Guest Post: How to Scare the Pants off Your Readers, by JH Mae

Editor’s note: You’d think that, as a writer of speculative fiction, I’d do a post on speculative fiction once in a while. Like so many other times in your life, though, you’d be wrong. Luckily, fellow WordPress blogger and speculative fiction writer JH Mae is on hand to do my work for me with this guest post she’s entitled How to Scare the Pants Off Your Readers. I’m not sure why she wants readers to walk around in their undies, but hey, who am I to judge? Read on…

japan horror


How to Scare the Pants Off Your Readers

“Good horror writers merely collaborate with our minds.” HP Lovecraft, master of horror

We love to have the crap scared out of us. Some say that when we watch a scary movie, for example, we tap into an ancient need to be on edge. Modern, first world life is, after all, a little ho-hum.

Some think horror is just about seeing guts spilling out of someone’s abdomen or a crazed man in clown makeup chasing someone else with a chainsaw. While blood does make a horror story more exciting, a masterful piece of horror is so much more than that. A little violence isn’t going to stick with a reader, but the confrontation of our peaceful lives with dark, disturbing ideas we’d rather not think about? Truly haunting.

Horror is about facing that life isn’t as safe as we think.

Balance the absent and the present
Spine-tingling horror is ripe with the absent – the unknown, the unexpected, the unbelievable, the unseen, the unconscious and the unstoppable. All of these elements challenge our grasp on reality and tap into primal fears – of what we can’t control, understand, explain or stop. And while blood and guts are disturbing, limiting the gore until the moment when things have gone absolutely wrong intensifies the shock factor. Such restraint ignites the reader’s imagination – and there’s plenty of darkness hiding there.

So what should be present? I think the most important is the sense of helplessness. In everyday life, we have a sense of control in our fate, and to an extent we do. We’re not used to the notion that we have no options, no escape and no hope. Hand in hand with helplessness isurgency, to regain control when it’s been lost – it’s instinctual.

Confronting darkness
Some people are sick, evil, and violent. They have horrifying urges and desires, ones which manifest in any number of perverse, disturbing practices. If you were to look deep in yourself, you’d find some darkness lurking there, too.

We don’t confront our most primal fears every day. We like to avoid and pretend that the evil doesn’t exist in the same world that we raise our children and pay our taxes. In horror, the author must put these denied realities in sharp relief, showing the reader that demon lurking in the corner or the serial killer down the street. Make readers see what they don’t want to see and ask questions they don’t want the answers to.

Use normalcy to heighten the bizarre
Where some horror films in particular fail is by overemphasizing strangeness to the point it becomes unrealistic. If the setting and characters are unfamiliar, the reader isn’t going to put himself in the story. Putting the bizarre alongside the everyday makes the reader feel like it could happen to him; creating normal characters will have him looking at his own neighbors with paranoia; and creating a familiar setting will make him nervous in his own house.

Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort balances the normal and the bizarre well. Lead “mind vampire” Melanie looks like a nice old lady, lives like a wealthy widow and acts like your average closet racist. And yet she controls people by invading their minds and forcing them to commit violent acts. If she wasn’t so run-of-the-mill, her evil wouldn’t be so frightening. In the context of normalcy, the horrifying is heightened.

Weave in a little suspense
While these Writer’s Digest tricks are meant for a whole other genre, a horror story without suspense is like chocolate without peanut butter. One key element of suspense is the lofty viewpoint, where you let the reader in on the bad guy’s side of the story. The reader will see trouble before your protagonist does; as your main character approaches his doom, you’re reader will be squirming in his seat.

Other elements of suspense apply – incredible odds, multiplying problems beyond the horror at hand, a terrifying villain against an admirable protagonist. But in horror, shock comes from unpredictability – just because the reader wants your MC to come out unscathed doesn’t mean he should.

The 1979 sci-fi horror classic “Alien” is killer when it comes to suspense. The mere atmosphere of the film warns the audience that something bad is going to happen.

About the guest author:

JH Mae writes speculative fiction and has somehow managed to get published a couple times. For more about her work, visit or sign up for her newsletter.

32 responses to “Guest Post: How to Scare the Pants off Your Readers, by JH Mae

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I have a vivid memory of my first experience watching “Alien” at the movie theater. Due to the suspense factor, I had my jacket in front of my face, peeping around it, during much of the movie.
    I’ve never been big on the teenagers in the woods with a crazed ax murderer movies. Lots of blood doesn’t make it a horror movie.
    One movie that might not be classified as “horror”, but had me checking my closet when I got home from the theater was “Silence of the Lambs.” To this day, I can’t watch that movie alone.
    Thanks for the education, JH!

    • shelleyhazen83

      I agree that lots of blood doesn’t make a horror movie. I dislike the slasher films. What was so genius about “Alien” was you spent the whole movie waiting for it to appear and kill whomever was in the vicinity, and when it struck, you didn’t see much. Horror is best when it’s more about the audience’s imagination. Thanks for reading!

    • ericjbaker

      I’d call Silence of the Lambs a horror movie, even if its makers avoided the word. If you are unnerved after the fact, it was a horror movie.

      I wish I could have seen Alien in the theater. I had to take my brother’s word for its greatness for a few years, until I got my first video membership. Those were the glory days!

  • nrhatch

    I don’t like horror films. Or horror books. Or horror short stories. Or horror in the news. I’ll let the rest of you enjoy having the crap scared out of you while I go watch Mary Poppins.

  • Arkenaten

    Concur with NR.

    Watching Dallas was about as horrific I could stand. 😉

  • change it up editing

    While I’m not a fan of slasher books (or movies), I have to admit that there isn’t much better than well-written suspense. A writer with the talent to get my heart racing is a writer I want to keep reading. For me, the best speculative fiction is “the confrontation of our peaceful lives with dark, disturbing ideas we’d rather not think about.” Great post, JH! (And thanks for having her, Eric.)

    • shelleyhazen83

      Thanks Candace! I’m with you on the slasher fiction. I like the psychological stuff. 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      One of the greatest attributes of horror fiction, regardless of whether one likes it or not, is how everyone can relate to fear. Rich, poor, tall, short, purple, green… we’ve all been terrified at one point or another. A well written horror story always works on that base level. no matter the reader.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I pretty much avoid horror, as I can’t take being frightened like that. Books are easier to take than movies, as my brain will instinctively soften the images it conjures, but I still fully admit to being a big chicken.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s funny. I’ve found books to be more frightening, typically, because they get under the skin. Pet Sematary stayed with me for a good week after I finished it.

  • Dave

    Great guest post that addresses important points about horror that, when done right, make it a powerful genre. It’s the one I gravitate to for reading and, for the most part, for writing. No matter what I try to start writing, inevitably, the darker side always emerges … except of course when it ends up as flash fiction centered around love. Haven’t figure that one out, yet 🙂

    Thanks, Eric, and JH Mae.

  • livelytwist

    I don’t like horror, but I like all the points made, and I’ll be more deliberate about incorporating a couple in my writing.

    The quote at the beginning by HP Lovecraft, master of horror, I will rewrite in my mind as: Good writers merely collaborate with our minds.

    I’m coming back to read again, while avoiding that evil eye at the top of the post. *shivers, looks out the window, and checks again that the doors are locked* . . . to be continued 😀

    • ericjbaker

      Horror can take us to uncomfortable places, but we emerge safely on the other side. It’s like a roller coaster without having to wait in a long line.

      • livelytwist

        Okay, I don’t like roller coasters too! I am the girl they trick into riding a roller coaster & they laugh at when I emerge disoriented & done for the day!

        • ericjbaker

          Then you should stay away from the film Final Destination 3. It’s a horror movie with a roller coaster!

          Truth: I don’t like roller coasters either. Maybe you and I can wait at the bottom for our friends, eating delicious amusement park junk food with our feet firmly planted on the ground. The junk food at New Jersey beach-side amusement parks is second to none, as if you needed more enticement.

        • livelytwist

          Deal! We can trade ideas about horror roller coaster stories while waiting & eating!

  • 1WriteWay

    What a great post! Thank you, JH Mae and Eric! I grew up on Edgar Allen Poe and Hammer films but I’ve only dabbled in writing horror. I think the greatest challenge for me in writing horror is getting past scaring myself 🙂

  • ujuh

    Great post!
    I hate horror movies and deteste the books even more. Somehow my mind does a lot more damage to me than motion pictures ever will.
    But the great thing about good horror stories is, if you ‘accidentally’ stumble upon them, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away; even the fear of the unknown is welcoming.

    That eyes already had me shaking even before reading 😦

    • ericjbaker

      If you ever need a scary photo for a post, just Google “Japanese Horror Movie” and you’ll get pages of the stuff.

      But I don’t suppose that would suit your image as a thoughtful commentator on the human condition. If you ever trade in people for zombies, then maybe…


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