The structure of horror fiction

I want to try my hand at writing a psychological horror story. With a UFO. I don’t know about you, but UFOs smack of that Otherness that everybody from the Exorcist to Lovecraft have tapped into. We see things we can’t explain–especially those UFOs that change shapes or break into bits and fly in different directions.

So I started researching the structure of the horror story. I mean the thriller kind–not the splatterpunk Hollywood is so fond of. I’ve found some interesting things.

Horror story formula, from Chillers and Thrillers:

I. General Horror Formula

A series of bizarre, seemingly unrelated incidents occurs.
The protagonist (and, sometimes, his or her friends or associates) discover the cause of the incidents (often, it is a monster).
Using their newfound knowledge, they end the bizarre incidents (perhaps by killing the monster).

Examples: It, Summer of Night, The Exorcist

Some very helpful advice regarding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fears, from the Thrill of Fear blog:

1 Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
2 Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
3 Belongingness and Love needs – work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
4 Esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
5 Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

It follows that humans’ fears are directly related to their needs. Fear of pain is the fear of not being able to fulfill our Physiological needs. Fear of public speaking is a mixture of our fear of losing our current Self-Esteem, not being loved, or losing out feeling of belonging.

With every monster and scary situation, look at it in terms of what needs it threatens. A possessed house? Considering we need shelter, and on a lesser level need safety and stability, this can be a scary prospect. Possessed daughter? That threatens our need for family and affection.

But I wanted to know how folks like Lovecraft did it. Fortunately, I found his formula pretty easily.

From Byzantine Reality:

Lovecraft tends to follow a fairly predictable formula in his works, which goes something like this:

Protagonist is a rational person who thinks spiritual things are silly
Protagonist is volunteered to investigate the bizarre happenings of a town and help the inhabitants overcome their irrational fears
Protagonist learns that there is indeed something spooky going on
Protagonist sees a glimpse of the true horrifying nature of reality, driving him insane

Then I tried looking up Arthur Machen’s horror (the guy who Lovecraft ripped off wholesale, and who was also a committed Anglican and worked his faith into his horror). Funny, not as many people talk about him. No idea why, because I’ve read some of his stories and they’re every bit as intellectually creepy as Lovecraft’s.

Along the way, I found an interesting breakdown of atheist horror and Christian horror.

So, I have here the basic information to write a horror story. But it’s a vast topic. Mostly, to write really good creepy stuff, you have to dig down into those places inside you that give you the shivers. It’s why the Weeping Angels and the Silence from Doctor Who are so iconic. Weeping Angels–don’t blink or it’ll get you! The Silence–you forget them as soon as you look away, even if it’s coming to kill you.

Obviously I’m new to horror, though. Anybody have any other resources or add, or advice in general?


3 thoughts on “The structure of horror fiction

  1. Oy, I can’t do psycho thrillers. It’s just too much for my poor little brain to absorb without having to keep on all the lights in the house. But it would be cool if you could wiggle your way into that genre!


    1. Well, they say to try to write outside your comfort zone. I’m approaching it like a math problem, hence my interest in formulas. Does x and y make z? I feel like I have the pieces, I just need to put them together.


  2. Yay, Christian horror. There was a time when I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

    Arthur Machen’s stories are pretty good; I had to look him up to remember who he was, but I definitely remember The Red Hand, The Novel of the Black Seal, and maybe one or two others. I don’t rate him at exactly the same level as Lovecraft, not because his storytelling isn’t good, but because of the subject (“fairies and guys with axes OMG!” just doesn’t hit the same nerve for me, I dunno) and because they can be just a bit harder to follow due to his writing style. I seem to recall some tediously long sentences and paragraphs, and some sections of dialogue where I had to go back and re-read a block two or three times just to figure out who is saying what. Confusion does detract a lot from suspense.

    One of the best “fear types” I’ve found in fiction is isolation… there’s a “social need” too which isn’t exactly covered, but ranks there above the crappy “self esteem” one (I get what the lady’s trying to say but there are better ways to explain good writing than psychology). Humans are extremely social, and that easily factors into horror.

    I remember someone pointing out once that puppies, kittens and toddlers react to threats in three ways: puppies act appeasing, kittens act fearsome, and toddlers cry for a parent. We’re hard-wired to look for support when in danger, and paranoia can skyrocket when we don’t think we have “backup” on hand. Most of Lovecraft’s stories tap into that to some degree, few as well as “At The Mountains of Madness”–but it will work anywhere, not just the Antarctic. Several of Stephen King’s stories are examples too… in “The Langoliers” the characters are separated from the rest of the world. In “Tommyknockers” the protagonist is in an isolated town full of crazy people–not alone strictly speaking, but that’s almost worse because he can’t trust anyone. In other stories the person just won’t be believed, or can’t tell others about their own problems without putting more people in danger (eg. Slenderman).

    Also: a lot of “soft” horror writers make the mistake of trying to end their story with the perfect “happily ever after”. There’s nothing wrong with a horror story having a good ending, but the way that ending is handled is one of the things that defines horror; if everything goes back to being hunky dory and it’s like the bad stuff never happened, you’re essentially sidestepping a part of what horror is. A lot of movies have these perfect endings where everyone breathes a sigh of relief and gets right on with their lives, but real life isn’t like that. If you get into a situation that really terrifies you, it’s going to impact you mentally even if you were able to buck up and deal with it at the time, and even if there is no real physical threat still lurking out there. It’s especially true when so many horror stories deal with everyday human beings, and not your stereotyped “action heroes”. Consider how people cope with the psychological shock of more mundane, human-caused events like robberies, car accidents, etc.

    Sometimes I feel like Christian writers are expected to “pull their punches”, too, and that’s one of the reasons people don’t write more Christian horror (not based on books or reviews, but on what I’ve heard people say; some people really don’t appreciate the idea of a Christian who likes horror). One can say that it isn’t logical for a Christian to want to be afraid, or want to be titillated by it, so liking horror is inappropriate… but ANY book or movie with suspense gives you that little tingle of fear/excitement, so unless you rule out all stories with drama or suspense… the genre itself isn’t the problem. No, we don’t live in the world envisioned by Lovecraft, where cosmic horror reigns and there is no higher power out there except godlike alien bullies who think of us as insects. But bad things still happen. There are serial killers, people die, people get in accidents, natural disasters happen, some animals are really scary, etc. We live in a horrific world. The only difference is that it isn’t a hopeless one. Even tarnished victories (like the protagonist’s fate in “Tommyknockers”) are still victories.


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