The Psychology of Writing Horror

  Alex J Coyne    Sep 10, 2018
The Psychology of Writing Horror
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Writing horror is one of the most lucrative markets that you can get into as a writer, and it’s not hard to see why if you’re a fan of horror. People enjoy being thrilled, and you could almost go as far as to say that people actually enjoy having the daylights scared out of them with an enthralling story, book or movie.

But how often have we stopped to think about the psychology behind writing horror? We know that people love it, but if you want to be a successful horror author, it’s a good idea to understand just why people love horror – and you need a good feel for what will scare your readers best.

Here’s more information about the psychology behind writing horror, and how you can master the art of horror.

The Why of Horror

“People read scary books for the same reasons they read any fiction,” says psychologist and writer Maria Florencia Lista all the way from Argentina. “They want to experience vicarious emotions.” She says that people might not personally enjoy the circumstances in horror books if they experienced it in real-life because it’s just too real – fear for yourself kicks in as a natural response – but it’s not the same when you’re experiencing it through someone else.

“If I read a story of someone else who is going through the same situation, I can distance myself from that just enough to enjoy the thrill without feeling that I’m in actual danger.”

Why do people love scary movies? “It’s for the same reason people love scary books, with the only difference being how these scary experiences are presented.” says Maria. “Books leave more to the imagination, so I can create my own monsters in my head – and make these as scary as I want, even customize them to match my own personal fears.”

“Writers like Lovecraft mastered the potential of fear precisely because of this.” says Maria. “Movies, on the other hand, have a different set of tools to scare you.” Maria says that movies present more information in different channels, leaving something to the imagination. “At the same time, they can be really atmospheric – if well directed – and decide the pacing at which you go through the story. This allows you to have experiences like the ‘jump scare.’”  

Fear is Different

“Fear works differently in all of us,” says Maria. “This is because all emotions do. We have different genetics, and we have a different life history. We have been exposed to emotional experiences that will condition us to react the way we do to certain things.”

When something scares you, Maria says this is because in way or another, you are reminded of something that’s terrible for you specifically because of the life you’ve lived.

But this is a very fine line, and writers should remember this. “With enjoying fear, it’s all about balance: If it’s too scary, then you don’t like it anymore – but if it’s not scary at all, then it’s not thrilling. Each one of us have our own ‘sweet spot’ for being able to enjoy fear.” 

Fear Pushed Too Far

Recent news reports have noted the experiences of actor Alex Wolff, who is convinced that he is suffering severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD, also sometimes known as combat fatigue) due to filming the horror movie Hereditary. (Source: Vice)

What happens when the concept of horror gets pushed too far – can it induce symptoms of PTSD and depression in its viewers, readers and writers?

Psychology says yes.

“Interestingly enough, some research shows that ‘non-real’ experiences such as imagination and dreams are processed by the same circuits in the brain that processes reality.” says Maria. “In other words, seeing a monster activates the same neurons in my visual cortex that get triggered when I imagine it or dream about it.”

Maria notes that imagination can be enough to cause traumatic injury – but it can also do the opposite. “That’s why there are so many effective techniques to treat traumatic disorders such as phobias through visualization exercises.”

“PTSD is a disorder caused by your brain being unable to handle the fear and distress that you have experienced: If you combine scary sensorial input with some emotional conditioning and the right emotional context, and you can give someone PTSD with some well crafted fictional horror.” says Maria as a last note.

Learning to Write Horror

Learning to write horror yourself? Here’s how to get a handle on horror, and a few more things that you should keep in mind as a writer.

  • Know Your Market: You should always know what market you are writing for, and you should get to know your readership well – research your readers, research your publication and research what scares your readers best. If you’re writing horror for children, there are certain lines that you can’t afford to cross: No, you don’t want to take the blame for psychologically scarring a young child – ever.
  • It’s Not About Gore: Gore can be scary, but gore can also be overdone. Understand the line between what’s called “torture porn” and horror, and never cross that line – or you end up putting your readers off what could have been a great story underneath the river of blood.
  • Create Fear: What scares you? When writing horror or describing something terrifying, you should always remember your own experiences when putting it down on paper. Remember a moment where you have been scared, terrified or uneasy and convey the same feeling to your reader – in this aspect, you’re trying to channel a very ancient emotion, not just write a scary story.

Writing Atmosphere:  I firmly believe that horror writers, whether they’re writing for the page or screen, should create an atmosphere of terror – or at the very least uneasiness – when they sit down to write. If the scene scares you, then you know damn well it’s going to work for your readers. Do what works for you: Scary music, candles, writing with the lights off... If you want to scare a reader, you have to scare yourself first.

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