I’ve long held that writers collaborate with their readers and that every reader makes their own artistic contribution.
Avid readers have stronger imaginations than people who experience stories exclusively through film and TV. As much as I love those mediums they’re made for passive consumption. Books put readers in the director’s chair. Sure the author chronicles the events, but its up to readers to visualize them. Readers have to cast the characters, provide the wardrobe, build the sets, and block out the scenes. The author does everything they can to make their story an enjoyable read, but the reader has to meet them halfway. Horror authors exploit this relationship by baiting readers into picturing their worst fears.
Have you ever noticed how the tension in horror movies deflates the more you know about the monster? The more you see it, the more you understand its rules and where it came from the less you’re frightened. The monster is less of a living breathing part of your mind and more of a static thing on screen. Suddenly there’s a barrier between the two of you keeping things safe and boring.
That’s why many horror authors never show the monster. They leave the audience to do all the heavy lifting. This approach works well on people with active imaginations, but readers who don’t feel like engineering their own bogymen feel cheated.
Horror writers need to strike a balance. Here are a few of my favorite techniques for doing just that.
Pose a Compelling Mystery
A well-placed spark will lure readers, like moths to flames, to their dread ridden doom. Pose a supernatural situation that’s simple to grasp, but hint at an explanation that could only be an awe-inspiring revelation.
- A young musician is walking home when he’s attacked by a monster he can only see out of the corner of his eye: a wrinkled giant in tatters that may or may not be its own dead flesh. The monster unhinges its jaw, lets out a groan deeper than a cruise ship horn, and disappears. When the musician gets home he finds he can no longer play guitar. Turns out there are reports all over the city of artists experiencing similar attacks and losing their inspiration in the process.
- An isolated woodland town is besieged by living nightmares, each one seemingly built to prey upon the resident’s worst fears. While most of these figures have the intended effect others appear strangely tone deaf, almost comical, suggesting the hand of an agent that doesn’t fully comprehend its audience.
Expect the audience to read your story over several sessions. Use those interruptions to plant ideas. Little mysteries for readers to mull over and leave them dangling at the end of each chapter. The best nightmare fuel is subtle. It works its way into readers’ minds slowly until they see their daily routine through the filter of your imaginings.
Leave Evidence of the Evil
The monster need not take the stage to own it. There are many ways to feel its presence. Leave an orgy of evidence, and readers will craft a composite of the creature themselves.
Picture this.It’s 1892. You open your chamber door to find it skewered. Something rammed the wood with enough force to leave hollow voids on the both ends of the knocker. You raise a candle to find craters leading up the cobblestones, and ripples in the puddles. Most of the oil lanterns have been snuffed out and the one that remains is shattered, belching flames.
This torch renders anything beyond it imperceivable, but you know there’s something out there weaving in and out of the tree line. Why else would the owls hold their tongues and the crickets yield the night to the wind?
You feel cold narrow eyes moving up your nightgown, pausing on your belly and settling upon your neck.
Picture this.It’s 2292. You’re aboard a long-range starship. The fluid drains from your stasis chamber, revealing fracture lines across your enclosure. You call out to the computer, “Open tube.”
The mechanism jerks hard, shattering the glass, spewing shards into the corridor. The lights that encircle the honeycomb hall blink red, some flicker out of phase with the others. Stepping over the jagged fragments of your chamber you find a bubbling black substance eating at the grates.
There’s a long gash looping around the walls, leading to a pitch-black med bay. Something long and chrome shoots out of the darkness. A blood speckled gurney lands at your feet.
Have Characters Test Theories
For me the creepiest scene in Paranormal Activityis when Micha sets out prove the presence visiting his partner Katie is physical. Micha spreads baby powder down the hall leading to the bedroom and aims a camera in that direction. That night the couple is awoken by a commotion. Micha finds talon prints leading up to the bed and streaks in the powder.
What I love about this scene is that is confirms the supernatural situation without demystifying the creature. It raises more questions than it answers.
Describe the Monster as Indescribable
Did you ever write an “exquisite corpse” story back in grade school? One student would write a sentence and pass it to the desk behind them. Horror writers can play that game with their readers. Here’s how. Just describe the effect the monster has on witnesses without revealing anything about its shape. This technique doesn’t rely on smoke and mirrors. Your monster isn’t skulking in the shadows. It’s just so overwhelmingly hideous that it’s beyond description. It’s maddening.
“What did the beast look like?”
“Do you not see? It turned Byron’s hair white.”
This was a favorite device of gothic horror writers.
H.P. Lovecraft referred to so many of his terrors as “Indescribable.”
Edgar Allan Poe referred to the sights beyond his chamber door as “Phantasmagorical.”
Meaning: a dreamlike and deceptive appearance that changes upon further examination
Gothic horror writers used the neurosis of their characters to illustrate the monster’s grandeur.
Give a Peak by Proxy
The hit Netflix film Bird Boxis about monsters with the power to drive people to suicide at the mere sight of them, most people that is. The monsters have a different effect on people who are already mad. Insane individuals feel compelled to worship the monsters, with the ferocity of cult members, corralling survivors and forcing them to bear witness.
The audience never gets a direct look at the monsters, but one tainted character gives us a peak. He lays out a series of twisted tentacle-riddled portraits on the coffee table. These rough Lovecraftian rendering gives us a sense of what awaits Sandra Bullock just beyond the blinds.
In Paul Tremblay’s “The Cabin at the End of the World” a character is struck in the back of the head and spends the rest of the story with a traumatic head injury. Sunlight gives him terrible migraines until he starts to see figures in the light. It’s ambiguous whether or not these figures are influencing the events of the story or if they’re a brought on by the bump on his noggin.
My favorite monster stories utilize strategic ambiguity. For every question the author answers they pose two more. That way when the monster does step into the light it retains its mystique. It’s the enigma of the entity that gives it free reign over the audience’s imagination.
The horror writer is the architect of shadows. The readers are interim landlords. We lease them the long dark hall and they fill it with their nightmares. Eventually we move our own terrifying tenants into these atmospheric locations, but only after they’ve been lived in.