The Crucial Emotion of Horror

All fiction seeks to get the reader to identify with story characters. But there’s a special element of identification in horror fiction. In horror stories, the emotions of the reader should mirror those of the story characters in a certain way. Here’s how to recognize and employ this technique in your writing.Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll

In his dissertation, The Philosophy of Horror (Routledge, 1990), Noel Carroll claims that “…[T]he appropriate reactions to the monsters in question comprise shuddering, nausea, shrinking, paralysis, screaming and revulsion. …This mirroring-effect… is a key feature of the horror genre(p. 18).

Horrific Reactions

Here are some common character emotional and physical reactions to the horrific that Carroll points out:

  • breathlessness
  • chills
  • cringing
  • crying
  • dry mouth
  • frozenness
  • hair bristling
  • heightened alertness
  • increased respiration
  • involuntary screaming
  • momentary arrest
  • muscular contractions (tensing)
  • nausea
  • paralysis
  • racing heart
  • recoiling
  • shrinking
  • shuddering
  • sweating
  • tingling (spine-tingling)
  • trembling
  • urinating
  • being weak-kneed

Examples of Horrific Emotions

FrightenedIn Brian Keene’s Ghoul (Leisure, 2007), characters Pat and Karen are getting it on in a graveyard. (Note to reader: Bad idea.) When the monster arrives on the scene, we get these reactions:

Then the stench hit him. … It smelled like something rotting in an open grave. … Karen’s eyes grew wide, staring at something behind him. She screamed.

Without even describing the monster, Keene has encouraged reader identification with a nauseating smell. When Karen sees whatever it is behind Pat, her eyes go wide, prompting her to scream. So, without even describing “it,” we have the crucial emotion of horror displayed by character reaction. What your characters feel, your reader will feel.

From Scott Nicholson’s The Red Church (Pinnacle Books, 2002), little Ronnie and his brother are trying to escape a flying monster by heading into the dark woods. (Scared already, arent you?)

Something brushed his shoulder, and he bit back a shout. His body was electrified, sweat thick around his ankles and armpits and trickling down the ladder of his spine. The monster is going to get me.

Here we have the desire to scream, electrification, and sweating. All without seeing the monster. If your character is scared, so will be your reader.

And from my own The Sixth Seed (2011), we have the reaction of sweet six-year-old Emil who at first thinks he’s dreaming about being taken into a spaceship:

When he got real close, he noticed an opening like a door. Inside it stood some kids not much bigger than himself. Maybe as big as Whit. They looked like skeletons. Skeletons with big heads and bug eyes. They were looking at him, reaching out with their skinny arms and long fingers. One, two, three . . . three fingers and a thumb.

Emil barely felt the warm urine he released. It soaked his pajama pants and sprinkled down onto the backyard grass.

They reached for him, and all at once he thought he should be scared.

And then he was.

When the impure and threatening creatures reach for him, he wets himself—and his emotions catch up with his physical response. Scare the piss out of your character, and your reader will run for the bathroom.

Exercises for You to Practice

Print the previous bulleted list of horrific reactions so that you can use it as a checklist. Take three or four horror novels off your shelf and leaf through them, finding the places where your characters react in fear. Check off reactions from the list. Be sure to identify not only the explicit reactions, but ones that are implied. Which are most commonly used?

When you are writing a horror scene, stop to evaluate what your characters’ reactions might be. When crafting your character reactions, can you use ones that are not so commonplace? And your reactions must be tailored to your character; what scares one will not scare another. For instance, if your character is a herpetologist, she is not likely to react like a fashion model to a monster that is slimy or scaly. Put in the extra work, and find out what scares your characters as individuals. Your readers will break a sweat in fright—and love you for it.


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2 Responses to “The Crucial Emotion of Horror”

  1. Glenn Hefley Says:

    Agreed with all of your points. Horror lives in the emotion of fear and absolutely the reader must make a connection to the MC so that the threat becomes ‘real’ to her. My only suggestion is that before you can scare your reader through your character, you have to make an emotional connection between them.. the reader should be invested into the character’s well being. If the reader doesn’t care about the character, the ‘effect’ won’t be nearly as engaging. Take for example the Star Wars I character Anakin Skywalker (boy). The movie fails completely in giving us an emotional connection to this boy who works in a junk yard and is talented with machines. So, when he is in the race, which should have been much more thrilling than it was for the viewer, we are detached, not really caring if Anakin wins, loses, crashes, dies, burns or decides not to race.

    All the special effects and emotional descriptions are not going to be half as effective to the reader, no matter how skillfully employed, if the reader isn’t emotionally invested in the character experiencing them. Which is also why we don’t use secondary characters much for these descriptions either.

    Thanks for the article.. it was well done, and clarifying.


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