Prepare yourselves! Today I have the dynamic duo of horror here to talk about the secrets of writing scary stories. The Brothers Washburn’s young adult horror novel, PITCH GREEN, is now available everywhere books are sold. It’s a fast-paced, spooky tale of what lurks in the dark in an old mansion. Click the link on the title to read my full review.
To learn more about the book, read reviews and watch the creepy book trailer, CLICK HERE.
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Ladies and gentlemen – The Brothers Washburn…
Slowly I pushed the door open, straining to see into the bedroom without actually stepping in. The door opened all the way against the sliding closet doors behind it, and I could see that both closet doors were closed, so I knew there was nothing immediately behind the door I was pushing, but I had no idea what might be waiting for me in the closet. The hallway lights were off, but there was still enough light behind me that my form cast a long pillar across the room and onto the far wall. Nervously, I crouched to minimize my dark shadow, knowing there were hidden eyes watching me, waiting for my next move.
Reaching carefully around the corner into the room, I flipped the light switch hoping a light might come on, but nothing happened. Though it was hopeless, I flipped the switch a couple more times, thinking it might elicit a response from someone in the room–still nothing. Except for a lamp stuffed into a far corner of the room and covered with a white sheet, the room was dark and mostly hidden in black shadows–nothing moved, except when my imagination was playing tricks on me. A blanket hung across the outside windows, blocking all light from the outside, and another blanket had been tied so that it hung from the non-working ceiling light across to one end of the window blind–it completely hid one corner of the room.
This was a new configuration. I had no way of knowing what to expect. Getting down on my hands and knees, I tried to see under the beds, but the blankets on both beds had been pulled all the way down to the floor, hiding anything that might be underneath. Holding my breath, I listened for any noise–breathing, rustling, any sound that might betray a stalker lying in wait, but I heard nothing, except my own heart beating. The first move had to be mine, so I stood and leaned further into the room. There were deep piles of blankets and pillows on the bed to my right. I decided not to go that way–who knew what was under those piles.
Sliding into the room with my back against the closet door, I kept one hand on its handle, so I would know if anyone tried to open it from the inside. I stepped quickly past the closet and into the middle of the wall on the other side, keeping my back to that wall, facing out into the room, always watching for any movement and listening for any noise. I was now close enough to the second bed that with a couple quick steps, I could hop up on top of it. It had no blankets or pillows on it that might be hiding something–it looked safe. As I stepped forward, getting close enough to hop up on the bed, a hand suddenly shot out from under the bed, grabbing my ankle. I yelped in surprise. They had me and I hadn’t even seen it coming.
In a sudden rush of relief, the tension was released, and I was safe once more. Of course, I had never really been in danger–it had just felt that way. And that was the fun of our home made haunted house, or in this case, haunted bedroom.
This was a game invented by our cousins, Sandra and Steven. Fraternal twins and a year older than me, Sandra and Steven were naturals at inventing new games. They didn’t come to our house often, but when they did, there was always something new and interesting going on, and it was usually scary. As the evening wore on and it started to get dark, when our cousins were visiting, someone would always say, “Let’s make a haunted house.” Because the grownups didn’t want us ransacking the entire house, it was really just “a haunted room,” but that was all we needed to create some serious haunting.
The rules of the game were very simple. One of the kids was sent away to wait in the front room while all the other kids turned a back room (usually a bedroom) into a haunted house. When someone in the haunted house yelled, “Ready,” the designated victim would try to find all the monsters hidden around the room before one of them could grab the victim by surprise. Because there were so many monsters, and only one victim, the victim always lost, but everyone enjoyed the mystery and suspense of being the victim. It was a challenge trying to anticipate where all the monsters would be hidden. Sometimes a monster would be left out in plain sight just to distract the victim from another monster hidden nearby.
At the same time, we all enjoyed being monsters too. It took a lot of creativity to not just do the same thing every time–there was no mystery or suspense in doing the same thing over and over. In addition, a good haunted house required more than just mystery and suspense. In order to be really scary, a good haunted house, or for that matter, a good horror story needs one or both of the following: (1) a dangerous threat from an unknown source of inhuman power, and/or (2) a warping or distortion of something that is normally familiar and friendly.
The victim in a haunted house (or the reader of a horror story) must feel a personal threat either to him or herself directly or to a significant other (like the story’s main character, who the victim personally cares about). The more significant the threat, then the scarier the threat, with life and death threats being among the scariest. A good horror story first creates a bond between the reader and the character at risk, so the threatening unknown power will hang heavy over the reader as it hangs heavy over the character in the story. However, a constant stream of excessive blood and gore is not scary, and in fact will drive the reader out of the story in disgust, leaving the reader reluctant to come back again to that particular story or to any others like it.
In addition to simply killing off other characters in the story, another way to make the unknown power threatening, or to increase a sense of the threat, is to create a sense of revulsion through the warping or distortion of the familiar. Few things are more fascinating, and at the same time more scary, as something familiar, even mundane, that has been horribly warped or distorted to the point that it has become painfully ugly. Even without feeling a direct personal threat to oneself or a significant other, an encounter with a painfully ugly distortion of the familiar can elicit gut wrenching feelings of revulsion and fear. This has been done successfully with clowns, birds and even mothers.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was learning some interesting lessons in the hunted house game. A really good haunting or horror experience requires some personal skin in the game (either your own or a significant other’s), while at the same time dealing with a life threatening risk from an unknown source of inhuman power that is presenting itself as a painfully ugly distortion of something that is normally familiar and friendly. A subtle presentation of these elements will beat a stream of blood and gore every time, and will keep your readers (victims) coming back again and again. Though you will need to be creative to build the mystery and suspense anew in each new story, your readers will love you for it.
Good haunting! Good horror!