Rioters on Horror: What Makes a Scary Story Scary?

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Leila Roy

Staff Writer

After a lengthy stint as a children's bookseller, Leila Roy took a step sideways into the library world. There, she does the same thing she did as a bookseller—matching people with stories in any and all formats, whether print, audio, film, comic, or some newfangled hybrid—but doesn't have to deal with changing the tape on the cash register. She lives in Maine with her husband, where she runs her small-town library and occasionally tries to rescue wildlife from her cat, who is a murderer. In addition to talking books at her long-running blog, Bookshelves of Doom, she's a weekly columnist at Kirkus Reviews. Blog: Bookshelves of Doom Twitter: @bkshelvesofdoom

With the onset of Fall—and in October in particular—many Rioters are craving horror stories. But in recommending and discussing and raving and comparing, we discovered that every single one of us appears to have a different definition for what a horror story even IS—and what makes it scary to begin with.

Leila Roy

For me, it’s not so much about mood or pacing—some horror stories are spooky and slow-building and atmospheric, some horror stories are fast-paced and action-packed, some horror stories are funny, some horror stories are not. And even though haunted house stories are my very favorite kind of scary story, it’s not even so much about the presence of monsters or ghosts—for me, the horror comes from the terrible things people do to each other. (In Rosemary’s Baby, for instance, I find her husband’s betrayal waaaaaaay scarier than all of the Satan stuff.)

Daughters Unto Devils by Amy LukavicsBut what really gets me—what I think of as a true horror story—is a story that ends on some sort of down note, whether it’s because the protagonist isn’t safe (Nightmare on Elm Street), or is worse-off than before (Shutter), or the antagonist gets away (Halloween). Stephen King’s novella The Mist, for example, I don’t think of as true horror, because it ends on a hopeful note. The 2007 movie version, though, I see as horror. For me, a story can be as scary as all get-out, but if the protagonist gets an entirely happy ending, if I’m not left feeling vaguely unsettled, then it’s fun, it’s scary, but it’s not horrifying.

Generally, movies scare me way more than books do, but there are exceptions—the book Daughters Unto Devils, for example, scared me just as much as House of the Devil or Session 9, which are the movies that have, hands down, scared me to the point of feeling sick to my stomach.

Which begs the question… why do we do this to ourselves, again?

Jamie Canaves

I am the biggest chickensh*t you’ll ever meet. I have opened my door accidentally at the same time as my (insert any family member it’s happened with all) has been about to insert the key and every single time I have screamed bloody murder and slammed the door. I freak out when my friend leaves the Freddy Krueger song on my voicemail. This is all to say I’ve never been a fan of horror–at least not what I thought was horror which was terrorizing, bone-chilling, I’ll never sleep again after watching or reading that.

broken monsters by lauren beukesAnd then I read Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped BoxI liked the cover and downloaded it not knowing anything about it—and loved it. I wasn’t scared, not even a little bit, because apparently I don’t believe in ghosts but I do believe in Freddy Krueger. I liked it so much I instantly bought Horns and NOS4A2 (I will never remember that title). Great books, not scared! So when fellow Book Rioters were discussing what horror books/movies they had planned for October I jumped in like an annoyingly eager tag-along friend wanting to know more. It turns out I actually have read horror books, I just wasn’t aware they were labeled horror: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters (loved!); The Silent Girls by Eric Rickstad (thought it was a thriller); and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (thought it was a mystery).

I realized I like horror that doesn’t scare me (feel free to be appalled in the comments section) and I love campy-horror or comedy-horror movies like Teeth, Beetlejuice, Zombieland, and Little Shop of Horrors. So I’m looking for that in books and taking recs as I slowly inch my way through horror to see if I can be a big girl. I’m starting my October horror reads with Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due.

Kelly Jensen

Horror for me isn’t a genre. It’s a mood. Horror goes beyond being one type of book (or movie) and instead is about the feeling the story tries to elicit from the characters and/or reader. I can read a thriller and see it as a horror novel as much as I could read a super realistic novel and see the horror tones within it, even if it’s not necessarily seen as “horror.” Like Leila, I’m much less about the monster beyond and find the real chills for me come from the monsters within—people’s internal lives, their reactions, their motivations, their instincts. This is why my favorite horror novels are those which are psychologically driven, as well as those about ghosts, spirits, and haunted houses. I wish I could resist those terrible exorcism movies, knowing they’re almost always bad, but. . . I CAN’T.

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie AlenderI love female-driven horror. The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Kate Alender, which just came out, is such a fabulous one with an excellent feminist bent. Horror that’s so scary I need to take breaks also works wonders for me; the scariest book I ever read was Daniel Kraus’s Scowler, which I recommend to anyone who loves to have the piss scared out of them. I also really enjoy horror that’s funny. Joey Comeau does this perfectly in The Summer Is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved and in terms of movies, Jennifer’s Body and Teeth check those boxes for me.

But my favorite—absolute favorite—element in horror is atmosphere. The more atmospheric the better, which is why gothic horror really clicks for me. It’s also why I can say I enjoyed the Dan Rad rendition of The Woman in Black even though it chose an ending that ruined what Susan Hill did in the book (I loved that so much more).

While I prefer my endings open and horrifying and with a question that lingers in the mind of the reader/viewer and the characters, I’m okay with a solid resolution if it’s earned. Though I always think it’s ten times scarier and more realistic when you have a Black Christmas ending.

Sean-Patrick Burke

Across the road from the house I live in is deep forest. I’ve walked the overgrown logging trails, and have come upon wrecked remains of barns, house foundations, mills that were left to the elements. There are even the corpses of two cars from about the 1930s or ’40s. The horror I love the most is set in nature, exploring the woods that Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne warned early Americans about. New England was the first frontier for white people in North America, and the mixture of puritanical religion and distrust of the native population bore strange fruit. This took the form of the tempting devil, the wicked witch, the uncontrollable animal.

The first horror novel I recall reading was Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I was in third grade. At the time, my family had four horses, and for a while they ran through the dark forests of my dreams, undead, mouths foaming, teeth bared, hooves gouging the dirt, threatening, furious.

lair of the white worm by bram stokerI… liked it?

Being scared causes me a visceral reaction, and I’m a bit of an addict. I check Pumpkinrot’s blog year round, and every Father’s Day I make my wife roll her eyes with my Creepshow impression.

Stephen King was my gateway drug to H.P. Lovecraft. When I was fourteen I met Anne Rice and she lead me to finally reading Bram Stoker (and not just Dracula: if you haven’t read The Lair of the White Worm, or watched the 1988 film starring the Twelfth Doctor, please do so this October). Centuries of ghost stories and horror literature got me to read the King James Bible, the foundation of centuries of religious anxiety and the father of countless monsters.

When it comes down to it, horror, when done well, is a roller coaster, a walk in the dark woods, and a psychological expedition, contained in a book like a cenobite in a puzzle box. T.S. Eliot said in The Wasteland that he could show you fear in a handful of dust; good horror can show you fear in a handful of pages, and you’ll be glad to read it.

Susie Rodarme

For me, horror comes down to feelings: it can be straightforward terror, or that more indescribable sensation that blends fear with deep unease and dismay or disgust. (Or a humorous take on the former.) Successful horror for me usually has some element of the unknown; in House of Leaves, we don’t know what makes the house grow new rooms or even whether it’s real, and part of the horror of the story is that we never find out. We House of Leavesdon’t know how the heart keeps beating beneath the floorboards in The Tell-Tale Heart and that makes it horrifying; it should be quiet but it won’t and it’s maddening. There’s no real solution to these problems because they’re completely inexplicable. Even psychological horror often touches on a level of human evil that most of us have never experienced and can’t fully understand, even if we can put the pieces together intellectually. It’s the mystery that often takes stories from just being scary into true horror for me, which is why I don’t like horror remakes that try to give too much backstory (looking at you, Rob Zombie).

The element of the unknowable stays unknowable even if the story has a happy ending, so I’m not bothered by the ending of the story being resolved or not. The characters in the story may have a resolution, and the horror might even be defeated, but what of the mystery of the horror? If, for example, there is a creature that is killed—the creature had to come from somewhere, from something, that’s still out there. Perhaps closer than we imagine.

So, what about you? Is it the fear of the unknown? The tone? Creeping tension or out-of-nowhere shocks? Do you find books scarier, or movies? Ghosts or human beings? Unsolved mysteries, or things happening RIGHT NOW? Let us know in the comments, and do please recommend your favorites—we’re going through books and movies like popcorn over here.