In written works of horror fiction, authors use writing to conjure feelings of fear and dread, according to three BYU–Hawaii students who were asked what made good horror. The unknown being the greatest fear, they said, due to how literature uses words to describe rather than showing things upfront, therefore leaving it more open to interpretation.
The most common fear used by horror authors was fear of the unknown, according to all of the students. Through their uses of imagery, figurative language, and other literary devices, authors could only suggest how terrifying the monster or situation in their writing was.
J. Eston Dunn, a senior from Tennessee majoring in biochemistry, said, “This taps into our natural human fear of not knowing what’s in front of us. We’re forced to create a mental picture in our heads, and let our imagination run free.”
Angela Fantone, a senior majoring in English from the Philippines, concurred, “In a movie, the monster is there. It’s clearly defined visually for the audience. Essentially, the filmmaker is telling you what the creature or demon really looks like. There’s nothing open to the imagination. With writing, the reader is invited to create the monster in the imagination.
“As human beings, we hate not knowing what’s in front of us. We want to be secure and know where we are and what we are walking into. The best horror authors make us as readers uncomfortable, by being vague. They might use words like ‘dark,’ but that could mean a lot of things given how you imagine it. It’s what we don’t see or can’t imagine which is really terrifying.”
She added in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” the feeling of the unknown is scary because the raven is preying on the narrator’s fear of his loneliness.
“With being afraid of the unknown, I feel it’s a natural human reflex to want to be around things which are familiar. Like with haunted houses, the character knows it’s a bad place, but by going inside, it seems as if they want to be scared.”
Fantone likened this idea to Bram Stoker’s seminal novel “Dracula,” which features a dark and foreboding setting, in the eponymous character’s castle. “It plays into a good sense of horror when, as a reader, you know it’s a scary place, but your own human curiosity really wants to know what’s inside.”
Kerin Sipili, also a senior student from New Zealand majoring in anthropology, said, “When things are ambiguous, you really don’t know how to face them. When we see monsters in plain daylight in movies, they are not as scary. Or at least when we know what the monster looks like.
“One of the appeals for me in horror storytelling is how there are outlandish elements woven together with real-life facts, kind of what Jordan Peele did in his movie ‘Get Out.’ He and other writers attack our fears and insecurities, which makes the experience of reading and watching horror much more terrifying.
“The best horror authors go off and use elements other authors would not. They attack the values held by their readers, and cross taboos most readers might be uncomfortable with.”
According to Dunn, one of the authors who best-used fear of the unknown to his advantage was H.P. Lovecraft, a celebrated author of weird science and horror fiction.
“Lovecraft’s universes in his books are very familiar to our world, because he writes mostly about New England, but by including many elements of the supernatural, he’s able to weave terrifying aspects into his work.
“At the time, Lovecraft was using the theme of madness in his work. Insanity is usually a focal point of his work. And it was more than just the horror of the unknown, more than just a monster hiding. Lovecraft knew that the incomprehensible was more terrifying. In his work, particularly cosmic horror, there are these beings who exist that are far greater than us.”
He added what makes his work so terrifying is how it invites the reader to consider that humankind’s place in the universe is not at its center.
“In Lovecraft’s writing, humans are like weak little ants compared to these cosmic horrors which live beyond what we can understand.”
Sipili added, “Even though we as humans are afraid of the unknown, we also love it, and our curiosity can get the better of us. As the saying goes, ‘curiosity killed the cat,’ but we’re also fascinated with the unknown, which is why in a lot of scary stories, the main characters still walk into the haunted house.”
She continued saying how horror writing turned traditional “happy” fairy tales on their heads. “Horror, in some ways, is more realistic. People seem to love the Disney fairy tales which have a happy ending and don’t challenge them to think.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s good for people’s development if they keep getting the same safe, happy endings. Horror shakes things up a bit, and lets people experience different emotions.”