Scaring Your Audience

Why are some stories more memorably scary than others?

Yeah, I know–that’s probably not what most 20-ish folks wake up thinking about.  I’m not a telepath, so I can’t say so for certain.

Really, though.  Why?

I’ve been looking through some of my favorite (or least favorite) fictitious monsters for answers, and one isn’t more memorable than the other because it promises a more painful death.  Most of the monsters (that scare me, anyway) might not kill you at all, or do so relatively painlessly.

Take the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who.  Those beasties are terrifying, and all they do is send you back in time.  Away from everything you know.  Why do we remember them?

They’re pretty.  They look like something that would belong in a corner of a cathedral or a graveyard–sad, yes, but beautiful.  Until you turn around and they aren’t where you saw them last.  Doctor Who has a strange obsession with things moving that shouldn’t.

We remember the Weeping Angels because they don’t seem to be things worth being afraid of.  They seem like any other statue, and that adds even more uncertainty. How many statues do we need to watch out for anyway?

Terrifying.

Then there are the Dementors of Harry Potter.  Monsters that will literally eat happiness.  They lack the Angels’ subtlety, messing with your mind with their power rather than by being as mysterious as possible, but they are still the scariest things Harry Potter encounters (Except maybe Umbridge.  I think.  The fact that they’re also a metaphor for depression may have me a little biased.).

Who wants their soul eaten?  Anyone?

Another scary thing about the Dementors is the way the wizard government accepts and works with them, even if they don’t like them.  None of us wants to admit that it’s within humanity’s capacity to cooperate with evil like that.

The traditional concept of a werewolf is just as bad.  Anyone can become a werewolf if they get the bite.  Anyone an become the kind of monster that would slaughter its own family–and the fact that it’s only one night a month, and the rest of the time the werewolf has to live with that knowledge, just makes it worse.

That’s part of why I love werewolf stories that explore what that would be like.  Also, Wolves Are Really Cool.

Just from those three monsters (I haven’t even started on Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman creatures), I can get a pretty long list of traits to attempt adding to my own monsters.  The scary, memorable creatures are mysterious.  They’re beautiful.  They hide in plain sight.  They take your best memories away.  They make you question your own capacity for evil.  They twist the natural order of things.  They threaten to turn you into one of them.

Compared to all that, just dying at their hands seems rather tame.

I’ve been developing some monsters for my current project, and while I don’t want to turn it into a horror story I do want the scary bits to actually be scary.  Thinking about what makes my own fears tick has been helping with that.

How do you make your story scary?  Am I a heartless monster for wanting to?  Let me know.

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