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Tips for Writers Thursday: Making Horror Real

Last week, I wrote a bit about horror fiction—about what makes horror horrifying. Because we’re still in the season of Samhain, and because I’m still in a Halloween mood, I thought I’d add a bit to that discussion. Here is my tip on this Tips for Writers Thursday: To make horror truly frightening, make it real.

Grounding horror in everyday life is what gives it an edge. Supernatural forces, unearthly beings, and uncanny events by themselves do nothing. It’s when those forces, beings, and events hit us at home that they have the power to terrify.  

Grounding horror in everyday life means placing it in settings where people feel comfortable—the more at home they feel, the more disturbing it is when that sense of security is violated. It also means creating characters who are relatable and familiar. But more than that, grounding horror in reality means rooting it in the things we truly fear, the possibilities that actually keep us awake at night.

To demonstrate, I’ll use a popular work by one of the masters of the genre. Stephen King has called Pet Sematary his most frightening work. In fact, he first refused to publish it, thinking the terror cut too deep.  

The plot is fairly simple. A doctor moves his wife and two young children to a small village in Maine. His greatest fear: The busy road where trucks go roaring by at high speeds. In fact, early on, a beloved cat is killed on the road. The doctor learns that those buried in one part of a strange pet “sematary”  (misspelled on a homemade sign), come back to life. Sure enough, when he buries the cat there, the animal re-appears—only changed in unpleasant ways. But it is when the doctor’s little boy is killed that the real horror begins. The father’s efforts to get his child back—and the results when he does—are nightmarish.

Pet Sematary has all the qualities I described earlier. The setting is an unspectacular New England town. The characters are normal people doing rather ordinary things: The young doctor dotes over his children, squabbles with the wife he loves, doesn’t get along with his in-laws. But, more importantly, the novel is built around an all-too familiar terror: The heart-stopping fear of losing a child—perhaps the most horrifying thing most people can imagine.

It’s true, of course, that the plot rests on a supernatural fiction—the resurrection of the dead. But the mysterious forces at work in Pet Sematary are only horrifying in the context of the real terror that lies at its heart. In fact, the town, the house, and the dangerous road were all based on Stephen King’s own experience, and the story of the child’s death grew out of a close-call he had with his own young son (fortunately, one that ended well).

A close look at most good horror fiction will find the same thing. There may be monsters and magic galore, but if there isn’t something real at the core of the work—some terrible event the reader can imagine actually happening—then it will all fall flat.