don’t introduce too many new abilities in the third act. The Ring 2 isn’t the only horror sequel ruined by an inconsistent character. Exhibit B: The Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Exhibit C: The Exorcist II: The Heretic.

Alien in the Dark

Closing Thoughts

If your story is based on a supernatural legend draw attention to its historical origins. Let your audience know the ways in which it’s been disproven and promise them you’re going to take it in a new direction. Include a likable skeptic in your cast. Don’t make your skeptic too annoying or you’ll reveal your bias and lose a chunk of your audience.

Most of my rules apply to superstitions that are well know. If you’re creating a one from scratch you have a lot more freedom to play around.

If your story involves an evil presence give it rules and limitations. Reveal them using the scientific method. Ground your ghost in story logic. This doesn’t mean explain every aspect of it. We’re afraid of what we don’t understand. The more we comprehend evil’s motivations the less we fear it. Leave most of the details in the dark for our imaginations to fill in.


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13 thoughts on “How to Scare a Skeptic”

  1. I have to say, Drew, in reading this, I found myself wondering if anyone has ever written something outlining these things, particularly the two points in tandem. It felt important and “new.” That’s not easy!

    Having “rules” struck me as particularly important – even (and perhaps especially) when the characters (and hence the readers) have misunderstood them. Horror without rules is hopeless and overwhelming; fear is heightened by the belief that there is a very small but real way out … if I can divine it and walk the tightrope perfectly.

    (I also loved your more subtle internal devices in the opening.)

    1. Exactly. There has to appear to be a way out. If the balance of hope and dread skews all the way to dread and stays there you run the risk of exhausting the audience. They might even get bored with all the horror.

      1. Scream, for instance, had rules, allowing it to work as both horror and satire. Scream Queens, on the other hand, is an abject creative failure on both fronts — all stylistics without a scintilla of verisimilitude. Tension in horror stories — particularly slasher films — comes from the anxiety of what will happen when the established rules are transgressed. As Randy in Scream astutely observed, there is a formula to it. But horror, for some reason, is one of those genres that’s treated with supreme condescension by outsiders who deign to dip their toe in the supernatural, hence the reason we have so few true masters of fear (King, Barker, Carpenter, Craven, Romero, et al.): too many writers/directors who try their hand at it don’t appreciate the artistry that goes into a good scare.

  2. I agree on the rules front – if you give your supernatural presence, whether good or evil, too many powers and not enough boundaries, it really makes the story wear thin and destroys the tension. Making the skeptic likable is also critical, as can be all too easy to make the skeptic into a flat, one-dimensional strawman.

    Interesting way of thinking about The Ring too, and the importance of planting seeds leading up to the twist at the end. As an audience member, it is supremely frustrating when you reach the end of the story and the twist seemed to have been pulled out of thin air. But I love going back through a movie or book a second time and seeing the clues hinting toward the surprise at the end. Adds another layer of enjoyment.

    1. I love well planted twist especially when the story has you so engaged that you’re not looking for signs of twist.

      I agree with your sentiment. Too many skeptics in horror movies have been represented as straw men who usually die a gruesome death. At least Scooby Doo had respect for a good skeptic.

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