What Makes Something Scary? (Alissa Grosso)

Some years back when I worked for a small newspaper publisher, I was given the assignment of writing about a local haunted house. This was not an actual haunted house, but a Halloween attraction that a local fire company ran as an annual fundraiser. In order to write my story, I was given a private, guided tour of the haunted house. Unlike the paying customers I toured the house during the day, with the lights on. The creepy music had not yet been turned on and the volunteer actors whose job it was to pop out of coffins or materialize out of dark corners were not yet on duty. The result was that I could enjoy my tour and write my article without fear.

You probably aren't all that scared by this photo taken inside the haunted house thanks to the bright light and the lack of scary of music.

I don't really do scary. My boyfriend can attest that even in mildly suspenseful films I've been known to watch half the movie with my eyes closed or uncomfortably grip his arm during particularly tense sequences. Scary isn't my thing. If I hadn't been working for a newspaper, there's no way I would have toured the local haunted house, because there is no way I would walk around there in the dark with the spooky music going. That I was able to breeze through there painlessly during the daytime, shows that scariness requires just the right set up.

In a 2014 article, Mic.com showed 7 Iconic Horror Film Moments That Are Totally Normal Without the Sound. By using different YouTube clips of traditionally scary scenes and instructing readers to watch them both with and without sound, they showed how creepy music and sound effects have a huge impact on our perception of a scene. For example, here's a scene from Twilight Zone The Movie. Watch it without the sound first, and you'll see it isn't really that chilling, but it becomes much more tense and spooky when the volume gets turned on.


Of course, when it comes to creating scary stories and novels, we can't use the tricks of music and sound effects to spook our readers. So, how do we go about creating genuinely scary horror fiction? We can use the power of words to set the mood, describing a setting in a way that makes it seem dark and creepy, choosing words that highlight the ominous nature of things. You can unnerve your readers by giving them glimpses of the uncanny and bizarre.

And glimpses, may be the key to making things genuinely creepy. Sometimes the shadow just at the edge of one's vision or the predator we can only partially see from our hiding place, is far more terrifying than the monster described in minute detail. A hint of something untoward or just a bit off can make even ordinary settings or objects seem terrifying.

I still think one of the scariest works of fiction I ever read was The Langoliers by Stephen King. It's about people who survive a mysterious plane journey only to find themselves in an eery and empty world. These are ordinary passengers on an ordinary plane. It's not as if the world is teeming with zombies or other monsters. In fact the world is completely empty, which is what makes this such an unnerving and spooky story. With just a little twist, just a hint of wrongness the ordinary can become frightening.

Stephen King is considered a master of horror because he knows what can unnerve us. Perhaps more than a few of the creepy clowns out there were inspired by his novel It.

We've seen that in the real world this year with an outbreak of creepy clowns. While a small segment of the population has always suffered from coulrophobia or fear of clowns, this year because some folks dressed in clown costumes have appeared in unexpected places and acted vaguely menacing, clowns are creeping out a lot of people. In response, McDonalds has said they will limit appearances by their Ronald McDonald mascot and national chains like Target and Goodwill have said they will not sell clown masks this Halloween. My guess is there won't be a lot of parents hiring clowns for their children's birthday parties, either. Clowns, something normally associated with comedy and lighthearted jokes, have become the stuff of nightmares.

A certain amount of realism is needed to make a story scary. If the world and the creatures who inhabit it are too fantastical, it's not likely to spook readers. The story will entertain them, but it will not haunt them. Readers should feel like your story is real, even if they know it's a work of fiction. If things seem too over the top, if your description is too heavy-handed, you run the risk of creating the literary equivalent of Troll 2.

This cult classic movie is widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made, and is even the subject of the brilliant documentary, Best Worst Movie. It's supposed to be a horror movie, but a ridiculous and confusing premise, campy special effects and some comically bad performances makes the movie into an inadvertent comedy.

If you want to make your readers prickle with fear instead of roar with laughter, you're going to want to turn down the lights and strike up some scary music, at least metaphorically. Subtlety is your friend. Reveal details sparingly and keep things realistic and recognizable, just slightly off. Finally, borrow a trick from the fire company haunted house. Just when your audience is starting to get comfortable, lulled into complacency by the stuffed dummies that sit in chairs in dimly lit rooms, scare their pants off, by having one of those presumed dummies suddenly come to life and jump up from the chair. A well timed shock or twist, will get the pulses racing far more than pages and pages of heavy-handed description.

Alissa Grosso is too much of a scaredy cat to write horror, but she is the author of three mostly-unscary (really, it depends on what frightens you, but there are no creepy clowns!) YA novels Shallow Pond, Ferocity Summer and Popular. You can find out more about her and her books at alissagrosso.com