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What Horror Can Teach Us


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48986157673_89fd420c0c_o.jpg?resize=860%It’s spooky season, my friends, and in my household that means three things: apple cider, pumpkin bread, and horror movies. But even if your taste in seasonal flicks is more Halloweentown than Train to Busan, there’s still a lot that we writers—of all genres—can learn from a good horror story.

Despite being a professed horror fan, I’d never seen The Blair Witch Project until this month. I went in with moderate expectations: it’s rated 3.4 out of 5 stars on Google, and 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb, which are solidly mediocre popular ratings. Most horror films don’t affect me beyond the film itself, meaning I can walk out of the theater (or more often these days, away from my couch) and into a dark room without jumping at every little noise.

When Blair Witch ended, though, and it was time to ready myself for bed, I had to make my husband stand in the bathroom with me while I brushed my teeth so I wouldn’t be alone.

What the heck was it that made this film—a 90-minute story of people getting lost in the woods, in which there’s hardly any blood, and we never even see a glimpse of the monster—the one that spooked me to the core?

Found footage movies like Blair Witch have gotten popular in part because they feel more “real.” I’m old enough to remember people having earnest discussions when the film came out over whether it was a true story. But I knew it was more than that. Not only did the found footage style of the film make it feel like something that could realistically happen to me: it made me think about what I would have done in a similar situation. What would I do if I got lost in a wooded area without a map? What would I do if I got lost in a wooded area without a map and I was with someone I didn’t know well, and whom I didn’t trust to keep their head in an emergency?

That train of thought alone was enough to get me feeling anxious.

Most horror films come with an element of the supernatural that removes the characters’ actions from my own day-to-day. What would I do if my train was suddenly filled with zombies? It’s a fun thought experiment, but I don’t know because it’s a scenario that’s highly unlikely to occur (though I’ve lived through enough unprecedented events that I’m not about to tempt fate by declaring in public that a zombie apocalypse cannot happen).

Getting lost in the woods, though? That’s something that definitely could happen. Blair Witch had the right combination of realness (the found footage style) and believability (I could get lost in woods that look just like those woods) to tap right into a well of fear at my center.

And at its broadest, the horror genre is about the emotion of fear. As a driver of human activity, fear is right up there with power, desire, and social acceptance. That means that it’s also an excellent driver of our characters’ actions—particularly when those fears center on the mundane. Here are some horror-inspired ideas for injecting some fear into your stories.

  1. Make your characters desperate to avoid the thing that scares them. Fear drives many of our decisions. We don’t have to be telling a horror story for our characters to be motivated by fear. Fear of death, of being forgotten, of living a pointless life, of being alone, of failure, of rejection, and so on are all compelling character motivators. What is your protagonist’s greatest fear? How does it motivate the choices they make throughout your story? For more depth, ensure your other characters also have well-developed fears. What does your antagonist fear the most? How can these fears play off one another to add tension and depth to your story? Then consider just how desperately your characters will avoid what frightens them. What complications will your characters create to avoid the thing that scares them? What will it take—how desperate would they have to be—to be able to face up to it? Fear is far from logical, and can lead us down irrational, destructive paths. As horror writer Shirley Jackson said: “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” Do your characters yield to or fight their fears?
  2. Establish the rules, then break them. Part of what makes horror a thrilling genre is the fact that the characters and the audience are often stumbling through situations with the same amount of information: that is, not enough. Characters think they know how the world works, only to be proven woefully (and sometimes fatally) wrong. What basic, untenable fact about their world does your character know? And what happens when they find out they’ve been wrong this whole time? A zombie novel might begin with “the dead don’t rise” as a universal truth that is soon proved false. A novel set in an average workplace, on the other hand, might feature a high-achieving character who seems destined to climb the corporate ladder to become CEO, only to be suddenly laid off for no discernable reason. Or perhaps the characters in a novel of manners learn to their dismay that a single man in possession of a good fortune may not be in want of a wife. Find out what fears stir up when the rules your characters—and hopefully your readers—think they know prove to be false.
  3. Find the absurd, uncanny, or unsettling in the familiar. MasterClass’s brief how-to guide on horror stories explains that the genre closest to horror is, perhaps unexpectedly, comedy, because both rely on subverting the familiar. Like Blair Witch reached me because it forced me to react to a plausible scenario, what emotions can you evoke in your readers by taking a familiar experience, emotion, or situation and disrupting it? For example, we all hope that our loved ones will stick by us during difficult times. But in the movie The Witch—another film with very little screen time given to the ostensible villain—the real horror lies not in devil-worshipping witches, but in the way an isolated family turns on its own during a period of grief. And that’s a fear to which many can relate.

What are your characters’ greatest fears? What are your favorite horror movies so I can add them to my to-watch list? Happy spooky season, WU!

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About Kelsey Allagood

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.

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