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.


Building Your Horrific Monster

What makes for an effective monster in a horror story? Noel Carroll in his dissertation, The Philosophy of Horror (Routledge, 1990), asserts that a proper monster must be both threatening and impure.

Broader scopes of fiction seek to induce fear in the reader. But Carroll states:Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll

…[T]he character’s emotional reaction to the monstrous in horror stories is not merely a matter of fear…. Rather, threat is compounded with revulsion, nausea, and disgust. …[T]he tendency in horror novels and stories [is] to describe monsters in terms of and to associate them with filth, decay, deterioration, slime, and so on. … The monster is not only lethal, but also disgusting. (p. 22)

Is Your Monster Threatening?

The monster in horror fiction must be threatening—physically, psychologically, socially, morally, spiritually—or all of the above. It must be able to hurt your body, your mind, your relationships, your conscience, or your soul.

If you’re working on a story of your own, consider the following exercises, helpful in the planning stage.

Build Your Threatening Monster

Describe how your monster is threatening to your characters in one of more of the following ways:

  • Physically
  • Psychologically
  • Socially
  • Morally
  • Spiritually

Is Your Monster Impure?

MonsterThe horror monster must also be impure. What do we consider impure? Anything that “violates the generally accepted schemes of cultural categorization.” We consider impure that which is categorically contradictory, such as:

  • The categorically ambiguous: amphibians (they both swim and hop, can exist both in water and out of water)
  • Incomplete representatives of their class: rotting things, things not fully formed, things with parts missing (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers)
  • Formless things: dirt, blobs, fog

Further Carroll categories of the categorically contradictory (what a horrific tongue twister!) include:

  • Fusion: Disparate entities fused into one stable being. Example: The spider-like erector-set creature with the bald, one-eyed doll’s head in Toy Story.
  • Fission: Disparate entities that change into and back from something horrible at different times (or a multiple figure being whose identities are opposite). Example: Werewolves and other shape-shifters. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Magnification: Enlargement. Example: Giant people, giant sharks (Jaws), giant animals.
  • Massification: Hordes. Unnaturally large numbers of something dangerous or relatively harmless. Example: Jellyfish in the movie Sphere. Birds. Rats. Locusts. Snakes. Spiders in Arachnophobia. Zombies. Vampires in I Am Legend.
  • Metonymy: Something not revolting in itself associated with things that are. Example: The rats and wolves that attend Dracula.

Build Your Impure Monster

Describe how your monster is impure in one or more of the following ways:

  • Categorically ambiguous
  • An incomplete representation of its class
  • Formless

Feed my babies... all my babies!List and describe how you could use any of the following techques to besmirch your monster:

  • Fusion (disparate entities fused into one stable being)
  • Fission (disparate entities that change at different times, or a multiple figure being whose identities are opposite)
  • Magnification (enlargement)
  • Massification (hordes of something dangerous or relatively harmless)
  • Metonymy (something not revolting in itself associated with things that are)

Fire Up the Tesla Coils!

To give life to your horrific monster, you must build it from the right parts. Your monster must be regarded as BOTH: 1) threatening, and 2) impure.

If it is only threatening, then the emotion is fear. If it is only impure, the emotion is disgust. But, if both, the emotion is horror! (p. 28)

We’ll talk more about the philosophy horror in future posts. You’ve been warned…