Fear Itself: Books That Go Bump in the Nightby Beth Carswell
I have zombie nightmares. Ongoing, recurring, terrifying, bloody and gruesome, these are real nightmares, not just bad dreams. It's not uncommon for me to wake with a jolt, at the exact moment a zombie breaks through the closet door and begins to eat me, to find myself paralyzed in bed, heart thudding, mouth open, horrorstruck and unable to move.
And yet, I continue to seek out zombie movies, zombie books, zombie comics, and everything I can get my masochistic little hands on. Despite knowing I will sleep poorly, despite knowing that when I finish said movie, book or comic I will be hyper-aware of every little noise and likely in for a few nights of mental torture, I continue to subject myself to the glorious misery of fear. And I'm not alone. While some are sensibly squeamish enough to stay away, horror movies are a huge market . From the release of both Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, audiences have packed theaters to have their most base and primal terrors tormented.
And books are the same, with readers passing copies from hand to trembling hand, saying "I almost fainted.", "I gasped audibly," and "The scene where he's behind the door? I threw the book across the room," while gleefully scare-sharing with their next victim. I myself remember, while recommending Cormac McCarthy's The Road to others, solemnly admitting that I had slept with the lights on the night I finished it.
What is it about fear, which I'm sure we'd all agree is a negative emotion, that we can't resist? Why do we come back for more?
Different kinds of fear strike different chords with different readers, too. According to famous literary critic Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Crouch, there are seven basic conflicts around which a plot can revolve: Man against Man, Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, Man Against God, Man Against Society, Man Caught in the Middle and Man & Woman. But that was a century ago, and others have tried updating the list, as well as using more inclusive language (ahem), and now there are six basic plot conflicts.
Character v. Character refers to a conflict between two or more people, such as classic Protagonist vs. Antagonist.
Character v. Nature is most often seen in natural disaster stories involving storms, earthquakes, being lost in the wilderness and the like.
Character v. Self is characterized by a conflict in which the main character is battling an internal struggle with his/herself.
Character v. Supernatural involves a conflict between a character and unexplained, supernatural or typically unbelievable phenomena, like vampires, little green men from Mars, ghosts and such.
Character v. Society is much what it sounds like – the protagonist is at odds or at war with the rest of society. People often include Character v. Machine, which is a conflict between a protagonist and a mechanical threat, into this same category.
Character v. Destiny is a theme in which a character struggles to change their destiny and not become a victim of their own predetermined fate.
See our video for more on the Six Basic Plot Conflicts › Play Video
It's said that every story uses one or more of these basic devices to build conflict and shape the plot. But authors have a much bigger job when trying to scare the reader. Inspired by the six plot conflict themes above, I've made a list of six fear devices in writing.
The Gradual Suspense: This is when the author is a particularly skilled writer, and slowly builds suspense and tension and foreshadowing and creaking floorboards and agonizing moments until OH HEAVENS DON'T GO INTO THE BASEMENT and suddenly you're in the fetal position in bed, and the book is safely locked in the attic. Best example: The short story Uneasy Homecoming by Will F. Jenkins.
The Unthinkable Alternate Reality: Written drily and seriously, as though the terrible and catastrophic has occurred – plague, nuclear war, zombie outbreak. Bleak, stark horror. Best examples: World War Z by Max Brooks, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Am-I-Crazy?: Perhaps the cruelest trick of all to play on the protagonist who is going through something terrible – making them doubt their own sanity, by having them experience not only spooky, creepy and terrible things, but also the concerned whispers and looks of pity from others, who of course, see nothing. Best example: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
The Overt and Unsubtle Monster: Sometimes, simple horror is scariest. Evil clowns, enormous spider-beasts, gore galore, fanged fiends and flesh-eating nightmares. These are the books with predatory creatures you see when you close your eyes. Best examples (of many): Stephen King's It, The Strain by Guillermo del Toro.
The Everyone's Against Me!: The fear version of Character vs. Society, this involves the lonely and frightening idea that the world has gone very wrong, and everyone is against you, and this is Just The Way Things Are Now. Dystopian fright night at its worst. Best examples: Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.
The Oh God, It's Real: Perhaps the most effectively scary books are the ones that are true. Whether stories of disasters, legions of mass murders, tales of disease outbreaks or facts about the environment, sometimes revealing more about the world we live in than we want to know is a supremely effective scare tactic. Best examples: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.
The Books of Fear
by William Peter Blatty
by Ira Levin
by Stephen King
The Island of Dr. Moreau
by H.G. Wells
by Patrick Suskind
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
by H.P. Lovecraft
by Justin Cronin
by Guillermo del Toro
The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski
by John Wyndham
by PD James
by Shirley Jackson
The Hot Zone
by Richard Preston
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Ken Kesey
by John Fowles
by Cormac McCarthy
A Pale View of Hills
by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Running Man
by Richard Bachman
I am Legend
by Richard Matheson
by Stephen King
by Roald Dahl
Super Sad True Love Story
by Gary Shteyngart
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser