Before we get too much into it, I just want say this is only my opinions on the horror genre. There are probably other things you may like or not like that differ from my point of view. With that being said, let me start telling you what I think makes a good horror story. I should probably also mention, after rereading this article I realized I kind of jumped back and forth a little bit between written stories, movies, and television. So this is kind of an amalgam of horror mediums. Now, let’s get to it.
What I really enjoy about a good horror story is when the writer can tap into something that really makes you scared. The kind of fear that lasts long after you’re done reading the story or watching the movie. I don’t mean the fear brought on by a random monster that no matter what you do, you can’t stop it—at least until the big climax at the end (like Jason from Friday the 13th, Pumpkinhead, Godzilla, or any other huge killing machine). Those kinds of monsters don’t scare me—unless the writer or director brings something new to the genre (such as the thing from It Follows). Or if they’re able to add to the mythology of a monster character to make it scarier: a good example is how the Hellraiser movies added way more to the Pinhead character from Clive Barker’s novella the Hellbound Heart.
Trying to create a new take on old tropes in the horror genre can be difficult. Especially nowadays as the horror market is saturated to the point where it’s hard to come up with original subject matter. But that’s what’s good about writing horror, only great and original work stands out. So, if you do come up with an original take, you’re much more likely to have people notice it.
You know you have something good when the readers still feel afraid after they’re done with your work—the kind of fear or imagery that sticks with them for a long time. This is especially hard to do in novel form. The movie Jaws created life-long phobias about going in the water, but the novel version had little impact. Sometimes visual representation of fear conveys better to an audience. But if you’re a good enough writer you can create that same anxiety through your storytelling abilities. It takes a master to build tension and a sense of foreboding through the written word. Some stories, though, just work better visually. For instance, seeing a girl getting tugged under the dark ocean water is much more fear inducing than reading about it.
This might just be me, but I prefer when a story focuses more on the plot and less on the blood and guts—which can be overbearing in this genre at times. I’m also not saying you can’t have those elements in your story, you just have to do right. An example I like is Ash Versus the Evil Dead. The gore in this series is generally used for a comedic effect and is meant to be outrageous. This adds a unique element to the Evil Dead universe which is why it has stood out over the years as a different kind of horror series. When the Evil Dead first came out on the scene, slapstick horror/gore movies weren’t really a thing. Now, countless movies, books, and TV shows have tried to replicate its style.
A more serious example of gore adding to the genre in a special and necessary way is in The Walking Dead. They go real hardcore in the graphic novel and TV show. Sometimes it’s the main plot point in the moment (Carl getting his eye shot out) and other times the characters must stab a Walker in the head to get them out of the way to continue moving the story forward. Both occasions are realistic and gross, but they are necessary to remind the reader/viewer of the kind of world the characters are living in. It also adds constant tension in the form of the reader/viewer not knowing when a Walker might come out of nowhere to attack, or when something might go horribly wrong in the most unexpected of times.
Now, if you think I can’t appreciate a good ol’ fashioned gore fest. you’re mistaken. I just don’t find it scary. A good story will always trump gore in my opinion. Just think about the work of Stephen King (yes, you can’t talk about good horror without bringing up the master). He incorporates gore into his work, but it’s rarely ever the focal point. And if it is, it’s for a specific reason—like Pennywise ripping poor Georgie to pieces in IT.
That scene isn’t meant to be gory for the sake of grossing out the reader (or movie watcher). It’s meant to show how evil Pennywise is and what the nefarious creature is capable of. By showing what the monster can and will do, it sets up a serious case of unease for the rest of the story. You’ll always have that sense of fear in thinking about what the creature will do next. This is an example of using gore in the best way possible to build fear throughout the rest of the story.
So, what makes a good horror story? For me, I think it’s the same as any other story: you must build a positive and negative connection between the readers and characters, build tension and drama throughout the story, and make it so the characters have something to lose or gain decided through the decisions they make. To add the horror elements, you must build an always present sense of danger and fear.
A good horror story is one where about you truly care what happens to the characters. There needs to be a strong enough connection where you feel their fear. The reader or movie watcher should become scared of what the characters are scared of. Ultimately, the reader or viewer should feel as if they are right there living the horror story with the characters. Those are the best types of scary stories, because we can relate to them and understand how the fear could be real.
What’s makes a horror story scary to you? Let us know in the comments. Then check out these other great articles.