If you master the techniques of psychological horror you can write any kind of horror story.
Psychological horror uses suggestion and fear of the unknown. It relies on the reader’s imagination to create the monster. Instead of building up to a big reveal, it tells the story through the character’s reactions to the threat. What is not shown is more important than what is shown.
Most of the elements of psychological horror are found in all types of horror stories. Every horror story aims to build tension and put the reader on edge.
what makes psychological horror so important is that it focuses more on building tension than getting through the plot. Tension is key to horror as without it your story won’t be scary.
The techniques of psychological horror will enable you to build tension and make any horror story more satisfying. Here are the main elements that make psychological horror work.
Psychological Horror Uses Suggestion
Psychological horror is suggestive rather than overt. It is the thing hiding in the shadows that scares us, not the thing that jumps out of the shadows.
It doesn’t even have to be real. On second look, there may be nothing in the shadows, or maybe there was, we can’t be sure.
That is psychological horror. The inner belief that something scary is waiting for us.
This is frightening because it is unknown. Once we know what the scary thing is we can deal with it. We can come up with a plan.
No matter how strong the monster is, we can figure out a way to trap it and defeat it.
But if we can’t tell what kind of monster it is, we must consider many different ways to defeat it. We must stretch to our limits, and even then, it may not be enough.
Psychological horror is scary because it taxes our mental resources. We must prepare for every possible scenario that might happen when we suspect something is lurking in the dark.
The horror comes from not being able to cover all of our bases.
In what way is the monster going to get you? From behind? From beneath? Will it trick you? Will it overpower you? Is it even real? Will people think you are crazy?
Trying to cover every option means you will be unable to handle any of them to your full ability.
The knowledge of your inadequacy coupled with the approaching danger creates the tension of psychological horror.
Psychological Horror Plays on the Reader’s Imagination
The reader’s imagination does the heavy lifting in psychological horror.
Nothing you can write will ever compare with the bizarre and terrifying things that casually float up from the reader’s subconscious.
Ever since childhood, our imaginations have been creating crazy and scary things to frighten us. As a writer, we want to tap into that.
Our imagination creates all kinds of horrors as a survival mechanism. If we believe there is a threat in our environment our imagination will create an image in our minds.
It doesn’t even have to make sense. If you hear a strange noise in a dark room, the first thing you visualise may be a psychedelic blob monster.
Your mind is not concerned with facts, it is concerned with getting you away from a potential predator.
This is good for writers. You can create a powerful and menacing presence by revealing a few clues.
The less information the better when it comes to psychological horror. Reveal just enough to create a question in the reader’s mind. Their imagination will attempt to answer the question and create the horror in doing so.
You can pique the reader’s curiosity by revealing facts that seemingly contradict each other.
For example, if there are scratch marks on the inside of a locked door and no one was in the room, the contradiction raises a question. Now the reader will try to imagine what could have caused the scratch marks.
You can read about how to narrate a horror story here.
Psychological Horror Does Not Have a Big Reveal
Many psychological stories don’t have a big reveal at the end.
In a normal horror story, much of the horror comes from the reveal. For instance, a jump scare won’t work if a monster doesn’t jump out.
But in psychological horror, the important thing is what comes before a reveal. The tension and uncertainty are what matter.
For that reason, it often isn’t necessary to reveal the creature. As long as the reader has been sufficiently scared by the clues and signs along the way, the story has done its job.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t reveal the monster. It just means that the story doesn’t rely on it.
The success of the story comes from the behaviour of the characters. All the conflict and drama happen because the characters believe that something is after them.
In the movie The Blair Witch Project, we never see the witch or any other entitiy that might appear in a traditional horror story. Instead, the movie is about how the characters behave when things start to go wrong.
We get scared because the characters are scared. We are intrigued because the characters don’t know what’s happening.
There is no reveal at the end of the movie but it doesn’t matter. The viewer is left with the impression that some malevolent entity has taken the characters.
The entire movie comes down to the actions of the characters and not the external events.
When writing psychological horror, proceed as if you are not going to reveal the source of the horror.
You can reveal it if you want to. It won’t ruin the story or anything. But you have to write the horror scenes as if you aren’t going to reveal anything. That way they will have the proper effect of psychological horror.
It is a good idea to write this way if you are going to write novels. A novel can be unsatisfying if it doesn’t have a “proper” ending.
Include a reveal at the end, at least until you have enough experience to write without one. But write the body of the story with the assumption that you aren’t going to include a reveal. That way you will have an easier time hitting the psychological horror feel.
Psychological Horror Focuses on a Character’s Mental State
The mental state of the characters is important in psychological horror because the ways that the characters react create the horror.
It is easy to mess this up by making a story where there is no horror and it was all in their heads. This is usually unsatisfying.
Psychological horror does not mean that the horror is purely psychological and there is no real danger. It means that the story is told with an emphasis on the mental state of the characters as they experience the horror.
You can have a real ghost in your story. But focus on the way the characters behave after they suspect there is a ghost.
Write about the inner conflict of the characters. Psychological horror is often about an attack on the ego. How does the protagonist hold it together when they are in danger?
Often in psychological horror, the main character is unstable and unreliable. They doubt reality.
This does not mean the horror isn’t real. It means they are having trouble processing it.
A good psychological horror story will include characters that are suspicious of each other. They experience paranoia and self-doubt.
If there is a monster hunting a group of people, make it so that only one of the people has seen it and the others don’t believe that person.
The distrust of the group and the paranoia they feel make up the psychological aspect of the horror story. Maybe the character who saw the monster comes to doubt if they really saw it.
The reactions and attitudes of the characters are what drive the story rather than the external events.
Psychological Horror Plays with Logic
Psychological horror blends logic with unexplainable horror.
The setup and background of the story contain logical elements. The story may even proceed in a logical fashion by following clues and making deductions, just like a police procedural or a detective story.
But sooner or later the story must reach a point where there is not enough information to draw a logical conclusion. That’s where the horror comes in.
When there is not enough information to make a rational conclusion our imaginations try to fill the hole. Our mind will often create something predatory to fill in the blanks.
This phenomenon is probably a survival mechanism. It makes sense that we would evolve to fear predators. And if there is very little information, it is safer to assume there is something dangerous in the area than to drop your guard.
We assume the worst when we don’t have enough information.
It’s like a puzzle where we don’t quite have enough pieces to make out what the picture is going to be. Our imagination tries to create the picture with the information we have and we may come up with something drastically different from what it is supposed to be.
To create this effect, you need to plan out the events in your story and then decide what you can leave out. The story has to make logical sense while still leaving some things ambiguous.
For example, suppose there is a dead body in a locked room with no sign of any forced entry or exit. We immediately try to imagine how that person died.
There may be a strange mark on the body. We wonder what could have made it.
There may be a list of suspects which you can eliminate one by one. We are left wondering how the person was killed if there are no suspects.
We learn that the dead person was in a cult. Now we assume that their death has something to do with the cult. If the cult worshipped the devil, we begin to assume that the death was caused by supernatural forces. And so on.
By following a logical trail and revealing only a small amount of information you can play on the reader’s imagination.
You can read about horror mysteries here.
Psychological Horror Relies on Atmosphere
A scary atmosphere is one of the major ways to build tension in a psychological horror story.
If the characters are in a dark and foreboding place, it makes us wonder what is hiding in the shadows, waiting to jump out at them.
If the story starts in a warm and happy place and gradually descends to darker and more sinister environments, it shows the reader that something bad is coming.
Likewise, we can show the character becoming unhinged by describing environments that are bizarre and out of the ordinary.
The characters’ behaviour contributes to the atmosphere by showing apprehension or unsettled behaviour and the atmosphere drives the characters’ behaviour by causing them to feel frightened. The two work together.
Atmosphere is suggestive. What we call atmosphere is not something definable that happens in the story, it is the feeling we get from the place the characters are in.
This feeling or mood sets the tone. It tells us the meaning of the characters’ behaviour and tells us what to expect from them.
If a character is in a haunted house they may not want to walk into a dark cellar. the atmosphere tells us that the cellar is dangerous. It makes sense that the character doesn’t want to walk into it.
In a normal house with a different atmosphere, it would have a different meaning if a character didn’t want to walk into a cellar.
Because of this, we can use the atmosphere to build tension and suggest a threat.
If you want to write about a laboratory conducting horrible experiments, you could build the atmosphere by describing lab workers that work furtively and hurry around in a frightened manner, scared to talk to each other.
If you want to write about a graveyard where ghosts walk at night, you could describe the place as being unnaturally quiet with footprints and other signs of activity even though no one comes there.
There are many ways to use atmosphere to suggest horror.
You can read about the difference between Psychological horror and regular horror here.
There are many styles of horror writing but they all use these elements to some degree. Psychological horror serves as the motor that drives all horror stories so it is worth understanding and mastering.
The better you get at building tension and suggesting danger, the better your stories will be. Happy writing.