What makes good horror?

As everyone in the Jackverse knows, I loves me some horror. I have since I was a child (thank you Sammy Terry). I should have known that passion for fright would lead me on a collision course with a career as a writer of horror. At the moment, I am knee-deep in the gore of working on a number of horrific projects, including:

  • Lie Zombie Lie (the fourth entry in the I Zombie series)
  • To Be Written (a horrific tale about an arrogant writer getting just what he deserves)
  • Lamentations of Madness (a theatrical script for Screampark in Lexington, Kentucky)

So I am quite consumed by the gaping maw of the macabre. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you my thoughts on exactly what makes for good horror. This could be applied to fiction, film, haunted houses, or some good ol’ ghost stories.

I want to preface this by saying — if you look at these as a set of rules, you must promise me you will break them. No rule should be left standing in the end.

1. A protagonist readers and viewers can care for. When I first came up with the idea for To Be Written, I built a protagonist that no-one could possibly like. He had zero redeeming qualities and everything that was about to happen to him, he deserved. That had to change, but I refused to change that character. I found a way around it (but I won’t give it away because the book is far from done) with the help of a second protagonist. The truth of the matter is this — if the audience can’t sympathize with your main character, your story is doomed.

2 Tension. This is tantamount to horror. You must build and build and build the tension of your story. Now don’t think, for a second, the tension has to be a long, gradual climb up a hill. Even in real life tension ebbs and flows. With an ebbing and flowing action you can create peaks and valleys that give your story arch a varying flow. At any given moment, you audience must feel like the life of the main character could be forfeit. Only briefly should give them a moment to pause and think everything is okay.

3 Evil. What is horror without evil? I’m not necessarily talking about Satan-level evil, but a good piece of horror needs to at least be touched by the tendrils of darkness. The audience wants this — to get a glimpse into the big bad. This is especially effective when evil is juxtaposed with good. Getting evil and good in the same bed together really makes people squirm.

4 Soiled beauty. I know…this one is strange, but stay with me. Beauty is one object that most associate with good. “She’s a lovely as an angel”, people are fond of saying. It’s when you take loveliness and drop the bomb of ruin onto it that people become uncomfortable. Like a Picasso painting with a water spot — that bit of ugly, smearing the lovely, should almost hurt. Naturally I’m talking both metaphor and literal beauty. Take a beautiful romance and destroy it with hate, a model’s body and consume it with a plague. Ruin anything that threatens to be wonderful. Well, not everything. Save something for the end.

5 HEAs are for pussies. Pardon my French there, but what better way to say, the “happily ever after” has no place in horror. Okay, maybe in Hollywood horror, HEAs have a pace — and a way of ruining a perfectly good fright fest. The only time an HEA is okay in horror is if you fuck it up right at the very end or make the HEA happen at the expense of something like someone’s soul or costing another a lifetime of damnation.

6 Pain and suffering. Someone has to hurt. Characters need to die. That is one tenet I hold very dearly. I am very fond of killing off characters people enjoy. Why? I don’t want anyone getting comfortable — readers or characters. When people get too comfortable, it means I’m not doing my job. To that end, people have to suffer. This suffering can be physical, mental, emotional, or even suffer to their souls.

There you have it — sex things that help make up good horror. What do you think? Did I miss something? Is there something you, as a reader, viewer, or writer feel is crucial to horror? If so, share it with us all on the Jackverse!