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What Is a Horror Story?
Horror is a genre within creative writing that relies on one thing: instilling a sense of fear in the reader. The celebrated twentieth-century horror fiction author H.P. Lovecraft most famously remarked: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
What Are the Origins of the Horror Genre?
The horror genre stretches back to the beginnings of verbal storytelling traditions in ancient Greece and Rome, where religion provided ample fodder for all terrifying and bad things. More often than not, these stories were metaphors for the evils of society. (And indeed, a lot of modern horror fiction continues to serve this purpose.)
Common subjects included:
- Death and the afterlife
What Is Gothic Horror?
In the eighteenth century, Gothic horror popularized the genre to the reading masses, introducing werewolves, women locked alone in castles and other terrible predicaments focused on the supernatural. But it’s not really until the nineteenth century that the genre really took off, characterized by an explosion of rich, textured, and innovative horror stories that laid the groundwork for the genre’s modern beginnings. The big hits of the era include:
- The Brothers Grimm’s Hänsel und Gretel (1812)
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)
- Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)
- Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)
- The collective works of Edgar Allan Poe
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
- Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
- H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897)
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)
Horror Stories in the Modern Age
In the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft pioneered cosmic horror, while serial killers began their long and popular run with the likes of Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) and pretty much every book that was based on the Manson family murders in the ’70s. Then came Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981) and, finally, the master of modern-day horror fiction, Stephen King, whose popular novels and short stories inspired a new generation of writers.
In the modern young adult market, Robert Lawrence Stine, better known as R.L. Stine, is one of the most recognized authors of children’s horror novels alive today. He’s been called “the Stephen King of children’s literature,” and has penned more than 300 books for kids aged 7-15 years old.
The Four Essential Components of a Good Horror Story
- Fear. This might seem obvious, but creating something that is truly terrifying (for an adult reader, at least) is harder than it sounds. Of course, though we all fear different things, the trick to a really effective horror story is creating fear out of something that readers would never have suspected to elicit that kind of reaction. Stephen King’s It (1986) is a great example. Before reading the book, you might not have had any kind of trouble with clowns. Might have even found them endearing. But Pennywise the clown changed that for a lot of people.
- Revulsion. A really good horror story can also make people feel disgust, too—look no further than the success of franchises like Saw to see how the gross-out factor works.
- Surprise. When we are faced with a concept or idea we have never encountered before, we struggle to comprehend what is before us. One of the typical first reactions to the unknown is fear. This is why introducing surprising, unbelievable elements in a horror story works so well to instill fear in readers.
- Terror. A step up from fear, true terror combines all three elements above and adds one final, very potent ingredient: your imagination. The mere suggestion of evil can sometimes be all it takes to create a truly terrifying portrayal in someone’s mind.
How to Write a Horror Story for Young Adults or Children
Writing horror for a young audience has one key difference from writing horror for adults: a happy ending is essential. Children’s horror books are supposed to be like rollercoasters— frightening, but with an understanding that everything will be OK in the end. As R.L. Stine has said: “They’ve been through all these monsters and horrible things, and they’ve been chased, and they have had all these creepy, terrible adventures. They want relief from it.”
Here are a few other guidelines for writing horror stories for young adults or children:
- Create a good plot. Some of the best young adult horror stories read more like adventure novels. Most children’s adventure stories have a similar plot structure: A group of kids are placed in danger, and they need to find a way to safety. However, someone (or something) is trying to prevent them from completing their “mission,” whatever that may be. The book is about the kids using their wits to complete their mission—this is plot-driven storytelling in its most basic form.
- Invent interesting, relatable characters. The best way to create fun, engaging characters that young readers will relate to is to ask questions and write down your answers. For example, is there a monster in the story? If so, what is it? What does it look like? Who is the villain? The main character? What’s the story’s major conflict? In what kind of situations will your characters land themselves, and how will they get back to safety?
- Instill a sense of fun. A young adult horror story needs to be fun to read. The kids in the book should be funny, as should the conflicts they face. Technically speaking, you want to write short chapters full of easy-to-read words. Give younger audiences fast-paced, plot-driven stories that are full of cliffhangers. They’ll feel much more inclined to read your books.
- Add tons of twists and cliffhangers. A cliffhanger is a device that compels readers to find out what happens next in a story. Writing great cliffhangers is key to making your book a page-turner and it’s one of the easiest ways to make your writing more suspenseful. Small twists and turns are also a good idea to maintain a playfully spooky atmosphere and keep young readers engaged by directing them away from what they might think the ending will be.
From Halloween to high school prom, anything can serve as the inspiration for a good horror story. Try your hand at writing your own with our list of horror story prompts.