Getting Scared to Write Horror!
Thee axe is sharp and the blade is keen
Creature features, spirits on your screen
Shadows fall, in all this gloom
You’re not safe
In the safety of your room
~ Nasty — The Damned
I had always written dark psychologically minded fiction, but when I decided to take the leap and write an actual, legitimate horror . . . I WAS STUMPED.
“How do you make people scared?” I asked my best friend. “Like . . . how?”
“Get scared,” was his reply.
Get. Scared. Gee, thanks. But actually, that was the key insight I needed. Of course, I didn’t realize it right away. I plodded along, writing what I knew, making the story I wanted to tell as tense and as dark as I could, but by the end of the first act, I knew it was . . . incomplete.
“It’s not terrifying enough!” I groaned.
“Put some creepy in,” he offered.
“Like how? I could make some doors creek? I could have a storm with winds buffeting windows? Ooh! Ooh! How about something under the bed?”
“Does that scare you?”
“Well . . . I love that stuff. So others will too, right?”
“Get scared. Tell me what scares you,” he said. And then he added: “That nightmare you told me about months ago, remember? The one where [removed for the sake of spoilers!].”
“Shutupshutupshutupshutup!!!!” I squealed. “What’s the matter with you???”
“There. Write that.”
And he walked away, grinning.
And that was the moment. I had to truly, honestly dig deep to get this book done. I knew exactly what I could do to make this book scary, but I wasn’t doing it, because, ironically, I was scared. Instead of using that fear as a tool at my disposal, I created an enemy out of it.
With horror, you need to be honest. If you’re not scared by your own words, why would anyone else be? It’s the same principle about loving your work.
This got me thinking about what I like to call method writing.
Actors use their own life experiences to give them depth of emotion in their performances. They do it so that we can transcend the limitations of the screen in front of us and suspend our disbelief. Some actors have even gone as far as becoming those characters, at least briefly.
Christian Bale lost an astounding amount of weight and drove himself near crazy for his role in The Machinist (SEE THIS FILM!), and Renée Zellweger gained weight and moved to another continent in order to prepare herself for her Bridget Jones role. Charlize Theron got so involved with her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster, that she gained 30lbs, watched documentary films about Wournos, read letters, learned how to move her face in a manner that was diametrically opposite to her natural features in order to get Wournos’s characteristic downturned mouth. What Theron said about the research:
“From the moment I started gaining weight I lived a very isolated life,” she recalls. “My boyfriend [Irish actor Stuart Townsend] was really the only one there watching the whole thing happen. I lived in sweatpants for five months because they were the only things I could fit into. “I was lucky enough to have a lot of footage of Aileen and I just watched it constantly. I watched her behaviour; I would spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, mimicking her, just trying to pick up maybe five things she kept doing constantly and trying to get comfortable with them.” — Sourced from here.
Actors have gone to these lengths for the authenticity of their art and craft, and as writers, we need to do the same. Now, I’m not saying that you have to become what your characters are (particularly if you’re writing about serial killers, like Barry Lyga), but you should be acquainted with your fear. And you certainly should be more than acquainted with your characters and their fears and reactions to fears.
I’ve admitted for years to my quirky little habit of keeping journals for periods of times as my characters. I write their thoughts and motives and feelings and the minutia of their lives in order to get insights into their heads. I wander around in their headspaces in order to become enlightened. To know their fears. Much—well, most—of these words don’t come anywhere near the actual book, but they give me a strong foundation and a good instinct. People may look back at my journals one day and think I was a mess of hot crazy, but I hope that my work may feel and be truly authentic. That maybe I can address genuine fear and put it across in an enjoyable and cathartic manner. So when I decided to embark on what I love, working within the horror genre, I knew that after learning as much as I could learn about technique, structure, pacing, etc, the only thing left was: to feel. To be. To do.
This particular book runs parallel to my own life, and was my companion through some pretty dark days. And until I used those things in my favor, they were just sitting around in my past, uselessly taking up space. But one comment (get scared) stuck, and I honed them—the fear, the anxiety, the suffering, but also the love, the hope and the reward—and I put it all in. Come what may.
And what emerged—scared me. And delighted me.
If you’re embarking on a journey into horror fiction, don’t be scared to get scared. Fear and tension and horror—all the nasty little things that frighten us in our lives—can be turned into the most amazing tools. Just ask Stephen King! I believe in an interview, he once said he was afraid of everything! Imagine that!
Hope you all had the most amazing Christmas, and from all of us here at the YA Scream Queens—BOO!