How do horror writers manage to scare us?
Anticipation. Expectation. And then…blindsiding us.
It doesn’t always work that way. There are always exceptions, but this way works well. There is a darkness in all things innocent. We just (fortunately) don’t always see it. We don’t even recognize that it is there. We have become so used to the innocence that we completely trust it.
Until it unleashes hell upon us.
If I see a tiger pacing back and forth a the zoo, I know it is scary. I’m not too scared. It’s in a cage after all. There are children everywhere. Eating cotton candy, dripping ice cream on their strollers, begging mom for something, crying because they’re tired. How scary can that be?
Then the tiger gets out of the cage and everyone screams! People scatter in every direction, clutching at babies and dragging children behind, praying the tiger chases someone else, not them, someone else…
We knew it could happen. The tiger could get out…but we got complacent. We created an innocence.
And then it attacked us.
But what is worse? The things that we didn’t create an innocence around. The ones that other people convinced us were innocent, and we trusted them.
Animals don’t trust anything new. They are very cautious when approaching something they have never seen before. They know nothing is innocent. Everything has to potential to kill.
That’s why dolls are so scary in horror movies.
As children, we are given dolls to carry around, to sleep with, to PROTECT us when the adults aren’t there. We learn to implicitly trust they are benign or at worst, indifferent. Then, when it moves around at night, laughing and playing with knives, we are sent into a type of shock. It was not supposed to do that. It’s not supposed to be that way.
This applies to everything in our lives we take for granted. Which is why amusement parks make great horror settings. Or any park for that matter. Take away the playing children, add creepy shadows, and the most brightly painted, festive statue becomes sinister and ominous.
How does a good horror writer scare us? They find those things, those places, we thought were safe, and they make them deadly. The shower in Psycho. The water in Jaws. The yogurt in The Stuff.
Okay. Maybe that last one wasn’t so great. But you get the idea.
Why were the 1950’s B movies ‘schlocky’ instead of truly terrifying? Because you’re used to the idea now. People really were frightened by them when they came out. Sure the giant ants looked a little cheesy, but there was a lot a nuclear testing going on.What if those pesky, but harmless little ants suddenly could eat us?
Why was Freddy Kruger so terrifying? Because it was a new idea. “Don’t go to sleep!” Eeek! We all HAVE to sleep!
Want to write something really scary? Find something everyday, something innocent, platonic even, and make it a killer.
Just don’t use giant bunnies. That didn’t work out so well. It was fun to see DeForest Kelley outside of his role as Dr. McCoy, but… Well. See for yourself:
Then again, maybe YOU could make the bunnies scary after all…