The 5 Key Elements of Horror: What Horror Writers Need to Know

elements of horror

The 5 Elements of Horror:

  1. Setting and Atmosphere: Create creepy, isolated settings with a strong sense of dread.
  2. Character Archetypes: Use relatable protagonists and terrifying antagonists.
  3. Plot and Conflict: Build tension with escalating stakes and unexpected twists.
  4. Imagery and Sensory Details: Engage all senses with vivid, descriptive language.
  5. Twist Endings and Moral Lessons: End with shocking twists and incorporate moral lessons or social commentary.

Feeling lost about what should go into a horror story? You’re in the right place!

I’ve written horror novels and screenplays, and I’ve done the research to perfect the art of scary storytelling.

This guide will walk you through the fundamental important elements of horror that you need to include in any good horror story that you want to write. We’ll go over:

  • The five key elements of horror that you need to know.

  • Common types of horror stories.

  • How to end your horror story (so many writers get this wrong!).

Let’s get right into it!

a scary scene from an indie horror movie

The 5 Key Elements of Horror

When I think of good horror fiction, I’ve noticed that there are five main elements that you need to get right, so that your readers (or watchers) will be terrified, yet want to keep going with the story! We’ll go over each one in this section.

1. Setting and Atmosphere

The Importance of Setting in Horror

haunted house in a horror story

The setting sets the stage for horror fiction, as it provides the backdrop and mood for the story. An effective horror setting should evoke a sense of dread and anticipation in your reader. The best horror genre settings often feel isolated and unpredictable. Here are a few examples of horror settings:

  • Abandoned House: The old mansion at the end of the street, with its broken windows and overgrown garden, feels like it’s hiding secrets.

  • Dark Forest: The dense woods, where sunlight barely penetrates, and strange noises echo through the trees.

  • Haunted School: The deserted school, with its empty hallways and lockers that slam shut on their own.

Infuse Atmosphere into Your Story

Atmosphere is the feeling your story creates. To build it, focus on details that make your setting so creepy. Describe the sounds and smells and other fine details to add to the things we see (and don’t see!).

These small details help your readers feel that they are part of the world you’ve created. Examples include:

  • Creaking Floors: The sound of footsteps creaking on the wooden floorboards, even when no one is there.

  • Howling Wind: The wind howls like a banshee, making the windows rattle and the trees outside bend.

  • Flickering Lights: The lights flicker and dim, casting eerie shadows that seem to move on their own. This plays on our human fears of the unknown.

Use Horror Imagery

When I write horror stories, I put a lot of emphasis on painting a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Vivid imagery through the use of strong, descriptive words, makes the fear in horror literature feel real.

Here are a few examples of imagery for your horror novel:

  • Shadows That Move: The shadows in the corner of the room seem to shift and twist, forming shapes that aren’t there.

  • Blood-Stained Walls: The walls of the basement are smeared with dark, dried blood, hinting at past horrors.

  • Ghostly Figures: A pale, translucent figure stands at the end of the hallway, disappearing as soon as you blink.

horror subgenres

Include Sensory Details

Engage all the senses to make your horror story more immersive. Describe the sights, smells, tastes, and touch of the story world. Also include senses that another horror writer might miss, such as memories, dreams, nightmares, and visions. The more senses you engage, the more real your horror story will feel to your readers.

Here are a few examples of sensory details you could include in your horror fiction story:

  • Smells of Decay: The air is thick with the stench of rotting flesh, making it hard to breathe.

  • Chill in the Air: A bone-chilling cold wraps around you, as if invisible hands are gripping your skin.

  • Taste of Metal: The metallic taste of blood fills your mouth, sharp and tangy, making you gag.

2. Character Archetypes

With horror characters, we often see familiar archetypes: protagonists who are relatable and flawed, and antagonists who embody our deepest fears. Let’s take a look at common elements of compelling characters in scary stories.

Horror Protagonists

Horror protagonists are the heroes of your story, but the best ones are usually deeply flawed and relatable to the reader. In modern horror literature, they are often ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. This makes their survival all the more unlikely yet compelling.

Here are a few examples of common main characters in the horror genre:

  • Reluctant Hero: Someone who doesn’t want to be involved but must face the horror if they want to survive. Think of Ripley in Alien.

  • Everyman: An average person who could be anyone, making it easy for readers to see themselves in the character. Like Wendy Torrance in The Shining.

  • Expert: A character with specialized knowledge that becomes important to the story in a way that may overcome the horror. Think of Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula.

horror protagonist

Horror Antagonists

The antagonists in horror are the sources of fear and conflict. They embody the terror that the protagonist must confront and overcome.

  • The Monster: This can be a literal monster, like the creature in Frankenstein, or a human monster, like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

  • The Supernatural Entity: Ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings that defy natural laws. Examples include the malevolent spirits in The Conjuring.

  • The Psychopath: A human villain with no remorse or empathy, driven by dark desires. Norman Bates in Psycho is a classic example.

READ MORE: Learn all about the monster archetype, how to write a chilling monster, and be inspired with this list of monster ideas!

Archetypes in Horror Stories

Jungian archetypes are universal, symbolic patterns that resonate with readers on a deep level. In horror, these archetypes are used to create characters that feel both familiar and unsettling. They tap into the collective unconscious and make the scary story more impactful.

The Hero

The Hero archetype is the protagonist who must confront and overcome significant challenges. In horror, heroes often face terrifying obstacles and must find inner strength to survive.

  • Ellen Ripley in Alien: Ripley embodies the hero archetype, facing the alien threat with courage and determination.

  • Ash Williams in Evil Dead: Ash transforms from an ordinary person to a hero fighting against demonic forces.

  • Laurie Strode in Halloween: Laurie is the quintessential horror hero, using her wits and resilience, rather than brute force, to survive Michael Myers.

The Mentor

The Mentor archetype represents wisdom and guidance. In horror writing, mentors can provide crucial knowledge or tools to the protagonist, helping them confront the horror they face.

  • Dr. Loomis in Halloween: He serves as a mentor figure with his knowledge of Michael Myers, guiding others on how to deal with the threat.

  • Professor Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula: A classic mentor, Van Helsing offers wisdom and knowledge to combat the vampire menace.

  • Whistler in Blade: A more contemporary vampire hunter, his role as Blade’s mentor shows how guidance can empower the protagonist to overcome multiple challenges.

The Trickster

The Trickster is a character who disrupts the status quo, often causing chaos and confusion. They play with reality, making it difficult for other characters to distinguish between truth and deception.

  • Pennywise in It: Pennywise is a master of illusion, preying on the characters’ most primal fears and using trickery to manipulate and terrorize them.

  • The Djinn in Wishmaster: The Djinn’s chaotic nature manifests through psychological manipulation through the adage “careful what you wish for”.

The Shadow

The Shadow represents the darker side of the protagonist, often manifesting as the antagonist. It embodies the repressed, hidden aspects of the character’s personality, which can lead to internal and external conflict.

  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: This classic example shows the duality of human nature, with Dr. Jekyll representing the respectable side and Mr. Hyde embodying his dark, primal urges.

  • Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street: He is a manifestation of his victims’ deepest fears and traumas, attacking them in their dreams where they are most vulnerable.

  • David in The Lost Boys: In many ways, David represents the dark side of Michael’s psyche, showing what he could become if he gives in to his vampiric transformation.

Understanding these archetypes helps us predict their possible actions and increases investment in their fates.

3. Plot and Conflict

The plot in horror is driven by conflict. It’s the engine of the horror tale, and it often involves characters facing their nightmares or the things they fear most.

Overall Plot Points

Horror stories thrive on a well-crafted plot. Key plot points in horror often include:

  • The Inciting Incident: This is the event that kicks off the horror. For example, a character discovers a haunted object or witnesses a disturbing event.

  • Rising Tension: As the story progresses, tension should steadily increase. This could involve strange occurrences, mounting dread, and the protagonist uncovering more about the horror they face.

  • The Climax: This is the most intense part of the story. The protagonist faces the horror head-on, and their survival hangs in the balance.

  • Resolution: The story concludes with either the defeat of the horror or a twist that leaves the reader unsettled.

Horror Genre-Specific Plot Types

The Slow Build

Horror often benefits from a slow build-up of tension. This gradual increase in suspense makes the eventual scares more impactful.

  • In The Haunting of Hill House, the story slowly reveals the house’s dark history and the characters’ psychological unraveling.

  • The Witch uses a slow build to create an oppressive atmosphere, gradually revealing the supernatural horrors lurking in and around the farm and surrounding woods.

The False Security

Creating moments where characters (and readers) feel a sense of relief, only to have the horror return, can be very effective.

  • In It Follows, the characters often think they’ve escaped the entity, only for it to reappear in unexpected ways.

  • In Jaws, people experience brief moments of safety on land, only for the shark to strike again when they return to the water.

The Claustrophobic Setting

Horror plots often confine characters to a limited space. This heightens the feelings of danger and helplessness for the readers.

  • The Thing uses the isolated Antarctic research station to trap characters with a shape-shifting alien.

  • Alien confines the crew to their spaceship, creating a sense of inescapable terror as they are hunted by the xenomorph.

The Unreliable Narrator

Using an unreliable narrator can make readers question what is real.

  • In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman’s perspective leaves readers uncertain about what events actually occurred.

  • Identity features an unreliable narrator whose mental state leads to shocking revelations and twists.

The Escalating Stakes

As the story progresses, the stakes should get higher in a horror story. This makes the danger more intense and the potential consequences for the main characters more severe.

  • In A Quiet Place, the family’s survival becomes increasingly precarious as the creatures close in.

  • The Mist escalates the stakes as the survivors face both the deadly mist creatures and growing tensions within their fractured group.

The Twist Ending

haunted house story ideas

A shocking or ambiguous ending can keep the horror elements lingering in readers’ minds!

  • The Sixth Sense reveals a twist about Malcolm’s condition that recontextualizes the entire story.

  • Saw ends with a surprising twist that reveals the true mastermind behind the deadly game.

The Moral Lesson

Horror stories often include a moral lesson or commentary on societal issues.

  • Get Out addresses themes of racism and exploitation, using horror to make a powerful statement.

  • The Purge explores themes of societal violence and class disparity, using its dystopian setting to critique real-world issues.

READ MORE: If you’re writing a horror story, you might like to learn more about common themes in horror.

Types of Conflict in Horror Stories

Conflict is at the heart of any horror story. It drives the plot and creates tension. Common types of conflict in a horror movie include:

  • Man vs. Supernatural: Characters face off against ghosts, demons, or otherworldly entities. Example: The Exorcist.

  • Man vs. Man: The antagonist is a human with evil intentions. Example: Psycho.

  • Man vs. Self: The protagonist battles internal fears or psychological horrors. Example: Black Swan.

  • Man vs. Nature: The horror comes from natural forces, such as animals or environmental disasters. Example: Jaws.

Types of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing hints at events to come, building suspense and preparing the reader for future plot twists. Types of foreshadowing in horror include:

  • Direct Foreshadowing: Clues are explicitly presented. For example, Shaun of the Dead uses witty banter between characters to lay out the plot before the events occur.

  • Indirect Foreshadowing: Subtle hints are woven into the story. An example is a character having a bad feeling about an upcoming event. In The Others, the frequent mentions of the children’s sensitivity to light indirectly foreshadow the twist ending.

  • Prophetic Dreams/Visions: Characters have dreams or visions that hint at future events. Example: Premonitions of danger in Final Destination.

  • Symbolic Foreshadowing: Objects or symbols hint at future events. Example: The recurring appearance of a raven in The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.

Types of Plot Twists

Plot twists keep readers engaged by subverting their expectations. In horror, they can heighten fear and surprise. Types of plot twists include:

  • Red Herring: A misleading clue diverts attention from the true threat. Example: In Identity, the real killer stays hidden by focusing on other suspects.

  • Revelation: A major secret or truth is revealed. Example: The protagonist discovers they are the one responsible for the horror, as in Shutter Island.

  • Reversal: The situation changes dramatically, turning the plot on its head. Example: In Orphan, a seemingly innocent character turns out to be the villain.

  • Unexpected Ally: Someone who appeared to be an enemy turns out to be an ally. Example: An entity that seemed malicious helps the protagonist, such as in Ghost Ship.

READ MORE: Check out my giant list of great plot twist ideas for inspiration!

4. Suspense and Pacing

Suspense is what keeps readers engaged in the plot. It includes the anticipation of something going wrong and the fear of imminent danger.

Suspense in Horror

Creating suspense involves various techniques that build tension.

  • Withholding Information: By keeping key details hidden, you make readers curious and anxious to learn more.

    • In The Silence of the Lambs, the identity of Buffalo Bill is kept hidden.

    • The Blair Witch Project withholds visual information about the witch, relying on sounds, darkness, and the main character’s reactions to scare the audience.

  • Teasing Future Events: Dropping hints about future dangers can build suspense and keep readers hooked.

    • Stranger Things teases the presence of the Demogorgon through minor disturbances and mysterious disappearances.

    • The Ring uses the cursed videotape to foreshadow the impending doom that will strike in seven days.

Pacing Controls the Rhythm of the Story

Pacing is the rhythm of your story. Balancing fast and slow pacing can manipulate reader emotions.

  • Fast Pacing: Escalates the tension and keeps the action intense.

    • World War Z uses fast pacing during zombie attacks to heighten the sense of urgency and danger.

    • 28 Days Later features fast-paced chase scenes that amplify the horror of the infected.

  • Slow Pacing: Allows readers to breathe and dread what’s coming next.

    • The Witch uses slow pacing to build an oppressive atmosphere, making each moment of horror more impactful.

    • The Babadook slowly unravels the psychological horror, focusing on character development and tension.

Pacing: The Slow Burn vs. Jump Scares

Balancing slow-building suspense with sudden shocks is key to maintaining tension without overwhelming readers.

  • Slow Burn: Builds tension gradually, creating a sustained feeling of dread.

    • The Shining slowly builds tension through the psychological deterioration of Jack Torrance.

    • Midsommar creates an unsettling atmosphere through slow, deliberate pacing and cultural horror.

  • Jump Scares: Provide sudden shocks that release built-up tension.

    • The Conjuring effectively uses jump scares to surprise and frighten the audience.

    • Insidious employs jump scares to punctuate the eerie atmosphere and keep viewers on edge.

Misdirection

Leading readers down one path and surprising them with the unexpected can create shocking and memorable moments.

  • In The Others, the story leads viewers to believe in a haunted house, only to reveal the protagonists are the ghosts.

  • Psycho misdirects the audience by focusing on Marion Crane, only to have her killed early in the film, shifting the story’s focus to Norman Bates.

5. Fear or Disgust

Horror taps deeply into our instinctual feelings of fear and disgust. The horror genre stirs up primal, unsettling emotions in its readers and watchers. These are the elements to include in your own horror writing:

The Power of the Unknown

Keeping readers in suspense with uncertainty is a powerful tool in horror films. The unknown is often more terrifying than the known.

  • In The Babadook, the ambiguity of the monster’s existence heightens the rising tension and psychological terror.

  • The Mist leaves many questions unanswered about the nature of the mist and its creatures, maintaining an aura of fear and mystery.

fear of the unknown theme

Using Disgust to Elicit Fear

Disgust is a powerful emotion that can heighten the sense of horror.

  • Body Horror: This subgenre focuses on the grotesque transformation or mutilation of the human body. Examples:

    • The Fly shows the horrifying transformation of a man into a human-insect hybrid, eliciting disgust through his deteriorating body.

    • The Thing uses shocking scenes of body distortion and assimilation to create intense fear and revulsion.

  • Gore: Graphic depictions of violence and injury can shock and repel readers.

    • The Saw series is known for its extreme gore, with elaborate traps that cause graphic bodily harm.

    • Hostel uses intense gore to amplify the horror of the torture scenes.

  • Unsettling Imagery: Vivid descriptions of repulsive scenes can evoke strong feelings of disgust.

    • In The Exorcist, the scenes of possession include disturbing and revolting imagery that heightens the horror.

    • Hereditary features shocking and graphic moments throughout.

The Uncanny

The uncanny involves elements that are familiar yet eerily strange, creating a sense of discomfort and unease. Examples:

  • Coraline features an alternate world that mirrors the protagonist’s own but with unsettling differences.

  • Twin Peaks uses the uncanny to create a surreal and disturbing atmosphere, with familiar settings and characters taking on eerie qualities.

Types of Horror

Horror can evoke fear through various forms, such as unsettling psychological depths, eerie gothic atmospheres, monstrous beings, razor-edged slashers, and otherworldly supernatural elements.

Psychological Horror

psychological horror infographic

In psychological horror, the terror comes from the mind, often distorting reality and perception. Key characters include unstable individuals, with stories that focus on mental manipulation or the disintegration of reality.

Films like Black Swan demonstrate the genre’s power to disturb without relying heavily on visuals.

Gothic Horror

gothic horror definition and infographic

Gothic horror uses settings like decaying castles, troubled protagonists, and an omnipresent sense of doom. I love the intricacies of gothic elements, such as the detailed architecture and the classic feel they bring.

Crimson Peak expertly showcases gothic horror’s stylistic depth.

Monster Horror

sea monster

Monster horror brings primal fears to life, with creatures ranging from classic vampires to modern genetic aberrations. This subgenre often features a clear menace—the monster—against which humanity must contend.

Horror literature and movies like The Thing illustrate the terror that these fearsome beings can inspire.

Slasher Horror

slasher horror infographic

The essence of slasher horror lies in the thrill of the chase and the shock of vulnerability against a human predator. It’s marked by bloody sequences and inventive kills, with iconic villains like Michael Myers from Halloween.

I find its straightforward approach to terror both effective and simplistic.

READ MORE: If you’re writing a villain in your horror story, check out these villain ideas, villain backstory ideas, and villain quirk ideas for inspiration!

Supernatural Horror

supernatural horror subgenre

Supernatural horror explores the terrors of the unseen and unknown, from ghosts to demonic presences. It’s a subgenre filled with uncanny occurrences that defy logical explanation—entities like the specters in The Conjuring linger in my thoughts long after the credits roll.

READ MORE: Learn all about the top horror subgenres here!

How to End Your Horror Story

There are a few different ways you can end your horror story. The main ones are in a tragic way, a hopeful way, or an ambiguous way.

Decide on the Fate of Your Characters

The ending of your horror story is so important! Deciding the fate of your characters can shape the overall tone and message of your story.

  • Tragic Endings: Characters meet a grim fate. This kind of ending emphasizes the relentless nature of the horror.

    • Examples: In The Mist, the protagonist makes a heartbreaking decision, only to realize help was moments away. The Descent ends with the protagonist trapped, hallucinating a way out, only to be surrounded by creatures.

  • Hopeful Endings: Some characters survive at the end, giving the audience a glimmer of hope amidst the horror.

    • Examples: In A Quiet Place, the family finds a way to fight back against the monsters, hinting at future survival. The Conjuring ends with the family safe and the spirits vanquished, suggesting a new beginning.

  • Ambiguous Endings: The fate of the characters is left uncertain.

    • Examples: In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the final scene leaves viewers questioning whether the protagonist is still in the dream realm at the mercy of Freddy. Bird Box

      ends with the survivors finding a sanctuary, but the outside threat still looms.

Endings with Closure vs. Leaving Mysteries

How you handle plot resolution can significantly affect the story’s impact.

  • Wrapping Up Loose Ends: Resolving all plot points provides closure.

    • Pros: Gives readers a sense of satisfaction and completeness.

    • Cons: Can reduce the lingering sense of fear and mystery.

    • Example: The Shining concludes with Jack’s demise and the family’s escape, providing a clear resolution.

  • Leaving Mysteries: Some unanswered questions can keep the horror alive in readers’ minds.

    • Pros: Maintains a sense of unease and allows for personal interpretation.

    • Cons: Can be frustrating if key plot points feel neglected.

    • Example: The Blair Witch Project ends with many unanswered questions about the witch and the characters’ fate.

Concluding Thoughts

Writing a great horror story requires attention to setting, character archetypes, plot, conflict, suspense, fear and disgust. Each one of these story elements is important for horror writers to consider and spend time learning.

If you’re confused, overwhelmed or struggling with how to develop all these aspects of your story, my story development coaching services can help you get down to business, brainstorm ideas, overcome challenges, and accomplish your writing goals. I’ll work closely with you, providing unbiased feedback and coaching you on effective writing strategies.

If you’re ready to ramp up your talent and take your horror story to the next level, contact me today to get started!

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