Horror Writing craft

An Introduction: The Dance of Fear and Empathy

By Ashley E Deng
Oct 5, 2020 · 1,440 words · 6 minutes

Horror header


From the author: The introduction to my series of essays - Horror, Revisited - which examines the ways in which horror functions on the level of mechanics, themes, and the visceral.

Horror Has a Bad Reputation, Doesn’t It?

I spent more time than I’d like to admit pretending that I didn’t like horror, that I was only drawn to the aesthetics of dark things but was above the pulpy, so-called “low-brow” narrative decisions of horror, despite all my love of cheesy scares, gory nightmares, and clichéd occult rituals.

It wasn’t that horror as a genre wasn’t appealing - far from it, and it seems like my earliest attempts at writing fiction fell into the horror genre - it was that horror has, well, a piss-poor reputation. It’s where bigoted edgelords congregate to write their hate-filled manifestos against marginalized groups under the guise of fiction. It’s where thinly-veiled malice from dominant groups find a home in gleefully shocking audiences and eliciting disgusted responses.

Horror, on its nose, is filled with cishet white men looking to punch down. It’s pain for the sake of pain, it’s gratuitous blood, abuse, and torture. It’s full of lazy narrative and character decisions with the sole aim to shock an audience right at the primal fears.

For many, this is what people think of with horror. It informs both the audience’s perceptions of it and the creators drawn to it.

But horror is also where writers can explore the depths of human nature, where we can prod at and dissect quiet fears and existential crises. It’s a genre where the marginalized have found themselves, where they’ve reclaimed their othered existences, and where they’ve explored themselves within the context of society while still indulging in the fun of the spooky and the creepy, the thrills and the chills.

Horror is a genre chock full of authorial responsibility, where creators must balance their worlds of the monstrous and the gory with the interrogation of “What is scary and why is it so?”

It could go wrong so easily, but its potential for exploring the edges of humanity outweighs the risk of being associated with the edgelords for me.

“Scary” is an Abstract Concept

There’s something intensely personal about someone’s fears. Some are quite common, shared by our collective fears of death and everything associated with it. Some, on the other hand, are hyperspecific - irrational maybe but all-consuming; where, who’s to say that the fear isn’t real when you feel it gnawing at the back of your head and clawing its way up your throat? Who’s to say that the creeping existential dread and helpness accompanied by a world spiraling into chaos isn’t fear?

The comic series, Deep Dark Fears by Fran Krause, is about fear and irrationality, about anxieties about things that are almost comical (and the collections of the comics are, in fact, categorized as comedy). These are fears that border on ridiculous, framed in a way that plays them all entirely straight, in order to elicit a response: either they’re funny and too irrational to be considered anything other than comedy, or they strike a chord, pulling on strings of empathy that make each deep, dark fear intensely - and agonizingly - relatable.

Horror, especially its many subgenres, doesn’t work for everyone. Thresholds for some subgenres might be higher or lower than others (I have a friend who cannot handle anything paranormal, but is absolutely fine with gore), much in the way that a fan of power metal might not also be a fan of death metal (I write this to mark my two hour detour wherein I attempt to map metal subgenres to their respective horror subgenres).

With horror, these subgenres collect certain styles of fears: cosmic and occult horror both deal with ancient, unearthly powers beyond human understanding; paranormal relies on ghosts and poltergeists; slashers thrive on gore and a good chase; monster horror needs, well, monsters (which brings up a whole other slew of questions: why are monsters scary? Is it their capability of great destruction? Their superhuman strength? And, of course, why are they so damn appealing?)

But what about those irrational fears? Why do some people gravitate towards one subgenre over the others? Why do some subgenres elicit stronger responses?

The Twin Roots of Horror

One of the true strengths of fictional media, in all its forms, is its ability to place a reader (or viewer, or player) into unfamiliar positions and to introduce them to new perspectives. Literature, TV, and film rely on hosts of characters for audiences to latch onto while they’re taken through a story. Video games can create their story around the (somewhat more) empty shell of the playable character, directly inserting the player into the game. The tools are different, but the result is the same: the audience is involved in the story that’s being created for them.

Can you have fear without that involvement? Certainly, to some extent. Media that does this relies mostly on the inherent fears within us all, the visceral nature of death itself. Jumpscares and gorefests do this effectively, sometimes used as staccato moments of fear within a larger piece and sometimes making up a large part of what makes pulpy horror fun. But it’s also the sort of horror that veers into the cheap shock value moments and edgy slaughter.

And what about the dread? The less-than-visceral fears that seep out of the irrational, the building paranoia so utterly within the head of one character, the way that our humanity grapples with the world and the fears that it produces. It’s a quieter form of horror, perhaps, but it’s fear all the same. I see these characters, I understand them and their fears, and I want to follow them through the terrors they’re about to get pulled through in the story.

Because fear is not without empathy. Even if you don’t care much for the characters, you’ll probably jump and flinch at well-executed jumpscares or death scenes. Those rely on the primal fears, that these characters are alive - just as we are - and that a threat to that very being is enough to evoke an empathetic response.

And the power of narratives allows creators the space to bring an audience close to something they might not otherwise experience, pulling them in uncomfortably close to the Other, to the Unknown, a tool used frequently in horror by marginalized creators. Where fears of the Other and fears of the Unknown were once wielded by the majority to further punch down in their horror, marginalized creators take this tool, reclaim their otherness, and force the majority to empathize with them. These characters might not be relatable to everyone, but the act of creating narratives where they are interesting can be enough to make the audience care about their experiences.

The result is something disconcerting and also something fraught; nuances have been added to situations that were once clearly black and white, and horror as a genre gets expanded into a space that allows for the exploration of humanity, our relationships, and our very essence of being in a way that perhaps not seen by most as part of horror itself. Sure, as a genre, horror’s foundations allow for extremely effective pulp and camp, and when these elements get brought into more narrative-heavy horror, these might be the only things people initially latch onto. And, in fact, with the more recent explosion of slasher films with little to no likeable characters, it has changed the perception of horror in the eyes of many, despite their low-reception among well-seasoned horror fans.

What Makes Horror Work?

At its core, horror just cannot function effectively without the empathetic ties between audience and character. Let it be pulpy, let be campy, let it be fun - but these don’t really exist without someone to cheer on.

Empathy in horror can come in many forms. From the most straightforward character relatability to player autonomy in video games to abjection with gore, death, and the Other, we are amalgamations of social and cultural cues, where the place we grew up in and our ranks in society influence what we perceive as horror. 

Think of these all as tools to tell a horror story, much in the way that high fantasy requires a secondary world setting or that science fiction requires explanations based in fictional science. What makes horror elements specifically horror?

This is a series about horror, about the mechanics of horror, about the nitty-gritty ways that horror works the way it does. Because horror is an incredibly versatile medium that also functions within the confines of specific theories and mechanisms that elicit empathy and fear in ways other genres do not. Here's to deconstructions and reconstructions and all the little bits horror does in-between.

Ashley E Deng

Gothic dark fantasy and horror. Very, very bi. When you like your libraries old and blood-soaked.