For the past few years I’ve spent my October weekends guiding tours of a local haunted house. The folks who run the haunt have one rule for the guides – make sure the folks are entertained. They hope the people leave terrified. They want to see people running from the building – their eyes bulging, their jaws pulled back, and their flesh pale and sweaty indicating a fast heart rate and a burst of adrenaline. There’s even a chalkboard tally kept to keep track of how many patrons wet themselves. But if they leave laughing, that’s almost as good.
The point is they recognize that not everything that scares one person is going to scare the next. The creepy old lady wearing a wedding dress and rocking a baby doll, the crazed masked man wielding the roaring chain saw, the army of undead coming from the gap under the wall, the electrical burst of sparks and the malfunctioning elevator that suddenly feels as if it’s dropping, the laughing clown, the silent child; ask a dozen people which of these images elicits the most dread and you’ll get at least a half a dozen different responses – maybe more. Because when you invite a fickle public into the haunt you’ve spent months preparing, it’s all but certain that some fraction of those guests will leave saying that nothing they saw was particularly frightening to them; and that’s okay, so long as they also say they had a good time.
For me though, as a writer, leading these tours represents the ideal opportunity. To tell the truth, I’m not a particular fan of the fright milieu. I don’t especially care for horror films, I don’t read ghost stories, and I don’t personally believe in the supernatural. My genre of choice is thrillers: mysteries, spy-stuff, and political intrigue.
The thing is, though, because of my time spent with those who love gore and monsters and demons and insanity my writing has improved. Horror as a specific genre is the foundation for the tension aspect of any tale. When you get right down to it, Bram Stoker wrote detective fiction. Mary Shelly wrote a travel log. Edgar Allen Poe wrote love stories. Stephen King’s It – is it a story about a psychotic, undead, killer clown; or is it a story about a group of friends rallying to overcome adversity? To me, It is Stand by Me plus Pennywise.
What I have learned running guided tours of the Goucher Haunted Hotel in Toronto, Ohio has made my mystery fiction all the better. I can sum up the lessons I’ve learned in four simple observations, each of which has improved my ability to build suspense and to shock my readers.
• Lesson one: anticipation. When guiding a tour, one is usually following a prior tour. There’s no way to keep the guest from hearing the slamming doors being experienced by the tour before them when they are only two or three rooms behind; but very often the suspense elicited hearing some other group being startled by a bang was more frightening to my tour than the bang itself once they reached it. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this and Steven Spielberg learned the lessons well. Think about the movie Jaws; it’s what you expect to happen almost more than what actually does happen that causes you to leave the theater afraid to go in the water.
As a writer, this kind of atmosphere is surprisingly easy to generate. You know what’s coming. Heck, it’s your story; of course you do. So why wait until the moment that it happens in the narrative to reveal it to the reader? Let them know that it’s coming … and then write up to it slowly. Throw in a few false starts. Go off on a tangent about the color of the bedspread. Use punctuation to your favor. See that ellipses mark a few sentences back? It made you read the sentence more slowly than a comma would have, right?
• Lesson two: red herrings. Disorientation is a powerful thing. Often times, a tour in the haunt would be ruined by a guy who thought he could see all of the scares being telegraphed. The best way to deal with him – I learned – is to hint at a scare that never comes. “If you could all stand over here and admire the chandelier that Mrs. Goucher had installed for their jubilee celebration,” I might say. The group’s resident spoiler then tells everyone to watch out – it’s going to fall. That’s when he backs up against the wall and a zombie arm grabs him by the shoulder scaring the bejeezus out of him.
The secret to a successful red herring is the details. The more you, as a writer, focus on the distraction, the more focused your reader will be on that distraction. It’s why the magician spends so much time flourishing the drape while the assistant scrunches into the cubby hole. He doesn’t want you thinking about what the assistant is doing.
• Lesson three: feel it. Last year, at the beginning of our tour, two portraits morphed into a set of demonic eyes as a disembodied demonic voice told the guests that they’d been assigned a guide who they should heed if they hoped to make it out alive. The second week of the haunt, the director realized that we had been missing an opportunity, and he asked the guides to go into a trancelike state when the voice came on – pretend the demon has control over you, that he controls this hotel and everybody in it. After that, as soon as the eyes lit up some of us fell to our knees. Some of us stood and shook. The thing is, it set a mood, and it established our character for the tour.
When writing a scene, put yourself as deeply into that space as you can. Feel the terror so that you can describe the terror. The more you immerse yourself into it, the more immersed your reader will become. For me, the best way to accomplish this is deep background. Write a history that the reader will never see. Know how your protagonist did in school, what her first boyfriend smelled like. Know what the villain thought about his grandma. Name his pets. Know his medical history.
In my mystery series, I hint that the female narrator and the male detective have a shared family history. The reader is never privy, but I know every detail of that history and it informs every interaction. I know why she says X when she does, and it rings true because of that time she said Y. The reader feels this even if she never understands why, and it makes the danger more real.
Yet no matter how adept you become with the first three items, never forget that not everyone is frightened by the same tropes. Your book about giant spiders is not going to frighten an arachnologist. So how do you assure that everyone leaves the story entertained?
• Lesson four: comedy, which – believe it or not – relies on two of the same three techniques: expectation and misdirection. Only rather than empathy, comedy relies on release. A pratfall isn’t amusing to the one who fell. A pie in the face isn’t funny if you feel sorry for the person with cream in her nose. They’re funny when the tension – which is built on anticipation and confusion – releases.
A good story can entertain without comic relief, but it cannot hope to entertain everyone. That’s why everyone from Shakespeare to Wes Craven has banked on it. Think of any popular horror story or thriller. If it didn’t have comic relief, I’ll bet it got mixed reviews. Now, I’ll grant you, it’s true that Ingmar Bergman didn’t rely on humor, and his films are critically acclaimed; but I ask you, how many people do you know who rave about how entertaining Bergman’s movies are?
Expectation, misdirection, and empathy: three powerful tools in a horror writer’s – or any writer’s arsenal. The better acquainted you become with them, the more likely you are to have your readers turning pages and running for a change of pant. However, if you want to assure that every reader who opts for your genre is at least happy with the experience, make sure to leave them laughing in the end. That’s what my time with the ghouls taught me.
I’m Dave Core, the author of the Lupa Schwartz series of mystery novels. Book one in the series, Extreme Unction, is available in print and ebook formats and can be found on Amazon.com - http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=J.%20David%20Core&search-alias=books&sort=relevancerank
My facebook author page is https://www.facebook.com/Lupaschwartzmysteries
My writing blog is http://lupamysteries.blogspot.com/
My next release, Confessions of the Cuckold will be available on September 2.
The Goucher Haunted House in Toronto, Ohio begins conducting tours at the end of September - http://thegoucherhotel.com/