As fall creeps closer and as I continue to draft the final book in the Nevermore trilogy, I find myself mulling more and more over the things that scare me. I do this partly because such things fascinate me, as the same musings must have also fascinated Mr. Poe all those years ago. I do this also in an effort to capture the essence of fright. Like a ghost hunter might try to snap a photo of an unseen specter, I like to find my fears, capture them, and do my best to take a closer look as to why they freak me out so much.
If I expose myself to the dark then, hopefully, I can use my fight to frighten others (my audience, namely.)
And a good fright is something we all need every once and a while, don’t you think? Of course, if you’re like me, you could do with a good healthy scare every evening.
Wasn’t it Eleanor Roosevelt who advised us to “do something every day that scares you?”
As if writing wasn’t a frightening enough venture.
If you’re writing horror fiction, a ghost story, a murder mystery or if you just like to pepper in a freak-out fest here and there, here are few things that I have found that tend to make me want to sleep with the lights on.
Betrayal of the Familiar.
Stephen King is a master at this. With books like Christine, Cell and The Shining, Mr. King takes everyday items and like a car, a cellphone or places like an empty hallway in a well-established hotel, and transforms an interaction with them into a terrifying encounter.
When we pick up a telephone, we expect to be able to make a call. When it rings and we pick it up, we assume the person on the other end is alive and breathing. Unless they aren’t.
Antiques from a local shop are lovely to bring home. If such items were cursed, we would never guess. At least not until it was too late.
Mirrors can show us not only what we look like on the outside, but perhaps also how we may appear in the spirit realm—if we appear at all.
When I think about something in my everyday life turning against me, it freaks me out, but it also makes me grin in that “mwa ha ha” sort of way because, as a writer, I can use that fear to manufacture ideas and distill it down into my own concoction that might just get your goat, too.
After all, I’m fairly certain that if the black and white photograph I have in my office of death dancing with a maiden began to come to live and move on its own, I would run out of my house screaming.
And I’m also pretty sure that, unless you’re Jason or Grant from the Ghost Hunters, that little incident would freak you out, too.
If we don’t understand something, that instantly makes it scarier. Think about the movie The Village. The first time I saw that movie, I got a terrifying thrill. When I saw it again, I enjoyed the film just as much, but I have to admit that its ability to terrify me was gone. I attribute this to the fact that I knew the film’s secret, the mystery was gone and I had my answers. So I think in this instance, the scriptwriters did a masterful job of withholding information.
As a writer, it’s a good idea to know the answers to why and how, even when it comes to the supernatural characters such as ghosts and demons. If you can withhold some of the details to the end, however, this can often amp up the terror factor quite a lot and help create suspense.
You’re the Crazy One
This is a great scare tactic for fiction and one that Poe himself used quite often with such tales as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Imp of the Perverse, William Wilson and The Black Cat.
As a society, we fear insanity in others and we fear its manifestation in ourselves, too. It gets even creepier when we don’t see it coming.
Stephen King’s Secret Window is an excellent example of how this can work in fiction. Of course, the greatness of Hitchcock’s example in the ever famous Psycho goes without saying.
I love this tactic because, at its essence, it explores the fear we harbor of ourselves, someone we think we know better than anyone. When we realize don’t know ourselves however, or we discover some frightening aspect of our shadow side, we freak out the people closest to us as well as ourselves. Or we just freak out period.
Think Carrie. Think of Willow from Buffy and Jekyll and Hyde, too. What about Gollum?
Take your hero and think about what would be her breaking point. What would happen if you took her there? What would happen if you pushed her to the brink? What would she become?
What about you? What frightens you most and have you ever used that fear to create a story or character?