Great Tips for Writing Horror

I started working with a friend to help encourage me to write because, although I love writing, I was getting stalled by plots with weak endings and not making my writing a priority. In one of our discussions when we were reviewing each other’s work, she asked me about mine, “What makes your story horror?”

My only answer was, “There’s murder in it and a killer who creates suspense and fear.” Not the strongest answer. So, after our meeting, I did some research to see if I could find a resource to help me better define what could make my story a horror story.

I stumbled upon a great webpage, Secrets of the Horror Genre. In most other resources I could find online, the information was vague and did not add anything to what I already knew about the genre. This webpage, in contrast, precisely outlines what is expected from a horror story, and it provides alternatives so that you can pick and choose what type of horror story you want to write. I highly recommend it if you are looking for some direction in your horror writing.

Horror Junior: Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946)

I recognize that Beauty and the Beast is not a horror story and that the film adaptations were not billed as horror movies. However, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 surreal take on the story lasts, to me, as such a creepy and scary version of the fairy tale. When the Disney version came out in 1991, I was a pre-teen and a die-hard fan of the animated film. I saw it in the theatre several times and when it came out on VHS, my Mom spent a lot of money to buy it for me (this was early in the video rental days and it was expensive to buy a copy to own — I love my Mom! lol). As part of that obsession, I sought out Cocteau’s version, and I remember being thoroughly freaked out by it. During that same era of my life, I was discovering horror movies, and this one was more like a scary movie than a kid’s tale.

Did you know that Walt Disney was interested in adapting Beauty and the Beast but felt discouraged after seeing Cocteau’s version, not believing his would be as good?

The freakiest part of the movie for me was the long hallway with the hands holding the torches. It still stands out to me today as unnerving.

I was interested to learn that Jean Cocteau intentionally made the Beast a sympathetic character and his alter ego the Prince an over-sentimental and saccharine character: “My aim was to make the Beast so human, so superior to men, that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and future; it would expose the naivete of the old fairy tale that conventional good looks are ideal.”

The contrasting approach worked. So popular was Jean Marais as the Beast, that when he was transformed at the end back to human form, Greta Garbo famously said, “Give me back my Beast!” Marlene Dietrich cried, “Where is my beautiful Beast?” And letters poured in from matrons, teenage girls and children complaining to Cocteau and Marais about the transformation.

Read more facts about Cocteau’s surreal film at IMDb Trivia: Beauty and the Beast (1946).

Horror Cinema Trivia: Pet Sematary (1989)

The role of Zelda, Rachel’s terminally ill sister, was played by a man. Director Mary Lambert wanted Zelda and her scenes to frighten the audience but did not believe that a 13-year old girl was scary so she cast Andrew Hubatsek in the role to make something be “off about Zelda.”

Read more about this casting choice at Bloody Disgusting: [It Came From the ’80s] The Traumatic Nightmare of Zelda in ‘Pet Sematary’.

Find more behind-the-scenes facts at IMDb Trivia: Pet Sematary (1989).

Horror Cinema Trivia: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

At the first cast meeting called by producer and director Francis Ford Coppola, he got all of the principal actors and actresses to read the entire Bram Stoker novel out loud to get a feel for the story. According to Sir Anthony Hopkins, it took two days to complete.

Gary Oldman said that when he first read the script, he decided it would be worth doing the movie just so he could feel what it would be like to say, “I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you” to someone.

In August 2018, Winona Ryder expressed concern that she might be legally married to Keanu Reeves. Apparently, Coppola wasn’t happy with their wedding scenes in the movie and, to achieve greater authenticity, he re-shot the sequence with a real priest.

Learn more about the making of Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula at IMDb Trivia: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Horror Lit: The Apple Tree

My best friend recommended to me Daphne du Maurier’s story “The Apple Tree.” I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of this author, although I was familiar with her work, unbeknownst to me. Her works Rebecca and “The Birds” were the stories behind Alfred Hitchcock’s movies of the same names, and which are both on my reading list now.

When I began reading “The Apple Tree,” I was expecting it to be something between Johnny Appleseed and Sleepy Hollow — only based on the title. I was very wrong. Instead, it was an engaging tale of a marriage turned sour. Told from the perspective of an old man who only sees what is wrong with his wife, du Maurier pulls you into a sad story of how life can be made harder when there is no love left between a couple.

The image of the apple tree was used very well in the story to represent the bitterness between the protagonist and his wife, and it reminded me of an earlier ghost story from the 19th century by Elia Peattie called “The Crime of Micah Rood.” Similarly, this story was told from the perspective of an old man, but that and the apple tree image are where the similarities end. This story is about poverty, jealousy and greed … and regret.

When I read “The Crime of Micah Rood,” I was struck by the central image of the apple tree. In both this story and “The Apple Tree,” the tree and its fruit act in supernatural ways that reflect the protagonists’ struggles. Peattie’s story is much shorter, but just as satisfying as du Maurier’s. They are good stories to read as companion pieces.

du Maurier, Daphne. “The Apple Tree,” The Birds and Other Stories, Virago, 2004, originally published as The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Several Long Stories, Gollancz, 1952.

Peattie, Elia. “The Crime of Micah Rood,” Great American Ghost Stories, ed. Bill Bowers, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Horror Junior Cinema Trivia: The Witches (1990)

After a test screening, The Witches author Roald Dahl angrily expressed to the producers how “appalled” he was at “the vulgarity, the bad taste” and “actual terror” in certain parts of the movie. He demanded that his name and his book’s title be removed from the film prior to release, but after receiving an apologetic, complimentary letter from Jim Henson, he grudgingly withdrew his threat.

Learn more behind-the-scenes trivia about this horror junior classic at IMDb: The Witches (1990) Trivia.