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This week: Secrets of Psychological HorrorEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about writing Psychological Horror.
“A lot of modern horror can leave me cold, and I'm not good with blood and gore and all that stuff. It's not fun for me. There's nothing entertaining about watching a film like that.”
~ Daniel Radcliffe
“Ghost stories really scare me. I have such a big imagination that after I watch a horror movie like 'The Grudge', I look in the corners of my room for the next two days.”
~ Vanessa Hudgens
“Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.”
~ H.P. Lovecraft
“I don't share lots of the phobias that horror movies tap into. I don't mind spiders or snakes or darkness.”
~ Helen Mirren
Thanks to dejavu_BIG computerprobs and Lornda
for suggesting a newsletter on non-gory Psychological Horror.
This newsletter is dedicated to them, along with my thanks,
and Merit Badges are heading their way!
Secrets of Psychological Horror
What is Psychological Horror?
Psychological Horror is a subgenre of horror that unnerves the reader by exploring psychological and emotional fears common to everyone. The characters face challenges like having to interview a cannibalistic serial killer (Silence of the Lambs), being stuck in a hotel with a person who might be crazy (The Shining and Psycho), or moving into an old house with only one rule: don’t open the locked door (Burnt Offerings). The scariness doesn’t have to come from what actually happens, but what the character thinks will happen , so inner thoughts play an important part when writing this kind of horror.
Psychological horror generally involves situations with human enemies (not monsters or aliens). However, the character’s personality type (nervous, insecure, fearful) and their backstory (a past trauma, physical disability, or mental instability) may make the character see threats that aren’t there -- the line between dreamed threats and real threats can blur.
The Perfect Example:
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967) (and movie version directed by Roman Polanski in 1968) is a superb example of psychological horror. Rosemary moves into a creepy old apartment building with her husband, an out-of-work actor. An elderly couple living next door befriend them, but a young girl taken in by the neighbors kills herself, and Rosemary’s husband suddenly gets a great job replacing the star of a play who inexplicably went blind. More eerie things happen until a friend of Rosemary’s investigating the suspicious neighbors goes into a coma and dies, leaving Rosemary the notes of his findings. From this, she becomes convinced her neighbors are Satanists and want the baby growing inside her. Her inability to leave, trust anyone around her, or get anyone outside to believe her form the basis of the psychological horror in both the novel and the movie.
Psychological Horror Explores Universal Fears
Instead of shocking the reader with vivid descriptions of blood and gore, psychological horror works by tapping into universal fears felt by almost all people. Here’s a partial list of those fears:
The Outsider. The feeling that we are separate from all others, that no other person can be completely understood or trusted, and that we never know the true motivation behind what people do. Some psychologists consider this “fear of abandonment” and believe we experienced it as infants the first time we cried and our mommies didn’t pick us up. In psychological horror, this feeling of separation and disappointment leads to suspicion, paranoia, and a me-against-the-world attitude.
Conspiracy Theorist. Where the person comes to believe a conspiracy is taking place. It may not be against him, but his knowledge of it will put his life in danger. There may be others who will help him against the conspirators -- or are they really part of the conspiracy?
Lack of Physical Safety Being at someone else’s mercy is a fear plaguing many people. Situations like sexual assault, home invasion, being kidnapping or held hostage focus on the fear of being helpless. Even physical impairments like being blind or in a wheelchair can work -- remember Jimmy Stewart's character in "Rear Window" who witnessed a murder but was confined to his wheelchair? Scary! And it captured the universal fear of helplessness.
Psychological Disturbance. Almost everyone has said to themselves at one time or another, “Am I going crazy?” The inability to trust oneself (or one’s perceptions) can be devastating. It can be because of an actual mental illness, or the result of stress or trauma, or even of aging. Many elderly people admit to being more terrified of losing their mental faculties than of dying. If you can’t trust your own eyes, your own perceptions, or your own decisions then reality loses its meaning and anything can happen!
Secrets, Lies, and Evidence
Secrets, lies, and evidence are the building blocks of writing good psychological horror.
Secrets are a great way to raise tension in a story. The mc (main character) can keep a secret from someone else, or sneak into a place they shouldn’t be, or do something that could get them into trouble. The tension comes from their fear (and the reader’s) that they’ll be found out. Or other characters can be keeping secrets from the main character -- if the mc overhears a secret, it always makes things more exciting. Also, a writer can let the readers in on BIG secrets by including the villain’s POV (point of view). The character may not know the trouble coming for them, but the reader does and is afraid for them. “No! Don’t go in the basement!” the reader yells at the book. But the character goes anyway. Heh-heh-heh.
Lies go hand-in-hand with secrets. The mc may be lying to mislead other characters he/she doesn’t trust or other characters can give explanations that will later be proven untrue, raising further suspicions. A good way to hint to the reader that someone’s lying is If a character is stammering or acting shifty. Maybe the mc will pick up on the clue or maybe only the reader will be suspicious. Even a “good” character can lie to the mc and create mistrust, but they might have a good reason for lying. Or not. Hmm…
Probably the most important part of making psychological horror work for the reader is evidence. Suspicion and foreboding will only go so far. Soon your reader wants something concrete to latch onto -- they want evidence. They need to see something bad happen, either to the mc or some other character. However, you don’t have to show anything bloody or gory happening. A character can disappear. People might discover a body off-screen (so you don’t have to describe it). The murder weapon can turn up in someone’s purse. Things can be moved in the mc’s room, showing someone has been there. At some point all the supposition and fear should be supported by actual, tangible proof that something bad is going on or you may lose the reader.
Psychological horror emphasizes the emotions and fears of the characters more than their actions.
Scaring a reader works best if you choose a subject that is a “universal fear;” something that many people have felt and will understand.
A good way to raise tension in the story is to have the characters keep secrets from one another, lie to each other, or act suspiciously.
It’s not advisable to write a whole story where suspicions and mistrust are everywhere, but nothing ever happens. The reader will probably lose interest after a while. To prevent this, give the reader tangible evidence that proves something is going on.
What movies or books featuring Psychological Horror do you love
Have you sold a short horror story to a publication? If so, please email me directly so I can feature it in my next newsletter about publishing.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some psychological horror stories for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter about foreshadowing: "The Shadow Knows" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Patrick writes: Hey Laura! Incredible examples all the way down the page. You display your points about foreshadowing eloquently. The example about Ann's fear of heights was especially effective. Foreshadowing is like irony in that it is very ephemeral and difficult to define. It is glaring when it's absent, but it also tends to come naturally to those who have absorbed storylines in television, movies, and books. All I know is that I would have a difficult time pulling out the quality and expounding on its use for the education of others, something you have done here with great ease and skill. Very well done, indeed!
Thanks so much, Patrick, and welcome back! WDC wasn’t the same without you.
9 years whew! writes: Another Fantastic NL that comes at just the right time. How DO you know what I need when I need it? This is the answer to one of my problems with my NaNo novel. Another NL to move to the hallowed folder for future fodder. Great Job!
How do I know? I’m psychic! I’m wishing you success with your NaNoWriMo novel. It’s not easy, YAY for participating!
BIG BAD WOLF submits: "Vampires and Werewolves" and writes: Sometimes you have to deal with life.
Unless you’re dead!
Vampyr14 writes: Great newsletter. Foreshadowing is so important, and if it's done well, the reader won't even realize it's there....
Foreshadowing can be tricky. It’s hard to find the balance between hinting at things but not going overboard. Luckily, I have CPs to let me know when I’m missing the mark!
Liz Butcher ~Away Until March~ submits "Invalid Item" and writes: This the first three short chapters to the novel I have been working on, and hoping to get some feedback as the whether I am creating enough tension and suspense!
I hope some of my readers will give your chapters a look. You can also post in "Please Review" or "The Shameless "Plug" Page" or ”Request A Review from These Authors”
Phoenix writes: Foreshadowing is such a valuable tool for writers, and a very important part of a reader's experience. I love trying to follow the literary bread crumbs of my favorite writers. When I can scream out, "I knew it!" It is so satisfying.
Thanks for another great newsletter.
I love those literary breadcrumbs, too! It’s as exciting as figuring out “whodunit” in a TV mystery show.
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