The Element of Fear
There is not a single self-respecting horror writer who doesn’t have at least a rudimentary understanding of the element of fear. I’m not just talking about graphic gore or general creepiness, I’m referring to the psychological aspect of fear that is an essential part of all horror. It is a focus on that element that can transform startling to downright bone-chilling.
Some people consider the “gross-out” factor the most significant part of horror, or even the air of evil, but if you look at the true masters of the horror genre, their expertise lies in their methods of building suspense and tapping into the more deep-rooted fears of the reader. The most common type of fear you’ll find in horror is the universal fear of death, be it a fear of dying, perhaps at the hands of a serial killer or the claws of some terrible monster, or the fear of things already dead, like ghosts, ghouls or zombies (my favourite, and something you’ll find in several of my published tales). These often tie in easily with the element of gore and shock value, so they tend to be the fears that most novice writer will use.
The more creative tales dig a little deeper, and target other basic fears, common but not all pervasive – claustrophobia, being trapped in a confined space, maybe being buried alive as one possibility, is a situation you might expect to find, fearing heights is another, and fearing for the safety of your loved ones rather than your own personal safety (I used this fear in my story “Silence in the Court”, which appears in May December Publications’ anthology Say Goodnight to the Bad Guy) is another. The majority of readers can relate to these fears and they are fairly easy to introduce into a believable plot.
The stories I find really intriguing are the ones that play off of the more unusual phobias: a fear of clowns, for example, or a fear of the water. These are selective individual fears, and incorporating them into a horror story is more of a challenge because even if the reader does not fear these things him or herself, you need to draw them into that mindset and have them share in the protagonist’s terror. It can be done, and done well, but it’s a tricky endeavour. You have to get under the character’s skin and into their head. You need to make someone who wouldn’t normally fear those things see what would frighten someone who is subject to the phobia. I’ve been trying to capture that feeling in one of my short stories, Driven (I have an excerpt from the story on my Scribd.com account, chantal_boudreau) that explores a scenario from the perspective of a woman afraid of driving who is caught in a traffic jam.
The point is that the element of fear is relative, and the horror writer can either take an easier route and choose a fear common to all, or go with something more obscure and have to work to make it real for the reader. Personally, I like a challenge, so I’ll be trying to write more tales like Driven, and hopefully I can make them just as scary as my others. What puts the fear in you?
Chantal Boudreau is an accountant by day and an author/illustrator during evenings and weekends, who lives by the ocean in beautiful Nova Scotia, Canada with her husband and two children. In addition to being a CMA-MBA, she has a BA with a major in English from Dalhousie University. A member of the Horror Writers Association, she writes and illustrates predominantly horror, dark fantasy and fantasy and has had several of her short stories published, including her tales “Palliative,” “Just Another Day,” “Waking the Dead,” “Silence in the Court,” “What a Man’s Gotta Do,” “Dry Heat,” all appearing in horror anthologies, her paranormal fable, “The Ghost in the Mirror,” and her novelette “Shear Terror”. Fervor, her debut novel, a dystopian science fantasy tale, was released in March of 2011 by May December Publications (MDP). Other releases contracted for this year include her novel, Magic University, the first in her fantasy series, Masters & Renegades, to be released in September, and her monster horror tale, “The Lure” that will be appearing in MDP’s anthology Midnight Movie Creature Feature. Check out her podcast tale, “Rats!” on horroraddicts.net, part of the Wicked Women Writers challenge – listen to all of the stories and vote for your favourite before August 1.