In the process of reading books, watching movies, and playing video games that are designed to frighten or unnerve their audience, I've noticed five techniques that stories often use to get a reaction:
#1: Jump scares
If you want to keep video gamers and moviegoers tense and on edge, this is a pretty effective way to do it. That said, it's best used in moderation to prevent people from getting used to it - or worse, or concluding that you're a one-trick pony with no imagination.
There are two ways to make a jumpscare especially effective:
1. Use it at a moment when the viewer is already tense. At this point, there's probably expecting it, but that foreknowledge may not be enough to calm their strained nerves.
2. Use it in a situation where the audience normally feels safe - especially if a scary scene ended recently and your viewers have started to let down their guard, but they're still wound up.
Unfortunately, I've found it pretty much impossible to pull off anything close to a jumpscare in a non-illustrated novel; a capslocked word just doesn't have the same audio-visual punch that a screeching animatronic or howling zombie does. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.
#2: Blood and gore
However, it can be highly effective if used right. A heavily gore-splattered room is an obvious indication that something horrific happened here, and if it's paired with a blood streak leading in the direction the protagonist has to go, it adds an extra layer of "Oh CRAP, what's ahead of me?!"
Also, while a nonstop parade of red walls can numb the audience in short order, a little blood can go a long way in a story where there's normally none of it. The very fact that it's rare makes it stand out as a sign that something is seriously and unusually wrong.
And if there's blood where there's no reason for there to be blood, like bleeding walls or a sink bubbling red? Guess what, protagonist - something supernatural is probably at work, and it isn't friendly. Good luck with the rest of your life.
#3: A creepy atmosphere
Uncanny stillness, hostile or hungry noises, flickers of movement on the edge of their senses, an eerie soundtrack, ominous warnings, an environment in a state of disrepair... there are many ways to hint that all is not well, and it's time to start worrying.
This kind of horror story can actually be almost soothing at times, while still maintaining the creepy tension that characterizes subtle horror. And when it does show its fangs in the form of blood or jumpscares, the fact that you haven't gotten the audience used to them can make them all the more terrifying.
#4: Subtle signs that something's off
Whatever it is, it's subtle, it's wrong, and it's unnerving. It takes more skill to pull off than gore or jump scares, but Silent Hill 2, The Invasion, and some of Ted Dekker's novels do it and do it well.
#5: Body horror
"When you meet anything that used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it, and feel for your hatchet.”
Perhaps out of an instinct to avoid contagious diseases, and more obviously because we can mentally contrast the gruesome creature in front of us to what it used to look like, humans are naturally wired to be creeped out by things that look almost human but aren't.
Deformed animals can work too, especially if they look diseased enough to trigger the "avoid contagion" instinct.
And if there are signs that, underneath the ghastly mental and physical transformation, the original consciousness is still alive and suffering?
Hello, nightmare fuel.
What is your favorite of these 5 techniques?
And do you have any ideas for how to make a jumpscare in a novel that doesn't involve pop-ups or illustrations?
I look forward to your comments.