Psychological Horror

October 2, 2010

Paul E. Cooley is one of the authors I know personally in the podcast space that really seems to get psychological horror. So when he sent me this essay I was thrilled. Please let us know what you think of, when you think of this genre and let us know if you agree or disagree with Paul’s thoughts. Also, if you haven’t checked his stuff out, get scared stiff for free over at his site!

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a horror writer. But what does that mean exactly? When I was a kid and someone said “horror” to me, I immediately thought of all the creature feature movies I had watched, or the previews of Alien and The Exorcist, the tall man from Phantasm, or perhaps the spectral tendrils that jumped from a television screen toward a young girl in Poltergeist.

It’s not news to any of us that horror has many different flavors. The traditional monster stories that include vampires, werewolves, zombies and the like, or the things that go bump in the night tales. Those are pretty much the most popular of the genre. But at some point, psychological horror started taking a front row seat.

Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho was perhaps the most visceral book ever produced. The novel is told from the viewpoint of a modern day Marquis De Sade who’s much more obsessed with the color of someone’s business cards than the political plights of people. The movie, was okay, not great. But the book was on a level of horror that transcended most of the other offerings.

Ellis’ character, Patrick Bateman, appeared well after Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and therefore owes some of it viscerality to that work and Hannibal Lecter, but at the same time, Bateman is his own creature. In the realm of the visceral, these two characters haunt me the most. It is their psychology that scares me more than their acts. The idea of a great and talented intelligence that lives to commit murder and torture, yet hides among us clothed in our clothes, eating at our restaurants, managing our bank accounts, or providing us medical care… That’s what scares me. A lot.

I have written several short stories and one novella where the horror has more to do with the mind and what the mind does and says. But unlike Thomas Harris, King, Straub, or Koontz, my characters, when they speak in the first person, rarely even touch on the acts of violence they perform. Those are just passing details, unimportant to their psychology. Nothing to be dwelt upon. I, as a writer, am much more interested in why people do what they do rather than what they do.

So am I really a horror writer? Is opening the inside of someone’s mind up for the reader and displaying all its terrible nooks and crannies really horror? Or is it something else?

I love the monster flicks. I love the sci-fi/horror of Scott Sigler, Phil Rossi, Matt Wallace, and many others. I love the dark urban fantasy of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.” The idea the fantastic lives around us, hiding in plain sight, is one I love. Yet, I’m not a big fan of traditional fantasy.

When you create a world, populate it with monsters or weapon wielding barbarians, the psychology changes. The psychology of the characters becomes something too easy to just blame on the environment. Monsters rarely profile themselves, at least in the creature features. The monsters of the modern world, on the other hand, provide us with much more ammunition to explore their minds. Perhaps it is because they live in a world so much like our own.

But telling the story from the killer’s mind isn’t the only way to build the fear and dread. Rather than the killer narrating or the narrator entering the mind of a kill, the story is sometimes told best from an observer. Tattoo, for instance, tells the tale of a reporter tracking down a murderer. But really, the story isn’t about the reporter at all. It’s about the killer. Through the reporter’s observations and the information he discovers, the reader (and writer) are left to build the profile for the killer and guess at his psychology. One of the great things about telling a story in this manner is that it’s very fair when the reader, based on the assumptions of the character they follow, discovers that they’ve only had part of the picture the whole time.

When I wrote Tattoo, I first tried to make the story from the killer’s mind. I tried three times that way. Each attempt ended in dismal failure with a story that lasted only a thousand words before it dried up. It wasn’t until I told the story from another person’s point of view that everything clicked home. That’s when the fun began.

Horror writers have choices to make. I am not a great mystery writer. I am not a great thriller writer by any stretch of the imagination. Those who are much better skilled than I can wrap their fiends up in the traditional mysteries or thrillers and make fantastic fiction. They populate their worlds with monsters and somehow make it all work. Great writers can make any story, no matter how derivative, into entertaining literature. I’m not a great writer…yet. But one day I hope to have explored enough of these other territories to include them in my work. I’d love to write something like Scott Sigler’s Nocturnal or Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files”. I’d love to be able to keep track of that many subplots and still manage to tie it all up at the end and have the reader utter a four letter curse in admiration. Hell, wouldn’t all writers?

Horror writers can choose to make their horror upfront and in your face. We can dangle dozens of dead bodies for your perusal, describe the stench of rotting meat and show you the maggots in the eye sockets. We can revel in the squirting of blood, the slash of a creature’s talons as it disembowels its latest victim. We can show you a chanting horde raising something unholy from the depths of hell. We can bring creatures from unknown planets or dimensions and show you every single awful, horrible action these things can visit upon our bodies, our society.

Oh, so many choices. Horror really comes down to finding something that makes the reader’s spine shiver. Or at least unsettles them. Visceral, or body horror, allows a great number of avenues, because the writer spends most of their time trying to figure out something that will disgust the reader. Or that’s what some might think. Actually, it works differently for me. I get a vision of something, and it wants to be told in a story. So I tell it. With Canvas, Tattoo, and my novel Closet Treats, probably the best tales I’ve written (that are available online), a single image came to mind. The image spoke. I listened.

What is horror? Horror is what unsettles us. Horror is that tingly feeling when you see a shape in the dark that you know damned well is just a shoe, but at that second, in dim light coming from the moon through the blinded windows, that shape becomes something malevolent. It becomes a giant a spider, or a fiendish visitor from another realm. In short, your mind doesn’t see the entire image and therefore, it fill in the blanks for you. Those blank spots are where horror thrives. Successful horror writers figure out where those blank spots are in your psyche, and they implant the details to make that metaphorical shoe into a killing machine. It sounds absurd, but I think that’s what we do. Horror writers can turn the most innocuous items– a washing machine, a car, or a teddy bear– into the vehicle for our darkest fears.

We can take a child’s rhyme and turn it into something odious and loathsome. Horror writers have the unique power to turn our minds on themselves and feed paranoia and fear to our hungry psyches. So what is horror? Horror is what scares us, disgusts us, fuels us with adrenaline, and keeps us wanting to get to the end. It must have elements we can identify with, heroes and villains that have something in common with the every day person. Take a flaw, take it to the extreme, and you have a possible hero or villain.

Writing psychological horror relies upon character reactions as well disturbing the reader from the character’s point of view. The monsters are inside the skull, although they may also have a physical analogue. Writing about a character who is descending into utter lunacy requires taking the reader with them. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds.

For me, writing is always about character first, plot second. I enjoy character driven stories more than plot driven fiction. A character I can identify with, that I like in some way, that I care about, is a character whose every emotion I feel. When writing horror of any kind, having characters that are more than 2-dimensional and that you relate to, is more important than the most frightening hell-risen beast. If I don’t care about what happens to the character, then the world around them and the circumstances of their conflict matter nothing.

I am hardly the best writer in the world, let alone the best horror writer. But I know the books that leave me with a lasting impression. I know that I care about Scott Sigler’s two main characters in Contagious. I know that I’m rooting for them even as I watch the world around them collapse. I know that I’m screaming inside at Phil Rossi’s Gerald from “Crescent” to get off the station and never come back. I care about these characters because the authors created them in such a way that I can care about them, that I relate to them. That’s what makes the terrors they encounter so much more powerful.

Good horror should make us weep for the character witnessing the events around them. We should feel their screams, because those sounds they make in the pages are our own. We crave them to succeed, to run, to somehow survive the mess they’re in.

Short stories typically provide very little space for character development. But we all do our best, or should be trying, at least. This is why I spend so much time in the heads of the characters in Canvas and Momma. I want you to understand how they think and how they feel. Perhaps you can relate to them. And perhaps you might even feel sorry in some way for how they see the world. Or better yet, you’re simply revolted at the way they see the world because you realize they are intelligent, down to earth people with a major screw loose.

Is it horror though? I don’t know. I don’t really care how it’s classified, and I don’t think it’s stellar literature by any stretch of the imagination. But I do know this: while I was writing those stories, I became those people. I lived in their skin. With any luck, the reader did too. And perhaps that is the best way to describe psychological horror–that for a few minutes, you become the people you loathe or love, and the see the world in a terrifying way from their perspective.


  • Fantastic essay from one of my favourite writers. Paul writes horror which makes you think – ‘psychological horror’ is an apt phrase.

  • Jen says:

    excellent essay.

    I had put away anything but non-fiction for a couple of years because there was no fiction I connected with. It’s because I didn’t give a damn about the characters. You write people I can care about…and thus, want to read. So, thanks for helping me rediscover fiction…even if you kill off my favorite characters. 🙂

    • admin says:

      We hope that you’ll keep coming back and checking out the stories we feature here. Good fiction, regardless of genre, has to have characters that you can connect with.

  • Glad y’all liked the essay and thanks for the kind words. Hope to be writing some more of them for you. Thank you to Abbatoir for asking me to contribute.

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