Halloween Special: How to Scare Your Reader (Tricks from the Movies)
In honor of Halloween, I’d like to focus on what writers can take away from Halloween’s most sacred and time-honored tradition: the horror movie. I know, I know: books and movies are natural enemies. Books have long-lasting, deep affairs with their readers, and movies have quick, memorable flings. Books resent the popularity of movies, and movies are turned off by book’s need for commitment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few tricks books can learn from movies—after all, there’s a reason they’re so popular!—and movies have always had particularly effective scare tactics.
Even if you’re not writing a horror story, knowing how to scare your reader is an important skill to have. We like our villains frightening, our monsters terrifying, and our unknown horrors to reduce us to a quivering goo. Otherwise, we can’t appreciate the heroism of your hero—or their abject fear—when they face whatever horrors you have in store for them. Being able to effectively communicate how scary something is for your hero is key to reader immersion and empathy.
So what makes things scary? Sure shock, gore, and the exploitation of common phobias have something going for them, but to make something really scary? That’s the art of the psychological thriller. It’s also the easiest to translate to a book. There are two basic principles of scaring your reader that we can learn from the movies: the power of everyday objects to evoke horror, and the implications of a single, perfect detail.
You are at your most vulnerable with those you trust. You let your guard down. You begin to relax. So something that makes you question the things you took for granted as safe is naturally terrifying. Doctors should heal you. Showers cleanse and refresh you. Wooden blocks are for children to play with. Cheese graters are for cooking. After you read a scene from a book that twists something you trust, you will never look at those objects quite the same way again. And it’s that ability of the everyday turned horrific to haunt you that makes them so powerful.
Everyday Objects—Pan’s Labyrinth has one scene that everyone remembers as “The Bottle Scene.” Most people think of knives and guns as violent, but taking something like a bottle, and killing someone with it—with all the time that takes—makes it a memorable moment of horror. No matter how many babies that character kissed, old ladies he helped across the street, or kittens he saved, that character was a monster from there on out.
Everyday Places—In the shower you are about as vulnerable as you can get. Naked, alone, eyes closed, curtained off in a small room with only one exit and no room to maneuver, all sounds masked by running water… Psycho’s bathroom scene is so intense that my leisurely shower routine was converted to a quick 5-minute affair, with my escape route planned.
Everyday Experiences—Most Americans watch TV everyday—and The Ring (Ringu) takes that everyday relaxing habit and turns it into an instrument of terror. A Nightmare on Elm Street goes one step further and turns sleep, which is both necessary and relaxing, and in which you are completely helpless, against you. But my most scarring case of this actually does come from a book: Jurassic Park, the book not the movie, has a scene in the beginning where small dinosaurs sneak in a window and eat a kid’s face off. I slept with my lights on for weeks after reading that. Did I mention I was just a kid at the time?
Everyday People—The most common trope of horror movies, and still one of the most effective, is the use of everyday, seemingly innocent people as a means of horror. From The Omen’s corruption of children to The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers’s corruption of your friends and family—taking those we love and trust and turning them against us is both simple and effective.
The Devil’s in the Details
Cutting off someone’s head is scary. Pulling off someone’s fingernails is scarier. Finding a fingernail imbedded in the arm of your chair while you’re home skipping class, trying to get your groove on with your boyfriend, is scariest. Every scene in your book was chosen because it helps tell the story your are trying to tell—and every detail in every scene should be chosen for the same reason. Choosing and using details effectively is key to writing frightening fiction.
The Right Detail: The slow-pan, the focus on just the splatter of blood on the wall—movies tell whole stories with just one detail by choosing what to show, and what to leave to the reader’s imagination. Books have that same opportunity. Hemmingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” is haunting because of what it leaves unsaid. Those six words present a question and a mystery with terrible implications. In Audition, when the police find a dismembered body and find three extra fingers, an extra ear, and an extra tongue, it becomes a lot more horrific than if they’d just shown a lot of bodies.
Pavlovian Details: Choosing an everyday detail—like the cell phone jingles in Suicide Club—to presage the first occurrence of horror—like a mass of school kids jumping in front of a train--and then repeating that same detail again when the horror is about to happen again creates a Pavlovian association of that detail with the horror. Every time you hear that peppy cell phone jingle coming from more than one phone in Suicide Club, dread begins to build, and you get ready to cover your eyes.
Incongruous Details: Madsen’s dancing and singing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” while he happily tortures a cop in Reservoir Dogs is more disturbing because of the unexpectedly cheery tone of his dancing and singing. It would not be as disturbing if he seemed to want something the cop could give, or if he acted like a normal bad guy, and was serious. Because this means that this previously normal enough criminal has become someone we can’t bargain with, predict, or identify before the horror begins.
Flash Fiction Practice:
Describe a chair. Describe it in such a way as to make it the scariest thing ever. Remember, there’s a fine line between Chairs That Eat People and a chair that tells a horrific story.