Horror Month Guest Post: Writing Horror for People who Don’t Like Horror with Kai Kiriyama

I am a sucker for horror novels. I binge read Stephen King at least once a year, and I grew up reading R.L. Stine. Growing up, my favourites were stuff like Dracula and Frankenstein. Not necessarily scary by today’s standards, but when you’re a kid, monsters of all shapes are the stuff of nightmares! My favourite books are ones that have kept me up way past my
bedtime because I can’t sleep for fear of the Thing Under the Bed.

And yet, I shy away from a lot of horror novels, and especially horror movies, because I don’t like most of what passes for horror these days. I find that “horror” in most media has become synonymous with “shock value” and “gore” and while I shy away from that stuff because I find it profoundly disturbing, I feel like body horror and gore shouldn’t really be what horror is about.

I write zombie books. I write vampire books. I jokingly say that I write horror books for people who don’t like horror, and so far, it’s been pretty accurate. I’ve sold my zombie books to people who have said that they hate zombie books because it’s all the same old hack and slash, jump scare, gore-filled slop, but they’ve come back after reading my books and saying that yeah, that was a good read. I don’t write a lot of jump scare, gore-filled horror. I don’t like body horror. I write stories that are character-based. I write horror that is more a feeling in your gut, rather than pools of blood and entrails hanging from the lights. I write horror that comes from the idea that there is something out there, lurking in the shadows, and you know it’s there, but you can’t see it. I write hopelessness, and the idea that you’re never gonna get back to normality,
and that’s what becomes scary. When you’re writing horror without using gore, you need to set the tone and the atmosphere. Anything that the audience can imagine is worse than what you’re going to present them with, so use that as a tool in make the fear become almost tangible.

Describe a smell. Wet fur, and rotting wood.
A sound. Scraping along the floor, a low clicking that’s getting closer. A
ragged breath that isn’t coming from your character’s lungs.
A glimpse of something out of the corner of the eye. A huge shape. A
flutter of movement. Long legs, a flash of teeth.
You can’t see it. Not exactly, but you know its there. Watching. Waiting.
Getting closer…

You can make everything scary. It’s all a matter of finding your voice and learning to get the tools you need to make it scary without relying on gore.

Happy Haunting!
-Kai Kiriyama

Kai Kiriyama is a an author of several books about zombies, vampires and a
steampunk detective. She lives in Alberta, Canada with her pet snake and a
looming deadline.

You can find Kai on Twitter: @RaggedyAuthor
And on her website: http://www.theraggedyauthor.com/
You can buy her books on all digital retailers, but the amazon links are:
Pathogen Patient Zero: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00X01BH9E
Pathogen Outbreak: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B012Z1OTPI
My Life Beyond the Grave: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00OC2X93M

Horror Month: Writing Effective Body Horror

Up until relatively recently in my writing career, I’ve considered myself a science fiction writer first, a horror author second. However, as my writing career has progressed, I find myself writing more and more horror fiction—and it’s getting published:

Bad Blood

Most of my ideas these days have horror roots. Perhaps I have an inner darkness inside me that I have to exorcise through the pen. It seems that the darkness in me has reached out to the darkness in others, so I will continue to write horror

Most of my horror pieces have elements of body horror. What is body horror? Body horror is “biological horror, organic horror or venereal horror is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation” (source). My favourite example of body horror in film is David Chronenburg, specifically the film Videodrome.

An example of body horror that can be found in my work (go read it.now.) in Bad Blood, when Scotty begins to pick apart his own hands in order to drink his own blood.

Body horror requires three basic tenants to scare effectively:

One: know the human body. 

Essentially, you must bend the rules so you can break them. You want to push the reader out of their comfort zone, but not test their suspension of disbelief. I have run into this frequently in my writing life. I have found it extremely valuable to know how much blood is actually in a human body, for example. My writing group actually called me out for Offerings when I didn’t know the temperature it takes a human body to burn at. The more you know about the human body, the more ideas you can get for things to go terribly wrong.

Two: Show a character’s thoughts 

Don’t just describe the weird and wonderful things you can make the human body do! That’s telling, and everyone knows that you have to show, not tell. Body horror is most effective when shown, and a great way to do that is in the point of view of a character, whether first person or third person limited. What this does is show the reader what is happening without shoving it down the reader’s throat, which is not what you want to do in body horror. Humans rarely think in explicits, after all, and our cognition works by comparing everything we process to everything else, so using a character’s thoughts allows you, as the writer, to use those flowery complex metaphors you like to write.

You know it’s true.

Three: Most importantly: know your reader’s thoughts 

Body horror is found in many sub-genres of horror: one could argue that it is a staple of the genre. Readers have buttons, and horror is all about pushing them. It is important to consider your audience on every level. Think about the macro:  what buttons does society have?  What about culture? Religion? Science? Think about the micro:  what body parts are humans most attached to? What body parts make people squirm if you describe them?

And, of course, have fun writing. You sick, sick people.

God bless,

Kelsey J.

Reviewsday: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

An English professor of mine once told me (and I can’t find where he got it from, forgive me) that the most powerful types of horror is horror for another person. I have to agree with him. All horror works on this principle, in my opinion, because if the reader feels nothing for the characters, doesn’t empathise with their struggle and hope for their misery to end, then the author has failed. The example my professor gave our class to illustrate this principle was Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken which features a little boy slowly losing himself to the symptoms of schizophrenia. The story is excellent, and the reader was made to fear for this little boy and the life he would lead with this illness. I mention all this today because the graphic novel I’m reviewing today also deals with a young person slowly succumbing to their own inner demons, and the horror around it comes from knowing how this troubled boy’s story will end.

My Friend Dahmer was written and drawn by the artist known as Derf Backderf, real name John Backderf . It was published by Abrams ComicsArts in 2012, which publishes groundbreaking graphic novels and illustrated books about the creators and the history of comics art, animation, and cartoons”  As the title implies, the work is based on the author’s real life friendship with infamous serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, but it’s about adolescence, loneliness and the strange world of inner darkness that can lurk inside, unnoticed, until it’s too late.

You might be able to tell that I really like this graphic novel.

The graphic novel is entertaining, in a dark way. In terms of more traditional “entertainment”, the antics of young Derf and his friends, and even some of the “Dahmerisms” (Dahmer becomes a sort of class clown in high school) were funny.  However, the story of Jeffery Dahmer is essentially like watching a train wreck: you know that it’s going to go horribly, horribly wrong and yet you can’t look away. Backderf’s art style is superb and really brings the story to life. The style is reminiscent of caricature, featuring exaggerated facial features and over-the-top movement, and is extremely expressive. This allowed the reader to see every micro expression of every character, and allowed the emotion behind the story to come through.

The story itself is told very well. It follows the five act plot structure, which I thought was a little odd for a memoir, and it worked quite well. Dahmer was portrayed as both a protagonist and an antagonist at different times in the book, but Backderf weaved it together so seamlessly that it takes re-reading and analysis to figure out. It’s one of those stories that you want to read again and again to catch all the nuances and all the little details. I constantly knew what was going on, and could easily follow Dahmer’s descent downwards–even if I didn’t want to.

Jeffery Dahmer is well characterized, which is probably a good thing because he’s the main character. What makes this book so horrifying is that Backderf spends so much time fleshing out Dahmer that the reader starts to feel a bit of empathy for him, as Backderf clearly does. My main issue with this book is that Dahmer is characterized so well that the other characters seem flat next to him. Young Derf himself seems like an afterthought in this story, and doesn’t feature much until shortly before his friendship with Dahmer ends. This isn’t a big issue, since the focus of the story is Dahmer, but it would have been nice to see a bit more of the inner worlds existing around Dahmer, if only to highlight that a world existed around this one individual.
I don’t know if I can call this graphic novel an enjoyable read, because it’s genuinely hard to watch Dahmer become, well Dahmer. I would call it horrifying at best. But I feel like it’s an important read, because it’s a reminder that, as much as we wish it wasn’t so, real-life monsters are all too human.

HORROR MONTH: What is Horror?

Are you, hapless surfers of the internet, prepared for a month of monsters, blood and deep, dark terror? Are you ready for….


Those of you who’ve been slinking around here for a while know that I love Halloween. I love celebrating the dark and the bad, at least once a year. Usually I do a villain theme month, because their Halloween costumes are much more popular. And who gets remembered from our favorite Halloween silver “screamers”? Not the idiot teenagers, but the giant, hulking monsters carrying pointy things. This year, I decided to go a bit more directly thematic and really get down into the nitty-gritty of Halloween. So I present to you: horror month!

But what is horror?

Everyone “knows” what horror is intuitively, but what is it on a psychological level?

“Fear” is one of the most basic emotions, to the point where there’s argument as to whether or not it’s an actual emotion and not something along the lines of an instinct. Emotions are not just feelings in big scary psychology land: emotions are associated with behavioral and physiological states. There are many different theories of emotion, and I don’t think anyone else wants to hear about all of them. The basic low-down on fear is that it’s a  motivational state aroused by specific stimuli that give rise to defensive behaviors or escape.

Where fear comes from is a great mystery of psychology, and many of the sub disciplines of psychology have their own theories. Fear has some roots in specific structures in the brain, and of course, specific neuro-chemicals like adrenaline that trigger the fight/flight response. There is also evidence that fear can be taught. One of the most famous pieces of evidence that fear can be taught is the Little Albert experiment, in which John B. Watson taught a small child to fear everything white and fluffy–including things as innocuous as a teddy bear or a bunny rabbit. Fear is believed to have an evolutionary component. Evolutionary psychologists believe that fear kept people away from potential dangers, like snakes and spiders and heights.

Psychologists have found that horror films create actual feelings of fear in people, trigger same reactions as an actually potentially dangerous stimuli (ie: a snake). So why do people like horror, since it triggers this fear response? Well…it’s all in perspective. Horror movies released for a wide audience work because, for whatever reason, people have similar fears (like ghosts, or being stabbed to death by Michael Myers. No? Just me? Okay). Humans are hard-wired to be tuned to fear and danger. According to evolutionary psychologists, it’s how we adapted and survived to new environments. Here’s the kicker: evidence suggests that different people secrete and respond to different chemicals in response to fear. Fear typically releases, as mentioned above, adrenaline (think fight/flight/freeze response) as well as dopamine. Some people are more sensitive to dopamine. Dopamine is the happy neurochemical, and secretes in many situations, including, fun fact, when people eat chocolate. Do people more sensitive to dopamine like horror movies better, or people less sensitive to dopamine? I couldn’t find any research suggesting which way it went, but if you can, feel free to let me know in the comments.

There are some more humanistic and social psychology theories to do with why people like horror movies. Some psychologists suggest that horror movies provide a safe environment to experiment with their deep dark fears, and that surviving these fears gives people a sense of confidence.

This must be those dopamine people, because after a horror movie I’m looking in all the shadows to make sure no ghosts are hiding in my room. After I watched the The Fourth Kind, I couldn’t sleep because I was pretty sure aliens were coming to butt probe me. That’s books too. Suffer the Children? I couldn’t look at a kid for a month.

I digress.

I think the social psychologists have one of the best theories as to why people like horror: it creates a social bonding experience. People are social creatures: we like dealing with our fears together. This has roots in the other theories I mentioned above, I believe. People get a sense of confidence from showing that they conquered their fears in front of their friends. In the olden times, if someone saw a big scary snake they probably called their friends to come help them kill that sucker. Humans use other humans to deal with their fear.

I need to digress again and give you some anecdotal evidence. I remember when I went to see the first Paranormal Activity film in the theater on Halloween. I was late too, so I had even less of an idea what was going on. Everyone in that theater was in sync. We laughed at the boringness of 90% of the movie together, and stood in shock together when that scary demon lady jumped at the camera (spoilers?). And then, right as the credits were rolling, we heard little drops on the floor and the saddest voice in the world sigh “oh, my skittles.”

The whole theater burst out laughing. We were united.

If you’re a writer or an artist or a filmmaker, you’re probably saying “all this is well and good Kelsey, but what’s the scariest? How do I make my audience pee themselves?”

That’s a loaded question, hypothetical artsy fartsy people. Everyone is scared of similar things, yeah, but in different ways. I think, if you really want to freak people out, you need to violate the laws of nature. All my research has suggested that, if you want people to be afraid, throw in a spider or a snake or something. But if you want people to really fear horror to their core, make that spider giant. People are very imaginative, but like the natural world to have rules and order. Yes, this includes our fictional universes (see: Tolkien). This is because the human mind loves to categorize and sort things. Things that violate the laws of nature are scary because our brain doesn’t know how to sort it. It calls into question everything we’ve already sorted/

You need some theories on how this works? More theories? Okay! People who actually don’t want to scare people (I know, what?) with their art or robotic creations consider the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis, put forward by Masahiro Mori. The Uncanny Valley Hypothesis suggests that the closer something comes to human, but doesn’t quite get there (ie: violates laws of nature of what a human should look like) will repulse and horrify people. This theory has been applied to robots, zombies, computer animation, and moving stuffed animals.

If you can name me one horror story that doesn’t violate the laws of nature, I’ll give you a prize.