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. Continue reading How to Scare a Skeptic→
Is there something wrong with perpetuating superstition through fiction?
The Power of Urban Legends
There’s a reason I put off getting my hair cut until the sides grow into big Wolverine spikes. I get nervous about the conversation with the hairdresser. I don’t like sitting in silence while the client next to me is laughing. I like to take on the appearance of a sociable well adjusted human being, if only for the time it takes to get my bangs trimmed. So I prepare material: funny memories I try to pass off as something that happened recently, news stories that aren’t politically polarizing, and list of the most recent films I’ve seen.
No. Dream logic isn’t story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you’ll see. Or better yet, tell someone an important dream – ‘Well, I was in this house that was also my old school, and there was this nurse and she was really an old witch and then she went away but there was a leaf and I couldn’t look at it and I knew if I touched it then something dreadful would happen…’ – and watch their eyes glaze over. Continue reading Syphoning Nightmare Fuel→
Everyone is superstitious about something. In the information age, there’s still plenty of unknowns to be afraid of. Not every bump in the night can be blamed on an appliance. For writers dabbling in horror, this is a good thing. Today we’re going to mine our superstitions for inspiration.
We’ll be ignoring the classics in favor of ones that are more cerebral. I live with a black cat, when I worked in building maintenance I walked under ladders daily, and I can’t have a conversation about Clive Barker without saying, “Candy Man” at least five times.
Minnesota sidewalks fracture every winter, the only places to step are on cracks, and there’s nothing wrong with my mother’s back. So shout, “Bloody Marry” into a broken mirror, open six umbrellas indoors, wear black on Friday the 13th, breathe heavy on your way through the cemetery, and don’t worry if no one blesses your sneeze.
I want to talk about your secret superstitions, your fascinating phobias. The ones you’re too ashamed to share, but still give you a good scare. The ones you formulated without the playground think tank, the campfire seminar, and the treehouse entrepreneurs.
Those childhood fears that survived your intellect, the ones that you can never seem to purge from your obsessive compulsive rituals, those are the ones I want to tap into. Think of it as a writing exercise to draw out original ideas, to keep your scares from feeling tired and dated.
If an aspect of the unknown becomes known, it isn’t scary anymore. Horror trends have desensitized audiences. Exorcism movies have demystified demon pathology. There have been so many Ouija boards on film that another one isn’t going to frighten anyone, unless it uses hashtags and emoticons.
Psychological terror hides in the dark, just outside the radar of your senses. You can feel it, but you never get a good look at it. That’s where your sophisticated superstitions reign, where your half asleep lunacy becomes reality. That’s where we’re going to find our story.
The Fear Test
The best way to know if your superstitious belief has teeth is if you fear it more than something you should be afraid of. Irrational fears have a way of eclipsing legitimate ones.
I used to live in an apartment above a parking garage. The unit rattled every time the door opened. One day someone discovered a body in the dumpster. A mentally handicap neighbor didn’t know what to do when his mother died, so he dragged her down there. Out of some morbid curiosity, I went into the garage to find the dumpster aligned with my bedroom.
That night I woke up to a tapping on the window. A silhouette was peaking through the blinds. Slipping out of bed, I crawled into the hall. Armed with a Maglite, I charged outside to find a pair of homeless men passing a glass pipe on the window sill. I wasn’t frightened by the crank craters lining their cheeks. I was just happy these men weren’t the ghost of the woman from the dumpster. That irrational relief gave me the courage to trick them into thinking I was a cop.
True story. Here’s another one.
I used to go for walks at night when I had trouble sleeping. My insomnia got so bad I started seeing things. My subconscious planted shadow people behind every tree trunk. I saw them peaking out, ducking behind trash cans, and kneeling in the tall grass. The second I caught one stepping into my path it disintegrated on impact.
We’re programmed to recognize faces from birth. It’s no wonder we see them in wallpaper, tree bark, and the surface of Mars. Deep down, I knew these hallucinations were glitches in my brain’s ability to spot patterns, but they just kept coming.
What made the shadow people all the more disturbing is they were never just chilling out doing their own thing. Walking around the lake, I never spotted them fishing, reading on the docks, or making out on the benches. The shadow people were always on the hunt. They rose from the water, dropped from branches, and lunged at me from the bushes.
I had this childlike notion that the shadow people were real, that my sleep deprivation dulled the feedback from my other senses, allowing me to see them. That’s why when I heard footsteps rushing up behind me, I was relieved to find a bulky man clutching something in his jacket.
When I calmly said, “Is there something I can help you with?” he was taken aback.
He took his hand out of his pocket and laughed. Through a bizarre turn of events, we chatted on the way back to my apartment. It took several blocks for me to realize he’d planned on robbing me, but changed his mind when he saw that there was no fear in my eyes. Over the course of several cigarettes, he all but admitted as much. Still, I was comforted when I turned around and saw a man and not a shadow assuming the shape of one.
Rational fears are topics worthy of your writing, but psychological terror shouldn’t be so easily defined. Show us your shadow people. Share the ghosts in your basement. Give us something we’re not used to seeing.
Rather than purging your fear with some loud distraction, I dare you to embrace the silence. I dare you to ask yourself the following question:
Wouldn’t It be Terrible If?…
I’ve written articles on one of the easiest ways for writers to find inspiration by asking “What if” questions.
What if a house cat got exposed to gamma radiation and hulked out at the sight of a laser pointer?
What if a house cat foiled a group of terrorists by knocking houseplants onto them?
What if a house cat thwarted a serial killer by triggering all his traps before they hurt anyone?
Horror stories start with a modified version of the same question: “Wouldn’t it be terrible if this happened?”
Wouldn’t it be terrible if the only reason the monster in my closet hasn’t struck yet is because I wasn’t ripe?
Wouldn’t it be terrible if there was an anti-Halloween where demons come to earth posing as people?
Wouldn’t it be terrible if everyone on earth stared at me when I wasn’t looking, but somehow I found out it was happening?
Next time you’re searching for inspiration, I dare you to stare into the dark until you find something. Next time you recognize an irrational fear, make a note of it. If it keeps rising on its own, you’ll know it has staying power. Indulge it, let it drive you crazy, then direct its evolution.
Why dismiss your fear, when you can put it to work? Developing it into a story might just be the best way to overcome it. These waking nightmares might just be your subconscious’s way of plotting. After all it’s not madness if you use it.
What if someone combined the corporate jargon of a Craigslist job posting with the sprawling mythos of H.P. Lovecraft? It would look something like this.
Necronomicon Translator Wanted (Arkham)
Rapidly growing upstart looking to build buzz around tome of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon: The Book of the Dead. Job seekers should have a positive attitude, and be versed in ancient Arabic, Greek, and Latin. We want people who are excited to work with mould ridden manuscripts. People who like to solve puzzles, to piece together the fragments of unspeakable incantations. People with the mental resilience to withstand the inherent dangers that come with studying these texts.
We want individuals with good organizational skills, expert multitaskers capable of micro managing multiple realities. Self-starters who perform well under times of increased workload, and prolonged madness. Help us build a platform from the ground up. We want someone who is passionate about raising brand awareness of the coming darkness.
We want tag lines for the end times. We want to see our hashtags written in blood. We want someone on the cutting edge of the ceremonial dagger. Someone with vision, and by vision of course, we’re referring to the rising blood tide washing away the known world in a new era of delirium.
The ideal candidate has already had a dream about this position. They heard the call of Hastur echoing on howling winds. They saw the pallid mask emerge from phantasmagorical depths. They watched the black stars rise over Carcosa. They felt the yellow sign sear through their flesh, branding their very bones. They awoke with joyful tears, and bloodied hands, cackling at the revelation that we are all but the punchlines of the Old One’s elaborate joke.
Candidates must love working with people, have extroverted personalities, and be eager to form lasting relationships. Must have excellent interpersonal and interdimensional skills. Must be able to communicate clearly, concisely, and telepathically. Candidates should have a background in social media, networking, and astral projection.
We want individuals with winning mindsets, eager to succeed in a constantly shifting ecosystem.
Your duties will be to oversee parchment translation, marketing support, and the shoggoth servants that roam the labyrinth halls of Necropolis. You’ll run a web crawler to index the crawling chaos of Nyarlathotep, the Pharaoh behind the firewall. This is a great job for people looking to improve their networking skills. This position serves as a liaison to the denizens of K’n-yan, the tombs of R’lyeh, and the dark throne of Azathoth at the center of chaos.
We work in an open office built on terrifying vistas of reality. Our corporate culture is modeled after the Esoteric order of Dagon. This means our brainstorming sessions result in actual storms, and our problem-solving sessions have a death toll. We’re looking for team players who thrive in a group environment. People who will embrace the opportunity to contribute creatively, independently, and sexually, offering their flesh to the Deep ones and the many fins of Father Dagon.
Candidates must be punctual. Work days begin with peer recognition, a declaration of goals, and a ritual sacrifice to Mother Hydra. Together, we give fearless feedback, exchange pointers on best practices, and discuss positive client experiences. We encourage individuals to tell us what they wish to improve on, what they wish to learn, and what they wish to behold once Yog-Sothoth lifts the veil from the dark portal separating us from the looming cosmic dread.
We believe that our employees are our family, that collaboration multiplies opportunity, that together we can threaten the very integrity of the universe.
Cthulhu lies on the ocean floor deep in slumber. We need self motivated individuals to give him a little poke, to decipher enough arcane script to bring his mass of tentacles to our shores. We require exceptional verbal and written communication skills, and a technical proficiency in blasphemy. We want individuals who think like entrepreneurs, who will dive into the black sea of infinity from the placid island of ignorance. Individuals who don’t wait for Cthulhu to rise, they swim out to meet him.
It’s that proactive approach that empowers our translators to work on their personal development with minimal supervision. It’s the simplicity of our credo that inspires this growth. That’s because there’s just three core competencies: the Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.
“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Will you be the one to give him a wake up call?
Do you have good time-management skills, a strong morale, and an even stronger work ethic? Are you looking for an exciting career opportunity in the extremely private sector? Are you outspoken about stretching the boundaries of human consciousness? Do you want to abandon the hallow vestibules of man’s domain? Do nocturnal insects whisper profane truths to you? When you close your eyes, do you see the King in Yellow parting the nameless mist on the path to the Red Death? Can you drink the Kool-Aid without asking what’s in it?
If you answered “yes” to all of the above we need to talk!
Must submit to a background check into your past lives with onsite regression hypnotherapist
Must have references that can attest to your whereabouts during every international tragedy that took place during your lifetime
Must be willing to relocate to our subterranean headquarters beneath the ruins of Babylon
Valid Pilot’s license
Ability to write CSS, HTML5, Flash, and ancient Sumerian
* Location: Arkham, Massachusetts
* Compensation: The privilege of being one of the first to be devoured by the dark lord Cthulhu
* Principals only. Recruiters, please don’t contact this job poster
* do NOT contact us with unsolicited services or offers
* Start Date: You’ve already begun
A question for horror writers, do you want your story to get buried in the bogeyman bargain bin, or do you want it to stand out? There are so many imitations of Frankenstein’s monster, that people have forgotten its name isn’t Frankenstein. Dracula has become a heartthrob, and the wolf man has been reduced to the nice guy who finishes last. The mummy’s rags are stitched together with CGI, and Zombies have become cartoon characters who couldn’t even shamble their way through a decent evisceration. The unholy creatures of the night, that kept us shivering beneath the covers, are the good guys now.
When all of your favorite monsters have been recast as superheroes, it’s time to build your own.
There’s a reason why vampires still rise out of crypts. It’s the same reason why packs of werewolves roam the countrysides, ghosts linger in abandon lighthouses, and demons wait in attics beside Ouija boards and Twister mats. There’s a reason why every flash of bright blue light hides an alien vessel, why squadrons of witches streak across the moon, and why zombies clog the interstate. It’s the same reason why Bloody Marry is on call behind every reflective surface, why trolls make living rooms of covered overpasses, and why every tomb, no matter how far from Egypt, is stacked full of mummies.
These monsters have stood the test of time. They’ve been vetted by generations of storytellers. Each creature has deep cultural roots and instant brand recognition. We see elongated canines, dripping with blood, and we know what to expect. We hear doors slam, see furniture stack, and we anticipate a chill in the air. We see a sickly girl chained to a bed, shouting obscenities, and we expect her head to spin like a sprinkler firing pea soup across the walls.
These creatures have the staying power to crawl up from the pits of the public domain. Their mythos are classics. New works based on them are never dismissed as fan-fiction. Good writers borrow, great writers steal, and if you’re going to be a thief you might as well steal from the best.
Writing a story about vampires or werewolves is like filling out a mad-lib in reverse. The character attributes are already there, all you have to do is come up with the situation. Writers who take on these monsters are like DJs remixing mythologies. The tune never changes, all they have to do is drop a fresh beat. Like grade school students passing a story around, writers using these monsters contribute to an ongoing plot. They expand a vast universe that’s populated with characters with strikingly similar names.