I write this in defiance of a friend of mine. She says “Paul, you and I have different levels of tolerance for horror. I like far scarier things than you do.”
She lies. She likes a certain type of horror. If it’s not thrashing about, blood everywhere, heads turning and vomiting, it’s not her type of horror. I do not appreciate this type of horror. It also relies on a level of shock and awe. Anyone can shock and awe. It takes little effort. A monster jumps out of the shadows and eats someone we liked. Or, you know, King Joffrey orders someone loses their head at whim and GRRM has stolen another beloved character from us. I rank the little brat right up there with Aliens vs Predator. But GRRM, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and anyone else who does suspense well, the other form of horror, approaches it very differently.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
I bring this up because of the game Don’t Starve. It’s an indie game that was released for free on the PS4 for PS Plus members. My friend laughed at it when the darkness killed her, after day one, and said it’s not scary to her. Well if I watch the first ten minutes of a horror flick, it’s generally a soft core porn. So no, day one isn’t that scary.
How the game scares you after day one, along with all those writers mentioned, is the unknown. In the below clip there was strange music in the dead of night. I had played over 100 days and never heard it. What could it mean? What horror was coming? I convinced myself more and more this was normal. Everything was okay with the world. But I was wrong, and in the darkness, far off in the recesses of my mind, shadows formed and took shape. They stole the light of my sanity along with my campfire.
Dear friends, those hands were a terror unbeknownst to me. When they first appeared, I pondered if they were reaching for my small, delicious, cartoon flesh. Were those outstretched claws trying to claim me into the night? I would rather brave the farthest reaches of my campfire’s light then get close to those obfuscating digits, stealing the very soul of all I am and was on this alien planet full of frightening delights: fire and light. Light made the known, even late in the evening, and these tore that knowing from me.
Obviously horror writers use this all the time. The greatest horror movies, long ago when they were black and white, were entirely based on the unknown. Even when we knew, it was kept at the edge of our perception. We wondered if there was something else, something benign. Maybe we were wrong about the malice crawling up our spine. For the sake of the character, we hoped. But we were wrong.
What about other writing such as fantasy, science fiction, and romance?
A Game of Thrones spoiler, when Ned was taken in front of the crowd, weren’t we all wondering what would happen? Weren’t we all terrified? We had a good idea of how it ended, but it couldn’t. Not to him. After GRRM proved he would kill anyone, every time we turned the page was a moment of heart stopping suspense. In an interview, GRRM says that was his goal, and he accomplished it by showing anyone can die or be maimed in any manner of ignoble ways.
You’re still wondering about how romance novels use this. I reached page fifty or so in such a novel when I put it down and stated I learned what I could from the book. I learned a lot. There was a woman who debated putting on her sexiest underwear, in the moment of incredible heartbreak, and lay upon a man’s bed, waiting for him to walk in. It was a page of her thinking this, and suddenly she does it. The entire time you’re thinking, “No, she’s too sensible for this!” She wasn’t.
Another page or two of her traveling to his house, breaking in, and laying in his bed, wondering what would happen. Was she going to regret this in the morning? What would happen when he walked through that door? Would there be sex!? It’s a romance novel. There had to be sex!
She’s about to leave out of shame when the light turned on. The next fifteen to twenty pages went into how they looked at each other, what they were thinking, their little nuances and physical interactions. All the while you’re thinking, “When do I get to the good stuff?!” Or even if they’ll get to the good stuff. Sexual tension is an incredible unknown. In the end, they didn’t have sex. They would later, but I learned more than I thought I would from the book and didn’t want to cheapen it.
Think about sexual tension as suspense, though. Think about the unknown of dating. I’m in the midst of it right now. It’s scary. Is she playing with her hair because she likes me or is bored? She touched me, that’s good, right? Did she just check out that other guy? Do I go in for a kiss on the first date, or is that rushing it? What’s she going to think when the only furniture in my apartment is a bed? I so should not have asked her over. It’s not the same, terror inducing suspense we think of. But trust me, your reader is on edge. We’ve all been there. Dates never go how you think they’re going to. The woman you thought was uninterested could just as easily end up waking up next to you. Or the interested one can just as easily slap you.
What I’m getting at is explore the unknown. This world is terrifying because we make it that way. Our imagination is a minefield of insecurities. Stop filling in every detail, stop thinking it needs to be in the horror genre. Give sparse details, make us realize anything is possible, and let the reader fill in the holes with their greatest fears. The audience will do most of the writing for you.