Why horror?

In honor of National Women in Horror Month and Mercedes M. Yeardley’s podcast on Monday, I thought I would discuss why I am adding some horror to my reading list.  While I doubt I’ll ever write it, and I’m not sure how much of it I can take,  I can see some advantage to at least familiarizing myself with the genre.

A scene from Disney's "The Watcher In the Woods," a good movie to watch next to someone you'd love to comfort.
A scene from Disney’s “The Watcher In the Woods,” a good movie to watch next to someone you’d love to comfort.
  1. I hope to learn to be meaner to my characters. I’m not. I tend to avoid conflict in real life, and that tends to make me want to avoid it in my writing. So perhaps if I “raise the bar” on what I could do it’ll make it easier for me to at least do something. I don’t want to call it “desensitizing myself,” but perhaps it’s more giving myself permission to be meaner after having seen someone else go far beyond what I would try. “At least I’m not as nasty as Dan Wells!”
  2. I love suspense and tension, and need to learn how to write it. I don’t necessarily need to see the resultant violence and gore, but the knowledge that something bad can and will happen is kinda trippy, at least in entertainment. One of the most deliciously suspenseful shows I remember growing up was a network TV sci-fi thriller about an escaped alien shapeshifter loose on earth and assuming the identities of people it killed. They would intersperse scenes with random shots of people, and it was creepy as all get out, because you knew that any one of them could be the creature. I want to learn how to capture that in my writing.
  3. Horror description packs a visceral punch. Again, I don’t necessarily want to write horror, but I may want to purposely use imagery that impacts on a more gut level to heighten the tension. There are times when being able to elicit horror-like responses in your reader will be a useful skill to have.
  4. Horror knows there are worse things than dying. Another way of building tension in a story is by raising the stakes for your characters. But the fear of death, or the world in peril have been done countless times. While the threat of death is still often present in horror, it’s not the worst that can happen. Learning new ways to threaten your characters and grip your readers can be a good thing.
  5. Horror knows what you can’t see is sometimes even scarier. The most frightening movies don’t show the monster, or at most reveal tantalizing hints. Just watch the previews for the latest Godzilla movie. But if we as writers need to show, not tell, think of what we can do if we can learn to not even show, but instead tap into our readers’ imaginations and inner fears. Elements of horror can be useful tools to have in our toolboxes.
  6. Horror makes you care. As Michaelbrent Collings will tell you, horror works because it gets up close and personal. It focuses close up on a character you can identify with and runs you through the wringer with them. A significant part of the horror is not just that something bad is happening to someone, but that something bad is happening to someone you care about. How do they get you to care? They might have some tricks to share.

So there’s the list of what I hope to gain from reading horror. If you’re going to do something similar I would recommend a little research first. I plan to start with something by Michaelbrent Collings because I’m familiar with his views on horror and can trust him not to lead me somewhere I don’t want to go.

Perhaps I’ll regret this little experiment.  Perhaps not. I’ll keep you posted.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.

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