All Hallows’ Eve is nigh. Outside the graveyard is alight. The cauldrons bubble. The spirits grow restless with excitement. I sit huddled in my writer’s corner, swishing red wine in a glass lined with black bones, and I can think of nothing more appropriate than to speculate upon that which brings horror into our magical weave of words.
The surreal. The terrifying. The uncomfortable.
Reaching into the foggy graveyard of my own memories, I’ve selected some of my absolute favorite tropes that have at one time or another spooked or startled or disquieted me. Perhaps you can put them to use tormenting your own readers. From least to most bone-chilling, here are my five favorite scary tropes:
For however many pages, you’ve invested yourself into this interesting character who is making small gains on their journey to being the badass hero/heroine you know they can be when suddenly, whether by force or trickery or some desperate bargain, they’re possessed by a malevolent entity. A demon. A spirit. A sorcerer of uncanny magic. Whatever it is, the bodily temple now has two residents, and chances are the new guy is going to be an absolute nuisance. There are levels of severity in what the possessor can do. At the minimal, the possessed is tormented by an extra voice in their head tempting them toward their own base desires, playing off their fears and insecurities, and generally causing mischief. At the worst, the possessor is in full control and the host is but a helpless passenger in their own body. Perhaps there’s a rotating timeshare, and control has a time limit for each party. And once something has been invited in, they can be pretty difficult to get rid of, and likely they won’t go without creating a huge mess of the place.
Possession is terrifying primarily because of the helplessness factor. Nothing is so demoralizing as watching a wholesome, intelligent character being unwittingly drawn astray by a malicious conscience or being made completely subservient to an evil entity. The idea of them committing atrocities against their normally good natures or against their will entirely can be mind-numbing and frustrating to a point you want to pull your hair and scream out in their place. For me, one of the most nerve-wracking scenes in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was when precious Alphonse was possessed by a homunculus, his fate and his goodness left in peril. (And that’s not the only possession in the series.) If they do manage to finally oust their possessor, then they must endure the emotional guilt and face the consequences of all the damage done while they were being manipulated, and good luck convincing everyone else that it wasn’t really them. If they can’t oust the possessor (or won’t), then perhaps an arrangement is made if the possessor is feeling generous.
Or perhaps the character isn’t so innocent. Perhaps they deserve to reap the consequences for dabbling in things they shouldn’t or not warding themselves properly against evil or simply being naive and indifferent to the existence of evil. This trope can be a beautiful device for commenting on the consequences of inaction by showing what true helplessness can be.
“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch and do nothing.”Albert Einstein
4. Dark Other Worlds
I love these. Perhaps I played too much Legend of Zelda and read too many R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books as a child. Full of twisted imagery and dark symbolism and subtle themes, dark worlds are dimensions that often sit parallel to the main world as some twisted mirror image of itself, essentially the Jekyll and Hyde of a particular place. Think the Upside-Down of Stranger Things. Everything is likely to be literally darker in a dark world, full of eerie fog and dim lights and disturbing flora and fauna. Flashlights and such may not work so well in this dimension or their dimming may indicate something very bad is nearby. Likely monsters. Or some creepy deformed humanoids. Or maybe they look exactly the same as their human counterparts except they have buttons for eyes. Whatever outer shell they wear, there’s something not quite right about them. Unfortunately, gateways into this dark other world are fairly easily activated. It could be anything from an actual door to a mere dream or perhaps an old relic or maybe the protagonist simply walks beneath a particular archway at the wrong time of the year. Getting out, however, is usually a bit trickier, and trying not to bring some part of the darkness into the real world can be a major plot point as these worlds do tend to hold some bitter grudge against their lighter version and desperately wish to seep into and corrupt the character’s home dimension.
A dark other world is genuinely spooky and hostile on its own, but when it so closely resembles the protagonist’s own world, whose familiarity should bring comfort, its dark reflection is made all the more unsettling. It become a tainted portrait of all that a person loves, made derelict and deplorable, turned malicious and murderous. Or perhaps it is a truer reflection of their world than the protagonist first realizes. A reflection of the darkness brimming just beneath the surface of their own reality, of their own mind even. (Looking at you, Silent Hill.) Perhaps the “real” world isn’t as great as it seems, and its dark reflection is simply a purer expression of the darkness that already exists in it. Perhaps it’s even the outlet for that darkness.
3. Creepy Changelings
If you are a fan of the dark and surreal and creepy and you also happen to like fantasy blended with science, you should definitely check out the anime Mushi-Shi as well as its original manga. The banal surrealism, subtle horror, and aura of tragedy is absolutely breathtaking as well as its Miyazaki-worthy landscapes. The episode that I remember most vividly from Mushi-Shi was “Cotton Changeling,” in which the protagonist discovers that a parasitic entity has taken the life of an unborn child so that it could take residence in the mother’s womb and manipulate her and her husband into caring for and nourishing it. That is essentially the function of a changeling, whether they are some parasitic creature or a fairy baby switched at birth. They grow into creepy children with instincts and motivation that aren’t human, and they often prey upon the affections of their unsuspecting adoptive parents. This is a common mischief of fairies from old European lore, known for whisking away human children to the fairy world to become their slaves while leaving a fairy baby in their place to torment the parents. I recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke if you’re interested in the more mischievous fairy tales.
The horror factor with changelings is in the relationship between parent and child – something that should be warm and affectionate, a connection based in trust and love, that is slowly and subtly corrupted by doubt, suspicion, and guilt. The child looks as any normal child should, only there is something uncanny about them. Perhaps there is a subtle malevolence or mischievousness about them. Bad things happen when they’re around. Maybe they have a strange aversion to iron. Or they grow unusually fast. Or their behavior is a little strange. What ensues is a psychological struggle between natural parental instincts and the horrible truth. After all, what sort of decent parent would even consider the possibility that their child is evil or inhuman? Often they’re more inclined to think something might be wrong with themselves for entertaining such horrible thoughts, and if they don’t question their own sanity, someone else surely will. This becomes even more complicated in cases of dual parent households as one spouse begins to suspect the truth and the other clings to denial. And even if they do come to the conclusion that the child isn’t theirs and some monster has taken the place of their child, what do you do? Child-murdering is pretty staunchly frowned upon, and convincing outsiders that your dimple-faced child is really a monster will more than likely book you a ticket to the psychiatric ward. In the end, perhaps those pesky parental instincts are just too strong, and monster or no, the changeling still fulfills that need to love and care for something no matter the consequences. But then, what about the actual child? What has become of them?
Also check out this real-life story of Christine Collins which inspired the movie Changeling (2008).
4. Mental Destruction
The disturbing reveal at the end of Old Boy. What Jack Randall did to Jaime Fraser in Outlander. The twist at the end of The Fog. These are not your average mental breakdowns. These are moments that are mind-shattering. The mortal shell may be well and fine, sure, but the internal core has just been horrifically demoralized. That vulnerable, secret place that exists under such security within us all has just been maliciously desecrated. Reality is forever changed. What was once beautiful and pure is now rotten. There is an age-old saying that there are worse things than death, and OH BOY are there. Killing a person physically, torturing their body, is horrific; but killing someone mentally, emotionally, torturing them with knowledge that cannot be undone or misremembered, is truly savage. For how can anything ever be right again? Will their mind ever recover? Will they ever be themselves again? And the answer is almost always no.
These moments in storytelling are highly uncomfortable. They also make me question whether I’m truly depraved enough to write anything so dark. The discomfort, in my opinion, arises from its proximity to reality. People can be broken mentally. It happens all the time in real life. People have lost their jobs and snapped. People have had a loved one die and snapped. People have been bullied in school and snapped. The human mind is a very fragile thing that is easily affected, changed even, by trauma and emotional turmoil. One bad day, one horrific moment or sudden revelation, and our own lives and our own world view can be tragically destroyed, and everything once beautiful is gone leaving but a ghost of ourselves to linger on for however long. That is truly, realistically terrifying, and to see it so thoroughly and cynically done to fictional characters is a terrifying reminder of how close we all are to the brink of insanity.
As far as fantasy goes, I think the mental destruction of a character by some non-magical means is powerfully ironic. They have survived countless supernatural and magical adversities, only to be undone by psychological trauma, proving the human mind to be more powerful and deadly than all the mystical powers in their world.
5. Body Horror
As much as mental destruction makes me squirm uncomfortably, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that makes me cringe quite like body horror. Not sure what body horror is? Well, let me introduce you to the movie Tusk (2014). Sounds benign, right? It’s totally benign. It’s even listed as “Horror/Comedy.” You should totally watch it unless, of course, you too were bothered by the donkey scene in Disney’s Pinnochio. Then definitely don’t watch it or you too may leave the room nauseated and disturbed on a level that leaves your insides wanting to crawl out of their own space. Body horror is not like a simple Freaky Friday body switch. This is where a human being is suddenly transfigured into something not at all human. In the most disturbing of cases, their human mind is left intact to try and process this horrific bodily transformation into something usually far worse than a simple Frankenstein creation. If the character is lucky, they may end up with a slightly humanoid body, demonic and deformed usually, but still of familiar shape with some limbs (maybe even extra limbs). There is a chapter in Leigh Bardugo’s Seige and Storm that left me in tears because of this. Or, if the character is unlucky, they may just end up as some amorphous blob with a face and a potential predisposition for absorbing anything and anyone they touch into themselves. Movie references: Akira (1988) and Slither (2006). Sometimes human speech is retained; sometimes they are left screaming in some guttural language no one can understand; I don’t really know which is worse.
While body horror is a physical horror as the name itself implies, the true horror to me is the psychological impacts. Obviously, everything changes: you can’t very well go back to work as some monstrous atrocity or continue your romantic relationship or see the parents for holiday dinners. But beyond even that, how does one preserve their sanity, their humanity, when their body no longer resembles anything even remotely human? How does one relate, communicate, or connect to other humans when one is in all physical sense no longer human? Not to mention that the character’s self-image is now at odds with their actual physical form. How does that affect their identity as a person? Body horror is not only outwardly horrific; the aberration of body horror is painfully isolating. It destroys the familiarity of self and anything that was once attached to that long-gone human form.
Occasionally, victims of body horror may be returned to their rightful state depending on whether the author has decided to conjure up a happier ending, but for most this transformation will be tragically permanent. The best one can hope for in those cases is that someone is kind enough to put them out of their misery.
Horror and fantasy have often shared a common bond in the mystical and supernatural and inconceivable, and so it’s not unusual that they bleed into each other. I love it, in fact. A good horror trope can always crank up the tension in a story and lend some much-needed tragedy to all these boring happy endings. Not that happy endings aren’t warranted, but characters do need to earn it a little. In order to fully appreciate the light, you must first come to know the darkness.
Please feel free to comment with your own favorite horror tropes or scary moments in fiction.
Leave a Reply