Personal Horror

by Tim Waggoner

Janet ran, stumbling through the night, heart pounding, lungs on fire. All she could hear was her own ragged breath and the rustle of leaf and snap of twig as she crashed through the underbrush. But she didn’t have to hear pounding footfalls to know that HE was following close behind.

If only she hadn’t had sex with Billy, had listened to her mother and stayed a virgin. If only she had remained back at camp with the other counselors. If only she gave more to charity, was kinder to animals, read to shut-ins —

A huge, shapeless silhouette reared up before her, sickly yellow moonlight glinting off ax metal. Janet started to scream, but all that came out was a hot, gurgling sound as the ax bit deep into her throat. Again and again and again . . .

The previous scene is the sort of fiction produced by many beginning horror writers, those who haven’t actually read much in the genre and instead base their stories on umpty-leven viewings of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street flicks. And while such films can have a visceral (pun intended) impact, they don’t make good inspirational fodder for fiction.

Slasher films and their ilk rely primarily on shock. And shock is a Jaycee-sponsored Halloween Haunted House sort of thing. It relies on visual and auditory surprise — some guy in a rubber mask and fright wig jumping out from a darkened doorway hollering “Ooga-booga!” Such effects are nearly impossible to create on the page. They have to be experienced live and in person.

Besides, even if you could create shock effectively in written stories, why would you want to? It’s an extremely limited technique. The audience might gasp and jump the first time or two you spring your Jack-the-Ripper-in-a-box on them, but no matter how well crafted your shock machine is, readers will soon become so desensitized to its tricks that they won’t even be able to work up the energy to yawn.

Shock is a quick, easy scare. Empty, and to the audience, ultimately unsatisfying. Readers want horror that does more than go “Boo!” They want horror that disturbs them, shakes them up, that reaches into their guts with cold bony fingers and stirs their wet parts around. So how do you write stories that do this? By crafting stories drawn from personal horror.

As author and critic Douglas Winter has pointed out, horror isn’t a genre, but rather an emotion. In order to write effective — and original — horror, you have to dig into your own psyche and find out what scares you. Worried that no one will be frightened by the same things you are? Don’t be. As Aristotle said, the only way to get to the universal is through the particular. By focusing on your own personal fears and giving them shivery life on the page, you’ll be connecting to your audience — guaranteed.

Begin with your childhood. Regardless of whether your wonder years were TV movie of the week fodder or (seemingly) uneventful, anyone who’s survived childhood has a wealth of story material waiting to be mined.

What were you afraid of as a child? The dark; thunder and lightning; the barking German shepherd next door; Mommy and Daddy yelling at each other? Make a list of your childhood bogeymen, and write at least a paragraph about each item. Don’t think in terms of story, just write whatever comes to mind. Try to focus on your feelings and what sparked those feelings — remember, horror is an emotion.

And they don’t have to be obvious fears, either. My mother once told me that when I was a very small child, I was afraid of feathers. What’s so scary about feathers? Well, they have those hairy edges, and their spiny stems can stick you. And the way they float downward so slowly, as if they don’t want to leave the air. Where do they come from? Mommy says they come from birds, but I’ve never seen a bird leave any feathers in the house. What if they come from somewhere else? Come from something else? What if for some reason they’re coming from me?

Maybe I’ll never get a story about of this minor childhood phobia, but if I do, it’ll certainly be original!

Next — and this might be difficult — make a list of any disturbing events in your childhood. Encounters with schoolyard bullies, severe illnesses, deaths of friends and family members. Again, write at least a paragraph on each item.

When I was around five or six, my mother was severely burned when taking a roast out of the oven. I remember her being in the hospital, the doctors taking skin from her legs and back to use for grafts. I remember the watery feeling in my guts when later, after she’d healed, she let me touch the brown patch of tight smooth skin on her palm. The edges were so distinct; it seemed as if I could pinch them between my thumb and forefinger and slowly peel away my mother’s borrowed flesh to reveal the moist secrets which lay within.

Digging into your childhood traumas might not easy, might even be disturbing for you. But if you want to write horror — real horror, not Freddy vs. Jason stuff — then you need to have at least a nodding acquaintance with your dark side. Besides, writing is cheaper than therapy.

Childhood is a time when everything is new, wondrous and terrifying. A time when we feel emotions most deeply. And it’s those sort of intense emotions you want to summon and use to write your horror. But you don’t have to confine your self-exploration to the past.

Pay attention to the events in the news which upset and anger you. Clip newspaper and magazine articles and keep them in a folder. Don’t merely collect every article on murder you find. Look for stories which arouse an emotional reaction in you, stories which fascinate you.

One of the news stories I’ve collected concerns a campus-area apartment house which has an electric chair perched on the roof. According to the article, the current occupants had no idea who put the chair up there and why. It was there when they moved in. As they said, It’s always been there.

Now there’s a story waiting to happen!

Another area you can explore for ideas is the realm of dreams. Every morning, as soon as you get up, record your dreams in a journal. A friend of mine in college had been keeping dream journals for years. When he first started, he only remembered having two or three dreams a night. But after a couple years of faithfully writing in his journal, he routinely recalled fifteen or sixteen. And while many of them weren’t more than snatches of everyday life replayed on the mind’s dream-screen, he always had at least a couple that were quite surreal and disturbing. Added up over the course of a year, that’s a lot of potential story ideas.

A recurring dream of mine has me lost and wandering within a building of endless rooms and hallways which seems to continually grow and shift around me. Once I woke up from a snooze on the couch remembering a dream I’d just had. In it, a witch became pregnant and her familiar thought the fetus was a tumor killing his mistress. That dream became my story “Newcomer,” which was published in 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories.

In our dreams, our defenses and pretenses are swept aside, and we are most ourselves. Your dreams are unique; use them to write stories that are uniquely yours.

Another technique (one I’ve stolen from Stephen King), is to take a look around you and let your imagination run paranoid. Choose a minor aspect of your life or an ordinary event and tell yourself that something is wrong with it. Seriously wrong.

Not too far from where I live is house where the lawn is always perfect. I mean perfect in every single way. The grass is always the same height, the same shade of green, the edging always neat and straight. But I’ve never seen anyone working on the lawn. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave the house. The reality is that the yard probably belongs to a retiree with a lot of time on his or her hands. But when I look at that lawn and tell myself something is seriously wrong with it, I start to wonder what kind of rigid, type-A landscaping Nazi it would take to maintain a lawn like that. And what would happen if someone decided to mess up that yard . . .

Speaking of lawns, one summer day I was mowing mine, and when I neared the driveway, I saw a crumpled piece of white cloth which I knew hadn’t been there when I started mowing. I stopped the mower, walked over, and picked up what turned out to be a bloody sock. I live on a busy street, so I’m used to finding all sorts of strange items that litterjerks have tossed out their car windows. But I’d never found anything like this before. I had a quick flash — what if something were seriously wrong with this sock?

What if it had been thrown out of a car by someone who was injured, perhaps being held captive? Worse, what if it was one of my wife’s socks? The mower made a lot of noise, and I hadn’t been watching the front door. What if for some reason she’d been injured and left the house without telling me? What if she — and our two-year-old daughter — had been taken from the house?

I threw the sock in the garbage, and went inside to wash my hands and, I admit it, also check on my wife and daughter. Both of whom were fine, of course, but thanks to an inconsiderate (and slightly wounded) motorist or passenger, I had the beginnings of a new story.

Lastly, ask yourself what’s most important, most dear to you. What do you treasure? Who do you love? Now ask yourself what if these things were threatened, removed, altered, turned against me? How would you feel? And most importantly, what would you do about it? Your answers to these questions will provide some of your best and most personal story ideas.

In the end, it’s simple: If you want to write truly effective horror, don’t merely recycle the imaginings of others. Write the stories only you can tell.

And in the process, scare the crap out of the rest of us.