What makes a good horror story?

October is a horror writer’s paradise. For one whole month, everyone is in the mood for something scary.

But what does that mean? Horror should be an easy genre to describe and therefore write, yeah? Consider, though, that there are so many sub-genres and so many different ways of approaching the genre. Some are really graphic, some are really subtle, some are stylized, and some have a healthy dose of humor. Everyone gets scared by different things – what bothers me may not bother you. We all have different thresholds, too. What I may devour you may not begin to stomach and vice versa.

For me, personally, this means that the genre is a giant playground. There are a lot of ways to approach a scary story: historical, true story, real-world setting, urban legends, serial killers, paranormal, religious, creatures, monsters, evil houses, evil cars…and on and on and on. For whatever reason, though, certain things strike chords in people. We’re wired to still obey that fight or flight instinct, even if it’s activated by the words on a page. That’s powerful to me, and is part of why the genre fascinates me so much. But still, that doesn’t quite answer the question…what makes a good horror story?

For me, it has to be plausible, or put me so in the story that my belief is suspended. I want to either feel for the protagonist in an extreme way or feel like what they’re going through could happen to me. I like both real-world and fantastic premises, but i do like stories that get into the minds of the characters, or explore a situation so fully that I have to know what happens next. Beyond that, I think authors are also at the mercy of what certain readers are unnerved by or think are fun premises to read.

I was part of a group of horror readers that got to talking about this subject at Sean Taylor’s blog this week. We talked about a lot of things dealing with horror: what works, what doesn’t, where gore factors in…The variety and similarities of our answers fascinates me, and I hope it will do the same for you, too.

To see what we all had to say about horror, please check out the roundtable discussion at Sean Taylor’s awesome blog!

So what makes a story scary for you? Does it have to involve certain things? Is there a certain style you prefer? Are some cliches acceptable or is it time to move on to new things in the genre? What makes a good horror story?

4 thoughts on “What makes a good horror story?

  1. I think it depends on the story. I mean I have read many different styles and plots. I like intense stories, where the main characters have to fight to live and sometimes they don’t.

  2. I’ve written about this and thought about it, as a writer and reader of horror. I’m not so interested in the plausibility of the horror elements (I mean, come on, killer clowns (It)? Vengeful ghosts that will not give up? (The Grudge) Satanic cults looking for fertile young women to give birth to the antichrist? (Rosemary’s Baby)).

    I agree with you it’s about watching the characters negotiate their situations. This can lead to some of the more unfortunate horror cliches (don’t go down in the basement!), but also some of the best qualities of horror.

    1. I agree that a lot of it is implausible, but I think there’s a lot of weirdoes in the world, and it’s human nature to wonder about the unknown. I hate to nitpick, but John Wayne Gacy was also a clown (though he didn’t murder anyone in that guise that I know of), and there are plenty of people who believe in ghosts if you buy into the true haunting type books (even if you don’t, they’re some good stories, usually told pretty well because the narrators completely believe in them). While I don’t have a great example for the cults, there are definitely a lot of groups that are secluded and have lashed out at the world – just without the supernatural spin. I definitely agree with you that a lot is ridiculous…that’s what kind of makes it brilliant. The same situations could be seen as hilarious or terrifying. It’s a genre that definitely has its tendrils in both sides and all different nuances.

      I totally agree, though, that the characters or good, suspenseful writing definitely make a horror story worth reading.

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