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.