Horror in Literature: Capturing Fear with Only Words

Emotion is at the core of any good piece of literature. Be it a sense of awe, adventure, joy, sorrow, or rage, a truly good story will invoke feelings within the reader. If it doesn’t make you feel anything, then what exactly is the point?

Some feelings, however, are more difficult to capture than others. And among the most challenging of them all is an emotion central to a very popular genre: fear.

Horror is one of the most popular genres of fiction in the world. Understandably so; there’s a certain thrill to being scared. An excitement that comes with feeling your heart speed up, with the dread that twists your stomach into knots, with the tingling sensation of all your hairs standing up on end. Then, once that tension is released, there’s a sense of euphoria to the return to calm as a sense of ease and relief washes over you.

Like comedy, fear is a subjective thing. What frightens one person might be laughable to another. Just look at clowns; many people are terrified of them, yet they’re still a mainstay in circus entertainment. The same applies to stuff like guns or knives.

Still, that isn’t that hard of a hurdle to leap. Like comedy, and writing in general, you write what works for you and hope it connects with people. The far greater challenge is creating the necessary atmosphere and sense of dread using only written words.

Horror films and games are popular because they’re an experience that plays to most of your senses. They have the added advantage of visuals, music, and sound design, all of which can create an atmosphere of tension and worry with ease. Video games also have the added layer of interactiveness, increasing the audience’s engagement with the fear even further.

But with literature? You’ve got to do all that legwork using only your words. You can’t rely on cheap tricks like jump scares or creepy violins. If you want to send shivers down your reader’s spine, you’ve got to earn it.

There are plenty of great books that manage to do just that. ‘Metro 2033’, for example, manages to create a fantastic sense of claustrophobia in its world, complemented by the fear of the unknown held within each tunnel our protagonist dives into and how every other person you meet seems unhinged from one degree to another.

If you want an example of good writing for horror outside of actual horror literature, just look at the first ‘Mistborn’ series and the Inquisitors. These monsters stand out when compared to the rest of those books. They’re grotesque, mysterious, and more dangerous than just about everything else in the world. You know they can perform all kinds of brutality and cruelty in any given scene and they would delight in every second of it. As such, every scene with an Inquisitor in it is immediately filled with tension; just the idea that it might attack is terrifying!

A good chunk of Stephen King’s works manages to create similar feelings of fear and anxiety. They don’t work for me personally, but you can’t deny the man saw results. Stories like ‘The Shining’ and ‘It’ managed to captivate and terrify audiences everywhere well before the movie adaptations ever did.

Even if the overall stories are still mediocre at best, fight me Stephen King fans.

Fear is an interesting emotion to write about. It’s incredibly difficult to get it right, but if you can manage it, it can make for some truly remarkable literature. Whether the whole story is out to frighten the reader or you just want one scene, it can be an incredibly powerful addition to a narrative.

If only I weren’t terrible at it. Over ten years of writing practice and I still can’t even make a reader sweat…


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