The Horror Genre: How to Scare Your Readers Silly

I’m a sucker for a good plot and an engaging atmosphere, and the horror genre has that in spades. And if I’ve been bullied into watching or reading a horror story, I’ve spent the night tossing and turning at night, afraid to sleep.

I hate horror stories for the effect that they have on my body and subconscious mind. It’s also why this genre is so good at what it does – frightening people.

And it’s such a popular genre. People, like my husband and sister, love watching horror films. They like feeling scared. I don’t get it personally, but I wanted to explore the genre to figure out why people love it so much. So let’s start our journey of what the genre is, shall we?

What is the Horror Genre?

Let’s start with our definition of horror:

Horror Genre: is a genre of fiction with the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its audience by inducing feelings of horror and terror.

The point of the horror genre is to elicit a fearful reaction for its audience. It’s about making the blood pump heavily through our veins as we cautiously turn over pages, hoping that the monster doesn’t devour someone else on the next page.

Horror has roots in religion, folklore, and history, focusing on topics, fears, and curiosities that have continuously bothered humans across time. It feeds on the audience’s deepest terrors by putting life’s most frightening and perplexing things—death, evil, supernatural powers or creatures, the afterlife, witchcraft—at the center of attention.

And of course, not all horror stories are the same, and there are many different ways to freak someone out.

The Horror Subgenres

Like every genre out there, the horror genre has many subcategories that whet all types of readers’ appetites. And to help us out here is a lovely infographic from Horror on Screen that outlines the genres and subgenres under the horror umbrella:

Infographic: horror genres and subgenres

The only thing that this chart doesn’t have is the themes and tropes that fall under each type of horror. So I did a little digging and found those tropes, themes, and conventions for us. Let’s look at the three main types of horror stories.

The 3 Types of Horror Stories

There are three main categories and subgenres of horror overlap with one another. And often, authors will blend them to create new monsters to scare their unsuspecting readers with. So let’s look at the three main horror subgenres:

Gothic Horror

Gothic horror, also known as Gothic fiction or Gothic fantasy, is a dark fiction style that combines horror and Romanticism. Its style combines Romantic literature’s artistic pleasures with the frightening horror elements, making it seductively and pleasingly terrifying.

Gothic horror stories are always mysterious and can contain supernatural elements. Examples include novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Supernatural Horror

This subgenre relies heavily on supernatural or paranormal elements to drive the story, featuring ghosts, monsters, demons, aliens, witchcraft, zombies, etc. The primary source of terror in supernatural horrors is the human reaction to the unknown, usually in the midst of a serious conflict—i.e., a haunting, a possession, an invasion, a curse or omen, etc.

Non-Supernatural Horror

This work of fiction that does not include supernatural elements. The terror of non-supernatural horror comes from the idea that what is happening in the story could plausibly occur in real life—usually involving the possibility of death—making it the ideal style for frightening crime or mystery stories. Your antagonist is going to be either a natural disaster, an animal, or a human.

The History of Horror

Horror has been around since humans could communicate these stories to others. And many of these tales pose as cautionary tales for the next generation. For example, don’t walk in the woods at night; a pack of wolves will eat you.

They’re also used to explain the inexplicable. For instance, we didn’t sacrifice Sasha to the Gods and now have a bad crop due to a lack of rain.

These stories are firmly entrenched in our folklore regardless of where and when. Horror is also very tropic, and numerous conventions exist in traditional stories and films today.

I’m going to split the history of horror up into literature and film. They’re both important to the genre. We’re going to start with the literature first. It does predate the history of horror films.

Horror in literature

The horror genre had its roots in the first Inquisition in 1235. In 1235, the Vatican was losing power over their followers and issued an order to reestablish the faith’s orthodoxy. Unfortunately, it led to heresy and allegations of witchcraft, which we all know doesn’t end well for many innocent people.

We also see the influence of religion emerge in the literature with a vengeance. Most of the focus was on the evils of Satan. We have Dante publish his Divine Comedy, Inferno, in 1309. His work remained popular until John Milton published Paradise Lost in 1667.

In the 1500s, religion plays out in more gory terms in plays such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600) and Macbeth (1605). These were plays that included death as a punishment for dabbling with the supernatural.

The Rise of the Gothic Novel

However, the Inquisition isn’t the official starting point for the genre. It starts with the rise of the Gothic.

In 1714, we had the rise of the Graveyard Poets with the publishing of Thomas Parnell’s A Night-Piece on Death. Other group members include Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, James MacPherson, Robert Blair, and Thomas Chatterton. Their work primarily focused on death and mortality and became the forerunner of the Gothic novel.

Gothic Horror: refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. These emotions can include fear and suspense.

This subgenre of horror is what sparked it all. It originated from the time’s art and architecture, which was dark, decaying, and dismal. The settings of these types of novels and stories took place in old, dilapidated buildings or in gloomy, lifeless, fear-inspiring landscapes.

Image result for horace walpole the castle of otranto

In 1765, Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel. It sparked the imaginations of other influential Gothic writers, such as Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and Charles Brockden Brown. It also significantly impacted writers like Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and countless others.

Science Fiction Makes a Mark

However, Gothic horror would take another turn in 1816, when Mary Shelley was in Geneva with her husband and a family friend. During this time, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (published in 1818) and created science fiction.

Frankenstein By Mary Shelley is the first science-fiction-fantasy-horror novel.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, in the newly-formed US, we have Edgar Allen Poe contributing to the Gothic with some of his more disturbing short stories, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Poe is also the founder of the detective novel.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution changed everything, including our literature. So, it’s not a stretch to see that it would influence the horror genre.

The Industrial Revolution sparked a rise in literacy and overcrowded cities, and many people used literature as an escape from the realities of everyday life. Enter the Penny Dreadfuls, a cheap book that offered visceral and gory thrills.

A famous example is Thomas Prest’s publication of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber (initially The String of Pearls) in 1847. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, and George Reynold’s Wagner the Werewolf, was published in 1846.

Sweeney Todd Gif (Horror Musical)

Horror at the Turn of the Century

Closer to the turn of the century, Victorian ideals were more ingrained into society, and crime and violence were rising. It led to an exploration of individual morality and whether or not you could count on others’ goodness.

It was an anxious time, and work like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885) was poised for instant success. Three years after this, Jack the Ripper was making an appearance in London’s streets, giving more credence to the “trust no one” motif.

In France, we see plays full of violence, murder, rape, suicide, ghostly apparitions, and authors such as Charles Baudelaire, Joris Karl Huysmans, and Guy de Maupassant make a splash with their stories.

Ambrose Bierce published Can Such Things Be? in 1893. The collection of ghost stories followed his gritty war stories, bringing ghosts into modernity. H.G. Wells would go a step further in 1898; War of the Worlds took horror into the future by blending horror and science fiction.

Occult Horror

The short story has also taken over the horror novel, and occult horror makes a full appearance with publishing the short story “The Willow” in 1907 by Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society created by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers in 1888.

The organization was home to many prominent writers, from the infamous Aleister Crowley to William Butler Yeats, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Sax Rohmer. Members of the Order were responsible for most of the weird and horror fiction produced in the UK at the time.

Their work also marked the end of an era for horror; soon after, the genre’s popularity would fade, not to reemerge in Britain until James Herbert and Clive Barker began publishing horror in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Golden D awn (Horror Novel)

America’s Southern Gothic & The Great Depression

In America, however, horror was flourishing. In 1923, Weird Tales was established as a horror genre magazine. It was in print for 32 years but didn’t turn a profit during that time. They did feature authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury.

We also get the rise of the Southern Gothic in the US, with William Faulkner publishing his “A Rose for Emily” in 1930.

Southern Gothic: is a genre of Southern writing. The stories often focus on grotesque themes. While it may include supernatural elements, it mainly focuses on damaged, even delusional characters.

The Great Depression made the fascination with horror even more popular in the US, but soon the real horrors of World War II overshadowed the fictional ones. Like Bradbury, authors did continue writing during this time, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that horror gained momentum.

1950s Horror

Richard Matheson’s published I Am Legend in 1954, and was the first modern vampire novel, while Shirley Jackson’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959) remains one of the most critically acclaimed genre novels of the past sixty years.

In 1957, we had the arrest of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer, for the murder of Bernice Worden. Well, they found out that Ed was digging people up and committing acts of cannibalism. This event finally put the serial killer archetype into the literature and helped inspire the Hannibal Lecter Series by Thomas Harris.

The Cold War to Present

The Cold War had ushered in a new age of paranoia and fear of invasion. These fears were realized in works like Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby (1967). It was the first prominent work of speculative fiction. It also marked a shift back towards the novel as the preferred form for horror writers.

The 1970s saw a deluge of horror novels, starting with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and perhaps epitomized by Stephen King’s Carrie (1974). Peter Benchley published Jaws in 1975, which was a true coming of age for the modern monster tale. Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976, bringing new life and direction to vampire fiction.

jaws gif (Jaws is a a horror film)

In recent years, the archetypes of vampires, werewolves, and zombies have dominated the horror genre. The 1990s was a time of compromise and self-consciousness for the genre. R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series was the publishing phenomenon of the decade. Stephen King is still scaring us, and the genre continues to grow and develop.

Horror in film

Instead of making this a 4,000-word-long post, I thought I’d let you watch this video instead. It contains a brief history of the horror genre in the film industry.

Horror films wouldn’t exist today without the literature that comes before it. I believe that the horror film would’ve developed at some point, but the novels and short stories that came before made it a success.

How to Write a Chill-Inducing Horror Novel

The best horror stories force the reader to turn the pages with growing dread and prickling anxiety. These tales make the reader feel terrifyingly alone and ask how much control humans have over their fate.

So let’s look at how to successfully achieve fear and believability when crafting tales of terror, especially those with monstrous antagonists.

Check out established horror writers.

I say this a lot, but I’m going to repeat it. Please read other books and short stories from the genre. Doing this gives you an idea of what works, what tropes and archetypes are popular, and inspiration for your tale.

Oh, and reading around means you should also check out anything that Stephen King has published on writing horror. He’s a best-selling horror writer for a reason, and he has some tips that will help you with your story.

Know your reader’s fears.

You need to know who your audience is for this genre. What scares people can differ between age groups and their demographics. For example, what scares a five-year-old will not scare an adult. The same goes for someone living in the boonies versus someone living in the middle of a city.

And the best way to figure out what scares people is to do some research. Check out Google, but you can also poll your friends for inspiration or write about your fears.

And you can get some bonus points for including several fears into one monster. That way, you can play into more reader’s fears, making it a satisfying read for multiple readers. This also gives you the added benefit of making your monster more terrifying.

Stephen King’s It is an excellent example of playing into people’s fears. The clown isn’t precisely scary on his own, but he embodies the protagonist and secondary characters’ fears, making him more frightening.

giphy-downsized (3).gif

Character development and motivation.

To keep your readers guessing, you need to take a common fear and then build upon it somehow. C. M. Humphries has some excellent advice on how to do this. For example, we need to develop different ways to expand on someone’s fear in a way that they may not expect.

And character development extends to motivation for your characters, including your antagonist. So make sure you take some time to flesh out the motives of your hero and villain.

If you fail to do either of these things, you could shatter your reader’s suspension of belief, and we don’t want that to happen.

Use the element of surprise.

To keep your readers guessing, you need to take an ordinary fear and then build upon it somehow. C. M. Humphries has some excellent advice on how to do this. For example, we need to come up with different ways to expand on someone’s fear in a way that they may not expect.

Another way to throw your readers off is by introducing something they least expect in your story, like humor. It can be as simple as taking an established trope and tweaking it slightly. For example, Jonathan Rosen took common vampire lore, like garlic, and twisted it slightly for comedic effect.

The added benefit of twisting a trope is that humor breaks your tale’s tension for a second and allows your villain to sneak up behind everyone for a big surprise.

Suspense and jump scares in horror.

You have to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. Drawing in your readers helps you scare them and makes them invest in the story and characters.

Thankfully, you can add suspense to your story in a couple of ways. You can hint at something terrible happening and have some “near misses” where the character could get it, but the threat doesn’t materialize. Regardless of which way you go, you want to build on your characters’ fears and want these scares to be unexpectedly expected.

The other way you can heighten suspense is by making sure your monster has the upper hand. You want them to be hard to beat, so your reader won’t know if the protagonist survives or not.

And go easy on the jump scares. You can and should use them but do so in moderation. Readers will become wise to the jump scare formula you’re using and may stop reading because of it. Remember, use moderation.

Add some mystery

Your characters should be trying to figure out what is going on. Your story will have elements that take it out of what is considered normal. It’s only natural for them to want to figure out why all these weird things are happening to them.

This also extends to your characters. You can choose to hold back vital information about them from your readers before revealing them at a more pivotal moment. Again, this helps build suspense in your novel.

Foreshadowing is your friend.

Foreshadowing can help build positive anticipation for surprises and suspense. That’s because we’re hinting at something to come at some point in the story. And that keeps your readers turning the pages to find out when.

Use the core elements of tragedy.

Tragedy is born through character flaws, bad choices, and grave missteps. In the few times I have been forced to watch horror films, I have yelled at the TV screen because the main character(s) were about to do something profoundly stupid, like going into the dark forest alone or check out the creepy noise in the basement.

horror uses the elements of tragedy.

The horror genre is all about playing on the fears of our readers. It seems like a dirty thing to do, but it’s what they want. They want to be at the edge of their seat and afraid to shut the lights off as they settle in for a restless night.

And we can give them this feeling by figuring out what they are afraid of and then playing into those fears. We then heap layers of suspense, foreshadowing, and jump scares in there until they’re screaming at the book in their hands.

Mostly because our hero is doing something stupid, like hiding in a haunted house, but we’re hoping they will come out of this situation alive.

So have a spooktacular Halloween this year, and all-year-round, you know, if you like that kind of thing.

If you like horror, why does it appeal to you? What’s your favorite horror story?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


13 Responses

  1. This is quite an extensive post!
    I think the most effective horror story is the one that prompts the audience to ⭐imagine⭐ what will happen. Make them build up their fear, while not giving the clencher away.

      1. Let them see the dead bodies. Lead them to think – through the eyes of the victims who aren’t dead – of what could happen to them .

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