This post, by Matt Moore, originally appeared on Matt Moore Writes.
If you write horror, you know that sometimes it can be fun. The set-up, misdirection, the monsters and mayhem, blood and gore. There is fun in horror writing and readers often share in that fun.
But the question to ask is: Do you want readers to have fun?
Think about the over-the-top slapstick gore of Evil Dead II, the self-referential nature of theScream series or the unintentional hilarity of the Friday the 13th films. (And I am going to use films because they are more well-known.) Is that what you’re trying to write? Maybe you just want to tell a story about blood and guts to make the reader feel queasy.
Or are you trying to horrify the reader? Think The Exorcist or American Psycho. Stories that make us squirm. True horror stories are those that leave a lasting impression of something being just plain wrong.
So how do you write horror?
Horror is a Moral Genre
At its heart, a good horror story challenges our morality. (And don’t worry, I’m not going to ride a morality high horse here. Neither does Rev. Jonathan Weyer in his blog post, which I highly recommend.) It’s not the blood and guts that horrify us, it’s that our sense of right and wrong is thrown off balance.
What makes Psycho unsettling is not (just) the spooky house, insane mother and mad-slasher elements. It’s matricide, suggestions of incest and the mother being so hung up on her son getting laid she’ll kill to prevent it.
In other words: sex. Considering when Psycho was released, it was shocking material.
But the motivation of the killer in Psycho can be explained. What drives:
- Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (let’s assume the subsequent books/movies never happened)
- The Joker in The Dark Knight
- The demon in The Exorcist
- The xenomorphs in Alien and Aliens