The Psychology of Horror Books

The Psychology of Horror Books

By Gillian Bridè Duce Madell


I am often asked about writing, books and articles that I have written. Usually, it is questions on how to pull together a good book when they (the person asking) are writing. As a well published author of books, articles and philosophical works, it shocks some that I could also write anything with brutality or gore in it when it comes to writing my Historical fiction/fantasy works. There is nothing out of the ordinary in such scenes in this particular genre – it is merely my love/studies of myths, legends, traditions and philosophies that is carried throughout all of my writing and works.

History was no rainbow and joyous time. It was a time of caution and where most people were on edge most of the time. A time where even the neighbor had to be viewed with care. It was the horror stories of old that kept the children safe. Stopping them from entering a forest on their own where all sorts of death awaited them. Being young, vulnerable and edible – so easy it would be for a predator. Even a lone adult entering the forest was an unwise move when a pack of wolves might venture around at any time. Stories warning of water monsters, cave ogres, fire giants and even air fiends that would snatch them as they slept if they were not careful. Horror has been on the tongues of humans since the first parent was concerned for their child wandering off and the first confused person that saw something that they could not otherwise explain.

This is well and good for the ancestors, but, what is it that draws modern man now to horror, as we, supposedly, are so much more knowing.

A paper in 2004 by Dr. Glenn Walters said that there must be three main elements for a horror movie to work – tension, relevance and (somewhat of) unrealism.  This transfers also to any books written in the genre of horror/slasher/gore. There are those that enjoy the shock and fright that comes from reading such works, but it is the knowledge of it ‘not being real’ that allows a psychological buffer between them and that which is depicted in the book.

History was not pretty, but write it in a manuscript, with all of the gore of battle fields or acts done from one to another (even if a real historical events), the reader has the buffer of ‘it not happening actually at that moment’(the unrealism factor), which gives them freedom from feeling terrified or concern after finishing the book. Cannibals read of in books, might have been real at some stage (or still are), but the reader can shake off the feeling of shock after putting the book down, knowing that they are not in his/her home (or are they). Zombies, vampires, slashers, aliens and horrifying monsters might not (or might) be real… written well, the tension factor will rise. The relevance factor, such as fear of death and other psychological essentials, raises the book’s status as a horror.

There are factors within the mindset of those that read horror books too. Some read to overcome their fears. Some read horror because they need to ‘feel’ or, as it is called by some, ‘sensation seek’ (sometimes even going as far as to identify with the slasher/killer/monster). Some like the excitement and are far more grounded. It is, to captivate all these readers (if possible) with one book that is the holy grail of horror books. Such authors, in their day, as Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein”, and Bram Stoker, who wrote “Dracula”, were cutting edge writers for their ability to pull together all of these elements and put them into books that still sell today (even though the ‘horror’ level is nothing compared to what is out there now). Pooling together these fundamentals made the material that they wrote, immortalized.

So, in conclusion, if you want to write a book that will go down in history, find a way of incorporating all the above elements. The essentials behind being a good horror writer is the best example of what it takes to be great in any genre of writing. To understand the basics of the horror genre, give one the leading edge in all genres.

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