Tales that Terrify: How Stories Make us Feel Fear

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Why do we want to be scared?

Every year I find myself at a haunted house type event.  I wait in line, sometimes for several hours, to walk voluntarily into an environment where scary looking people, dressed up to make me think I’m living a nightmare, scream, bang things at me and get as close as possible to deafen me with chainless chainsaws.  Usually I’m pushing someone in front of me (I try to make it someone I know) and I spend half the time finding the hiding “monsters” so I’ll feel a little less scared when they jump out at me.  Just as I’m about to step through the threshold of the haunted house or scare zone, I ask myself why on Earth I thought it’d be fun to do this again.  But then I go to the next one, year after year.

For the same reason I love getting frightened by people pretending to be monsters, I love reading horror stories.  Why do I like putting myself through an uncomfortable experience? Shawn Coyne describes the appeal of horror stories as an “allegory for the horrific world we presently or could soon inhabit.  It serves as a prescriptive or cautionary tale about how best to metabolize our darkest fears and survive.”  We love horror stories because they help us experience terror, but in a safe environment.  It’s not only entertaining, the science behind it finds that experiencing fear in a safe environment helps us better cope with fear responses in stressful environments that we encounter in the real world.  See here for an article from Psychology Today that explains the appeal and benefits of scaring the daylights out of yourself.    

Most of us don’t encounter actual monsters like ghosts, the undead or murderous aliens from outer space.  But we do fear certain human experiences that manifest themselves as monsters in our minds.  We fear failure, loss of a loved one, and isolation, for example.  

How do you create the sensation of fear in your readers?

Horror stories capitalize on human fears by creating characters and monsters that represent the worst iterations of those fears.  In the book The Four Core FrameWork, author of The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne, explains the key framing elements of a horror story.  For more on the framing elements in horror stories, and in each of the Story Grid Content Genres, you can check out his book here.

Today, I am looking at three stories that combine the framing elements of a horror story to frighten audiences in the moment, and long after they’ve finished the novel.  Before we begin, let’s take a brief look at the framing elements of horror stories:

  • Core Need:  The core need in horror stories is safety.  
  • Core Life value:  In horror stories, the characters move from life, to experiencing death, to fearing damnation.  Horror stories need to have at least one character who experiences the monster as so fearful that death would be a mercy to the terror it imposes.
  • Core Emotion: The core emotion in a horror story is terror – extreme fear. The core emotion is manifested in the reader as he or she watches the protagonist try to gain safety in constant peril from the monster, who represents some human experience that the audience finds very scary, such as failure, loss of a loved one or isolation.
  • Core Event – Hero at the Mercy of the Monster: Every horror story must have a scene where the protagonist is at the mercy of the monster.  

Now that we know what a horror story needs to make it horrifying, let’s get to the fun part and look at how three of the scariest novels ever written have been frightening people for decades.

SPOILER ALERT: I’ve identified the novels discussed in the headings below.  If you have one of these on your reading list, you may not want to read that section.

If you are in the mood for evil spirits and haunted houses: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson 

Houses with their own wants and desires are scary because they usually want to terrorize us.  In The Haunting of Hill House, the house wants to kill, but not before making its victims realize their worst fears. 

In the novel, Eleanor Vance thinks she’s received the opportunity of a lifetime when she gets an invitation to spend three months in a haunted house, along with two other guests Luke and Theodora, as part of a research project conducted by Dr. John Montague.  Montague is hoping the team will experience evidence of the supernatural, which he plans to use as the basis for his upcoming book.  Prior to Hill House, Eleanor lived a sheltered life. Once there, she’s overjoyed that she has a group to belong to for the first time.  Her desire to belong overshadows her initial fear of the house which she describes as “diseased.” It doesn’t take long for the haunting to begin.  Eleanor and Thedora experience banging on their bedroom walls and see the door rattling, as something tries to come in after them, but neither Montague nor Luke notice it.  The odd events continue and the next day, the house singles out Eleanor.  In the hallway, they find the words “HELP ELEANORE COME HOME.”  Later, they find the same words written in blood over Thedora’s bed.  Eleanor feels shaken but the others aren’t convinced she’s not responsible.  They accuse her of seeking attention.  As the house continues to harass Eleanor, the others get increasingly frustrated with her, and she feels ostracized.  She wants so badly to be liked, but she can’t help causing a commotion.  On the last night before she leaves, she’s lured to the library by what she thinks is her mother taunting her.  The library sits at the top of a tower and steep dilapidated steps provide the only access.  Eleanor refused to go up with the others when they explored the house, but now she’s there and she can’t get down.  

  • What is the protagonist’s core need?  Eleanor needs to get over her fear of failing to become part of the group to find safety.  Hill House feeds off her insecurity, so as long as she chooses to believe she’s not a valuable member of the team, she’ll never be able to overcome its demons.  
  • How does the global life value of life to death to damnation progress in the story?  The house lures Eleanor to the top of the tower where she’s certain to die before the other guests intervene.  Just as it seems the others have got Eleanor away from it’s influence, Hill House strikes again and convinces Eleanor that the others rejected her, and to show them they can’t throw her out, to commit suicide as she’s driving off the property. She is not only dead, but likely tied her soul to Hill House forever.
  • What is the core event?  Eleanor’s paranoia that the others dislike her becomes an obsession.  Yet, despite that, in the middle of the night she drags the other guests out of bed, knocking on their doors and screaming for them to come find her in what she sees as a game of hide and seek that ends when they find her at the top of the tower.  The steps leading to the library are so dilapidated the others can’t believe she didn’t fall during her climb and when she can’t make it down on her own, they are certain the steps will collapse when Luke tries to rescue her.  Miraculously, the two make it back to safety, but it’s clear that Eleanor’s paranoia has turned to reality.  The other guests do not want her there.    
  • How does the story evoke the core emotion?  Hill House has formed the perfect plan to kill Eleanor, but it doesn’t stop with just taking her life.  Eleanor failed the one chance she’s had in her life to make a place for herself, and she’s done it through her own actions.  She views her dismissal not out of concern, but as rejection.  If she can’t earn a place in the House through respect, she’ll get back at them another way, defying them by killing herself so she can remain in Hill House forever.  Hill House not only killed Eleanor by possessing her mind, it convinced her that because of her failure her only choice was to damn herself.  
  • How does it all fit together to make the story work? Have you ever felt like a failure, or had imposter syndrome?  No matter how much you tried, you couldn’t break through and only made things worse for yourself?  Hill House reminds us that fear of failure can cause us to do crazy things.  Eleanor certainly did when she killed herself rather than face a future where she was rejected from a haunted house research team.

If you are in the mood for Characters who Return from the Dead: Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

Novels about reanimation of the deceased come in many shapes and sizes.  I love a good old zombie story, but one of my favorite “return from the dead” type stories is Pet Sematary.  

In Pet Sematary,  Doctor LouisCreed moves his family, including his wife Rachel, his two young children, Ellie and Gage, and Ellie’s cat Church, to a remote location near the University of Maine, where he’s accepted a job.  He befriends his neighbor, Jud, who warns him of the speeding trucks that litter the highway running in front of their home.  Louis’ family encounters immediate and continual trouble from the time they move, including the deaths of Church and then Gage, both killed on the highway by the speeding trucks.  When Church dies first, Jud tries to spare Ellie heartache by showing Louis how to bring the cat back to life.  But the resurrected Church is nothing like the cat he was before his death.  Despite the change, when Gage dies later, a heartbroken Louis exhumes Gage’s body and buries him in the same place he buried Church.  Gage also comes back and is nothing like his former self.  He murders Jud and his mom and plans to murder Louis.  

  • What is the protagonist’s core need? Louis needs to gain safety by overcoming his mistakes.  Louis messed up.  He only meant to save his daughter from heartache, but he unleashed an evil force that takes hold of his family.  If he can overcome his grief and accept death for what it is, he will not create any more monsters.  
  • How does the global life value of life to death to damnation progress in the story? Because Louis couldn’t accept the death of his child, he’s damned his entire family to a fate worse than death.  Death would be a mercy for Louis, and he wants to commit suicide.  But he can’t even do that until he takes care of the monster he created.
  • What is the core event? The Hero at the Mercy of the Monster Scene happens in Chapter 61 when Louis confronts Gage, but Gage is not the true Monster in the story.  It is the curse over the burial ground, the Wendigo, as it’s known.  There is a moment before this scene when Louis recognizes that it wasn’t stupidity that led him to bury Gage, it was grief.  The Wendigo feeds off of grief.  In that moment, he has clarity.  He’s acting rationally.    But, when he gets upstairs in Jud’s house and realizes he’s about to face his dead son, probably his dead wife, he feels himself losing his sanity.  He describes it as an “actual sensation” and compares it to the way “a tree overloaded with ice in a storm would feel” just before it fell.  The Wendigo, through his grief, is taking over again.  He’s able to use his special gift, his medical kit and knowledge of the drugs it contains, to kill the thing that has taken Gage’s body, but he has nothing that can fight the Wendigo.  After killing his son and spending who knows how long sobbing on the floor, Louis gets what he thinks is a great idea. He’s decided to bury his wife on Wendigo’s grounds.  And he truly believes that the outcome will be different this time.  The Wendigo won.
  • How does the story evoke the core emotion:  Louis facing the Wendigo evokes terror because even though he’s figured out how to stop giving the Monster power, he can’t.  He knows he gave the monster power in the first place by allowing his grief to overrule his sanity.  He knows he must kill his creation, or else it will follow him, maybe even come after Ellie.  But even if he does that, he won’t be able to fight back against the Wendigo. The moment plays on our fears that our actions are going to come back to haunt us in the most terrible way possible.  
  • How does it all fit together to make the story work?  Have you ever made a mistake you thought was so severe that the consequences were likely to destroy you? If you’ve ever gone down that road of thinking the worst possible outcome is inevitable because of something you did (or didn’t do) then you understand why the Wendigo terrifies Louis.  Because of his mistakes, his friend, son and wife are dead.  Death would be a mercy for Louis, but the monster does not let him die without using him one last time to give itself life, and make Louis guilty again, of imposing a fate worse than death on someone he loves.  

If you are in the mood to fight against an Alien Invasion:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney

Otherworldly beings overtaking Earth, or killing off humans with a power we can only imagine is terrifying because it feeds off of the unknown. We can’t even imagine all the ways Aliens can kill us.  One of the most terrifying of these encounters happens in Invasion of the Body S,natchers.  

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I’m discussing the novel here, but there are also film adaptations) another doctor, Miles Bennell, is saved from a monotonous evening by a former high school fling, Becky, concerned about her aunt. Becky’s aunt believes that her husband is not really her husband.  Something is off about him, even though he looks the same and appears to have the same memories.  When Miles has a conversation with Becky’s uncle, who he’s known for years, he can’t find any difference and kindly suggests that the aunt talk to a psychiatrist friend of his.  Oddly, he encounters a few more cases over the days that follow, similar to Becky’s aunt, and refers them out to the same psychologist, Mannie. One evening Miles and Becky are interrupted from their movie date by Jack, an old acquaintance. Jack and his wife found something in their basement they need him to see, and because he’s a doctor, they think he’s more likely to see the complexity of the situation and won’t rush to the authorities.  In Jack’s house they find a creature growing inside something similar to a seed pod.  The creature is almost human, but one that hasn’t fully formed.  As they investigate over the next few days, finding similar pods, they discover that the pods carry aliens that have drifted through space and landed on Earth.  The alien seeds grow in the pods and when placed near a sleeping human, begin to grow a replica of that human inside, killing off the actual human in the process.  Miles and Becky are eventually trapped by the aliens in Miles’s office, with two pods placed just outside his door.  They sit, unable to think of an escape plan, and wonder how long they can fight off sleep and the certain death it will bring upon them.  

  • What is the protagonist’s core need:  Miles needs to realize that the people in his town are changing and speak up to gain safety.  Through the first half of the story, he notices changes in his friends and neighbors, but doesn’t want to interfere with the privacy of others or take the time to investigate.  The longer he ignores what’s happening with the people around him, the more aliens he’ll have to fight off to live.  
  • How does the global life value of life to death to damnation progress in the story: The aliens not only want to kill Miles and his friends, they want to make inhuman copies of them as a means to move to the next town to kill everyone there and eventually, every human in the world. Not only will Miles die, but the aliens will use him to kill others.
  • What is the core event: The hero at the mercy of the monster scene spans chapters 18 and 19. By the time Miles and Becky confront the aliens, everyone in town except Jack and his wife have been replicated, including Mannie.   Miles and Becky are trapped in his office, and they are tired.  They’ve been running and hiding, trying to outwit the aliens for days.  They have no way out of the office, with the alien Mannie and several others waiting with the pods just outside the door, and the rest of the alien township blocking the street in front of his office window.  They know that they must eventually sleep, and when they do, they will die.  Forced to use his ingenuity, Miles comes up with a plan to substitute the real human skeletons his father gave him as a gift for graduating medical school to fool the aliens.  It works to surprise Mannie and his friends, giving Miles and Becky a few seconds to overpower them.  
  • How does the story evoke the core emotion:  Of all the people Miles knows, only three remain human.  His friends, neighbors, patients, all gone and replaced by fake replicas that want to kill him. The moment plays on our fears that no matter how well we think we know someone, we can never be sure, and that makes us feel isolated.  Miles and Becky are certainly isolated, as every other creature around them has a singular goal, to kill them and taken on their human appearance.
  • How does it all fit together to make the story work? Have you ever sat in a crowded room with your friends and wondered who they really are?  Or lay awake in bed next to the love of your life and wondered if he really loved you, or was counting down the days until he could make his escape to your favorite exotic location with the person he truly cares about?  Fear of getting left by the ones who love you, or of one day finding out none of your friends ever liked you – fear of isolation in other words, terrifies many people.  And it’s a fear that finds encouragement from a fact of life – we can never really know what someone else is thinking (maybe we can never even know if they are human and not an alien copy waiting for the right moment to make us one of them).  

Scary stories are fun to read in their own right.  But if you want to take it to the next level and use these masterworks to create your own horrific tale, here are some tips.

Tips to help you terrify: 

  1. Figure out a common fear that people experience (fear of failure, for example). Make coping with or overcoming that fear the core need of your protagonist.
  2. Create a Monster that deprives your protagonist of that core need.
  3. Come up with a scene where the Monster has the protagonist so deprived of that core need, he or she thinks death would be a mercy.  

I hope you find (or create) a novel that gets your heart pounding this scary season! 

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Renee Decker