How Tales of Horror Work

Discovering the inner workings that enable horror storytelling

In books, comics, movies, streaming series, television shows, and scripted podcast fiction episodes, elements of horror storytelling have clear inner workings. You just need to know what to look for to increase your awareness of how tales of horror work.

First and foremost, there needs to be a central character or a lead character in the story. The need involves having a horror tale which focuses upon a human (or perhaps a non-human) to which the audience can relate and share from afar in the experiences and challenges unveiled in the story. An essential storytelling element is some specific conflict with which the main focus character faces. Often that conflict requires the storyteller to create a memorable environment or atmosphere or setting that the audience will not soon forget.

The second need is for someone or something (not necessarily a living being) that brings challenges or obstacles to the situations in the story with which the main focus character must overcome. To work as a horror genre story there are no fixed requirements to include vampires, warewolves or zombies, but these three specific types of predatory creatures are readily found in storytelling that can be traced back many decades to the earliest horror themed books and movies.

A third horror tale element is the backstory of the main focus character and the source of the challenges or obstacles. Even a very short horror tale must take a minimal amount of time to present crucial background details that are intended to give the audience emotional anchorage to the story being told. There should be clearly-expressed or deeply understood rules within which the story takes place even if the storyteller chooses to bend or break those rules.

Many (though not all) horror tales are built around specific and clearly-threatening aspects of physical or mental pain and suffering. Many (though not all) horror tales also depict particular physical or mental violence. Storytelling components that depict pain, suffering, and violence can work well in fictional tales that are set in the past, present or future, in science fiction and fantasy, or in what most people would recognize as ordinary, everyday life.

No matter what else is true, for a horror tale to succeed with the audience, there must be clear-cut outcomes advanced by storytelling elements which each audience member processes in their minds as personally frightening or scary or terrifying or greatly upsetting or to be feared. This explains why cannibalism, dismemberment, imprisonment, kidnapping, rape, or torture can readily be found throughout the horror genre.

Suspense or surprise or mystery may be essential for the storyteller to successfully depict what audience members are in their minds supposed to process as personally frightening or scary or terrifying or greatly upsetting or to be feared.

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