What Makes Horror Work? (2022/10/04)

What Makes Horror Work?

Greetings! To celebrate the beginnings of Spook-toberfest 2022 as we approach Halloween, I thought it’d be fun to take a break from drafting and discuss my theories of how and why horror stories work in both literature and film. So, grab your witch hats and black cats ‘cause here we go!

5 of W. L. Prowell’s Horror Theories

1. Horror stories are inherently mysteries, and human curiosity adores a good mystery. Horror stories can be equal parts whodunnit, how/whydunnit (the who is known from the beginning), and finding missing person/object. Plus, they can incorporate loads of mystery tropes like red herrings (cat leaping from the closet), double-crosses (Scream, I’m lookin’ at you), mistaken identities, misdirection, and tons of others. The primary difference is that mystery characters are often overly competent the whole time whereas horror characters usually aren’t until the end.

2. Horror preys upon the most frightening thing of all: existential dread. I’m talking about all forms of dread. Everything from realizing that humanity’s existence has been and will always be a meaningless fluke in an infinite, uncaring universe down to one’s personal death or the annihilation of the self. Everything humans find precious can be threatened in horror, which leads the reader/audience to empathize with the threatened characters and causes us to feel their fear for them.

3. If it’s not existential dread, then it might be the more well-known cousin: fear of the unknown. This a more generic, perhaps universal form of fear because it relies on what the characters, and by extension the readers/viewers, don’t know but must imagine. This forces us to frighten ourselves rather than brave a more defined threat, and so the scare tends to be deeply effective for everyone since it activates a wide range of potential fears rather than relying solely on one specific, well-defined fear. This is why Lovecraft’s hideous outer and elder gods will likely come across as scarier than other monsters. These monsters’ unknown nature makes them far more terrifying. Then, add in the existential threat, and it’s easy to see why Lovecraft had such a massive impact on horror in general.

4. Horror endings don’t have to be good or even satisfying to be effective. The hero can win, lose, both, or something else entirely while enhancing the tension that led to this point. When the hook-handed murder-man’s eyes flash open at the last second to reveal the heroes had not been as successful as they thought, we get one final satisfying scare that also preys on the previous two fears: we don’t know what’ll happen next, but we fear it will threaten everything to death forever.

5. Horror forces the reader/viewer to confront everything we hate about ourselves and humanity at large. Even in the face of incomprehensible eldritch monstrosities, we must confront humanity’s ignorance and limited ability to understand or even maintain our sanity under stress. Often times the monster serves as a metaphor for the worst parts of humanity: vampires represent selfish manipulation and devouring innocence, werewolves symbolize uncontrollable rage and violence, and zombies can signify anything the author wants them to.

There are plenty of other reasons horror works, but I thought I’d mention these as a starting point. I plan to write several more articles this month to celebrate humanity’s longstanding hobby of scaring itself near to death just for fun. I may also have a few Youtube videos coming up on my channel as well. Depends on how much free time I can get.

Then…on the day of All Hallows Ween…the true horror shall arrive. A blackened husk of dried tree flesh filled with dreadful scripts will appear in the darkness. The knowledge contained within could very well drive you completely mad. The malicious evil it threatens to unleash upon us all will be available in your choice of hardcover, paperback, or ebook. It’s name, never to be spoken aloud, shall be The Things That Love Us Back!


-W. L. Prowell