What Writers Can Learn from the Masters of Horror


Here we are in October, my favorite time of year. I happen to like scary movies. Not slasher flicks, but stories that disturb the psyche and really rattle us down on a visceral level. There are different levels of fear—shock, revulsion, terror, etc. As a genre, horror seems to have more subgenres and classifications that any other. I don’t profess to be any kind of an expert, beyond the discerning taste of a consumer. I believe horror to be one of the most difficult genres to write. Modern-day audiences are far more sophisticated and tougher to rattle. I feel that those authors brave enough to endeavor to scare us out of our wits have their work cut out for them. Like horror writers, ALL authors would be wise to learn from the masters. So today we are going to explore three lessons all of us can take away from the Masters of Horror.

Like great horror authors, great writers must be masters of understanding human psychology.

One of the best horror novels I’ve ever read was The Shining by Stephen King. What makes this story so terrifying is that Jack Torrence starts out a normal, yet flawed guy. He battles a temper and has a history of alcoholism. We, the reader, are introduced to a man who is penitent and trying to make a new life for a family he loves. He genuinely is trying to be a good father and husband. Yet, at the very beginning King gives us a whisper of the darkness that will eventually eclipse this family until it can blot out their very existence, and the only power that can thwart the darkness is, of course, the light…appropriately called the Shining.

For me, though, what made this book so terrifying was the devolution of Jack. It was the steady unraveling of his mind and how he disintegrated over the course of the story that bothered me on a primal level. I genuinely related to Jack in the beginning, even liked him and saw in him a reflection of my own human weakness. King then exploits that weakness leaving me, the reader, well aware how vulnerable all of us are to the darkness.

I personally hated Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence in the Kubrick version of The Shining. To me Nicholson was a dreadful casting choice in that he seemed crazy as a bed bug in the first scenes and was utterly unlikable. By contrast, the beauty of the novel was that Jack Torrence was flawed, but most importantly, he was likable and sympathetic. What made the book so disturbing was Jack’s progressive descent into darkness as his mind spiraled toward madness. He began sane, and then changed. In the beginning, we see a loving father and husband. By the end, he is chasing that same family he loved with an ax. King had a deep appreciation for the human psyche and that was why he was so brilliantly able to torment our soft and tender parts.

This type of acute understanding of psychology, I feel, makes the different between caricatures and three-dimensional characters.

Like horror authors, we are wise to appreciate the power of the flawed character.

I feel that often King is called the Master of Horror because he is truly brilliant in depicting flawed characters. King then uses these flaws as a place that the darkness can gain a toe-hold so it can take over an inch at a time. For instance, in Duma Key, Edgar Freemantle survives a horrific crane accident where he loses an arm and incurs a terrible head injury which leaves him with brain damage, memory loss, depression, and mood swings. Through much of the book, the reader finds it hard to discern what is real and unreal, what is outward evil versus what is torment from Edgar’s own mind. Edgar goes into this battle damaged, broken in a way that could happen to any of us on an unlucky day. We are able to slip easily into Edgar’s place because he is imperfect, and we can relate. Because we can slip into Edgar’s place, we then share in his torment. Horror will only work if the writer can get the reader squarely into the protagonist’s shoes to experience the distress and anguish first-hand.

It is no mistake that Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” from first-person POV.

Great horror authors know that less can be more. Sometimes the unknown is more terrifying.

Want to ramp up tension in your book? Don’t feel the need to explain everything. As humans we always like neat and tidy answers, so feel free to yank that away and watch us squirm. I think one of the strengths in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series was that he never fully explained this rip in the fabric of this dimension and the next. He made allusions, and never gave satisfying explanations. For me, at least, this unease of not knowing added to the tension. The religious aspects of the Cenobites, at least early on, seem to be relatively ambiguous. It is perhaps their shocking outward appearance—piercings, ghoulish disfigurement—that makes us, the observers, deem that they are “hellish.” But, in behavior, there is nothing discernably moral or immoral about them. Yet, we knew they had an agenda, and Barker never fully revealed it. I think the not knowing made the stories more terrifying.

The Exorcist is another great example. We never had a full, satisfactory explanation how the little girl became possessed and what happened after Father Karras’s nasty tumble down the stairs. Thus, the author, William Blatty, could capitalize on this unease to make the story sink in and scare our britches off.

Even if you aren’t writing horror, sometimes it is better to leave unanswered questions. Make the reader writhe. Recently I had one of the members of my novel writing workshop ask about a scene at the end of her book where the protagonist’s daughter is kidnapped. This author wanted to write scenes from the perspective of the girl being kidnapped. I asked, “Why?” Those last scenes in the book gearing up to the climax need to be saturated with tension. By writing from the POV of the kidnapped girl, this writer would allow the reader to be at least somewhat at ease. How? The reader would know the girl was at least not dead. Of course, such a tactic would have effectively ruined the tension.

In the end, horror authors have a lot to teach all of us. We all should strive to do at least these three things in our writing.

1)      Understand the psychology of our characters.

2)      Appreciate the power of the flawed character.

3)      Recognize that sometimes less is more.  

What are some of your favorite scary movies or novels? Why did they scare you? Share in the comments, :D.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

And now the shameless self-promo. We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is designed to be fun and effective. I am here to change your habits, not your personality. My method will help you grow your network in a way that will translate into sales. And the coolest part? My approach leaves time to write more books. Build a platform guaranteed to impress an agent. How do I know this? My book is recommended by agents.


1 ping

Skip to comment form

    • glenda Finnegan on October 11, 2010 at 6:02 pm
    • Reply

    so true! Thanks!

  1. I enjoyed The Sixth Sense for exactly the reasons you mention. I think the movie did an exceptional job with the less is more concept. I was so sucked in wanting to see the next scene that didn’t notice Bruce Willis was dead until the end of the movie when the ring hit the floor. All the best.

  2. My favorite scary movie and books is Jaws. Because the monster is real. Sharks are in the ocean and people do get attacked and there isn’t any guaranteed way to make sure it isn’t you except stay on the beach – and what fun is that??

    Benchley took our fear of the ocean depths, a place we can’t truly know and made it personal with the danger to the chief’s town and his family.

    1. There is an entire generation that is aquaphobic. anyone over the age of 32 saw Jaws at a tender age and will not swim in water that isn’t chlorinated, LOL.

  3. Very interesting post. I agree that all too often less is indeed more.

    However, I recently read ‘Salems Lot for the first time. I do not doubt Stephen King’s skill for one moment, however I was struck by how many writing ‘rules’ (of the kind that fill many blogs) he broke. He likes to tell stories as opposed to meticulous plotting, which is fine but in Salem’s Lot that translated to hundreds of pages devoted to developing dozens of minor characters in great detail with seemingly endless back story and irrelevant detail etc.

    Notwithstanding that I enjoyed the novel, and the final 200 pages in particular vivid and creepy. My conclusion was that writers need to first understand the rules, and then start breaking them!

    Best wishes,


  4. Loved this post! I’m all about leaving the writer in suspense. As a writer, that is the ultimate fun!

    I just started reading Punish the Sinners by John Saul and the prologue was downright scary! What made it scary for me was the slow pace at first that makes you think the prologue was going to go one way until you get to the clincher and then horror happens so fast you’re like OMG I cannot believe that just happend! I gotta read it again!

    As far as movies, The Shining was one movie I could never sit fully through. The pyschological mind games was almost too much for me to handle and I live for scarey movies! LOL

    1. The book was way better (The Shining). saul is a brilliant author. Good choice, :D.

  5. I should probably first say that I am not the biggest scary movie fan. But the Blair Witch Project and “The Grudge” scared the crap out of me. The Blair Witch Project scared me because it was presented as a real story at the time. That easily encroached on my comfort zones and sense of personal safety — even though I would never go into the woods looking for something like a witch. But I live in the woods sort of — the Black Hills of South Dakota — and a drive into the hills was a bit scary before I found out that movie was fiction.

    The Grudge — I really don’t know why it was so scary to me. But I saw it back when I was writing movie reviews for my college paper (and acting as entertainment editor). I wound up in the basement of the student union designing the page for the issue of the paper and I was FREAKING out. I had to delete the picture off the page until right before I left for the night. And I must say, walking across campus to my apartment that night sucked!

    Any scary movie that involves a person harming another is very scary to me or crazy people or the devolution of the human psyche into something primal and violent (as you described in the Shining). That crap is SCARY Because that can happen. I mean there just might be a Hannibal Lecter out there somewhere — you know?


    1. I happened to see The Blair Witch Project right about the time I was doing a lot of hiking. anyway, long story short, went on a long day hike and some teenagers thought it was funny to remove all the pained markers. so for hours I did circles and kept walking by the same campsite. Talk about FREAKED OUT!

  6. You are so right about having so much to learn from such a disciplined art. I just wrote about my take on Stephen King’s “On Writing” and will never be the same.
    The scariest thing I discovered because it was so true was Second Draft + First Draft – 10%.

    Please share your secrets at Mastermind Writers: http://www.mastermindwriters.com/


    • Terrell Mims on October 12, 2010 at 12:20 am
    • Reply

    My personal favorite was The Ring. I watched it in college and I wish I knew it scared the bejesus out of me, but it did. I think because it relied more on the psychological terror than blood and guts.

    BTW, The Ring 2 sucked!!

  7. I’m surprised- Christian Yoke- John Saul was allowed to develop a prologue! Most literary agents seem despondent by its use and reject the merit of its presence. Perhaps only by coincidence to the horror genre, but William Peter Blatty effectively used the prologue to introduce Father Merrin as The Exorcist long before the final scenes. The prologue can be used as an effective literary tool for the novel as the overture is in setting the atmosphere for an opera.

    Scariest literary character- the Thomas Harris creation: Hannibal Lecter.

    1. Hannibal is one of the greatest villains of all time. I wholeheartedly agree! 😀

    • Shellie on October 12, 2010 at 2:00 am
    • Reply

    Yes, I really do believe less is more. I read The Stand by Stephen King and started planning escape routes for me and my family!!! The total package of an arbitrary disease that was created by man just scared the crap out of me. No one was safe and there was no cure.

    You can just feel the disease creeping toward you. Heebee jeebees big time!

    Great post Kristen, thank you!


    1. I had bronchitis when I got the bright idea to read The Stand. Talk about creep you out on a whole other level, LOL!

  8. My favorite scary movies have been The Grudge and Grudge 2, They, and those three are some of the only ones to scare me since I was five and watched Poltergeist. For sheer just freak-out or gross, Cabin Fever and The Human Centipede are right up there too.

    The first three are scary because of the ghost aspect. Ghosts scare me. They can get anywhere, there’s no where that’s safe, and they’re so vengeful. The Grudges did a great blend of the jump cut, and just building the suspense, and letting your own nerves do the work. And the first Grudge had the ghost under the blankets, which destroys everything we’re taught as kids; you’re safe so long as you’re under the covers. They does some of the same things, but in a pool.

    Cabin Fever has a ton of just plain grossness, but it does also capitalize on the terror that comes from isolation.

    The Human Centipede is vulgar and foul, but is also absolutely horrifying. You know what’s happening, but you never actually see it.

    And that’s one of the best ways to do horror; leave it in the shadow. Let the imagination take over. No one else can ever come up with something as terrifying, and horrible, as your own mind can. So the best things for me are the ones I come up with from suggestions.

    1. Paranormal Activity (to me) was very frightening for that reason. Not a lot of gore and left a lot in the shadows and up to the imagination. I think the Japanese horror films like The Grudge are great at doing that.

  9. Great posts on writing, Kristen. Rosemary’s Baby is particularly scary because of what we don’t see or know. As you say, less is more.

    I think the challenge for a novelist is to fight the urge to explain because one fears the reader will think the story is implausible. To the contrary, the wise writer *trusts* the reader to get it, and trusts her/himself to tell a believable story with an air of mystery.

    1. I have even run into that with the thriller I am writing. I find myself explaining stuff and then I have to go back and hack it away. I make the reader too comfortable and that is no bueno. Great comment and thanks for sharing your insight. This is part of why I surround myself with people way smarter than I am….you guys make me look good 😀

  10. That is awesome advice! I’m a wuss when it comes to scary movies, but reading scary books really allows me to appreciate the skills of the writer in getting into your mind and relating emotionally to the situation. I remember when I was younger and I read the The Seance by Joan Lowery Nixon… holy crap that book scared and literally sent chills down my spine from little descriptions of movements, gestures and sounds. My mind filled the rest in on its own! That’s an amazing understanding of psychology there.

  11. I’ve been a King fan since I was a tweener. The Shining has always been one of my favorites, but I agree that the movie with Nichols wasn’t the best. The mini-series with Stephen Weber fixed a lot of the errors found in the movie (like the fact that Jack went after his family with a large croquet mallet instead of an ax AND there was no maze). However I have to say the maze part in the movie still gives me the creeps because you’re wondering the whole time if the kid can get in and out without running into Jack. I can’t do mazes to this day because of that movie.

    Read several of the Dark Tower series. Great books because everything is up for grabs. The only character you can be sure won’t die (at least until the series is over) is Gunslinger. You’re also not privy to the exact reason each character has for being pulled into Gunslinger’s world.

    I also agree that the most important thing in scaring us is the element of the unknown. I don’t like being able to guess what’s going to happen, so I say leave the Red Shirts on the starship and get on with the story.

    • CMStewart on October 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm
    • Reply

    The William Golding classic “Lord of the Flies” is my fav horror novel, though it may not fit neatly into the “horror” genre.

    Less is more- so true, especially in psychological horror. An uncertain reality has a way of sneaking into the readers’ subconscious. I use that in my writing, which also does not fit neatly into the “horror” genre.

  12. Kristen, I agree with the others, this is a great post. I’ve been a Stephen King fan since elementary school. I’m so glad he is getting his “due” now in terms of being a master of craft. His stories and novels are so brilliantly disturbing because they show slices of regular life that become really twisted. It makes you never look at certain settings the same again (cornfields anyone?).

I LOVE hearing your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.