Five Reasons Great Horror Stories Work

This post by Joe McKinney originally appeared on Moon Books on 10/5/14.

There is a fine art to scaring people, and like all art, it is the product of raw talent honed by craft and technique. No one can teach raw talent, of course. You either have it or you don’t. But craft and technique can be taught, and in the following few sections I’m going to walk you through five basic characteristics that all great horror stories share. Learn to incorporate these into your stories, and you’ll find your stories make more sense and, hopefully, sell better.


Creating Insularity

First, let’s talk about your story’s setting.

The key to good, memorable horror is much the same as it is in the business world – location, location, location. Many beginning writers come up with potentially great settings, be it an abandoned town, or a graveyard, or a mill, or a big scary house, and then fail to carry through on its potential. As a result, their great setting never rises above the tired old mainstays of B grade horror.

Think about all the great works of horror you’ve ever read. My guess is that, in every single one, you can point to the setting and say, “That right there sealed the deal for me. When the mother and child were trapped in that Pinto in Cujo, I was scared. When the priests entered Regan’s room in The Exorcist, I felt her bedroom door close behind me. When Pennywise the Clown spoke to the children of Derry, Maine through the drains in their bathrooms, I wanted to escape.”

But why does Stephen King’s story about a creepy old hotel in the middle of nowhere get the scares, and Joe Schmoe’s story set in a similar creepy old hotel fail to deliver? Well, think of some of the words I used in the previous paragraph. “Trapped.” “The door close behind me…” “Escape.” In every sense, the effect created is one of insularity. Through the characters in the story, we get a sense that we are closed off from the rest of the world, that we are no longer free or able to run away, that we are shut in with something very bad.


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