Using Fear to Make Readers Shiver, Scream, and Vomit

horror[Image via Flickr courtesy of Moyan Breen]

Fear is used in writing to add emotional value and elicit physical responses. It makes the reader uncomfortable in the right way, immersing them and imprinting the experience deeper into memory. Not all forms of fear are equal. Stephen King once broke down fear into three different types: The Gross-Out, The Horror, and The Terror. They are distinct, powerful, and vary greatly in the responses they elicit.

The Gross-Out

The Gross-Out might be the easiest to understand and achieve. It’s the disgusting. Despite the great variety in people’s preferences, one simple thing achieves this. Show the taboo, those things which are not supposed to be seen.  Identify them and show them. It could be a public toilet overflowing with feces and urine, a corpse with organs torn out and exposed, or a bizarre fetish. Don’t pull punches. The important part is to get in close.

It’s all in the details. Everyone knows what they find taboo, but they don’t know what it is to experience it. Anyone can imagine the general idea of

John stabbed the homeless guy.

It’s basic and tells everyone what is happening but doesn’t evoke any imagery or elicit any emotion. Getting into the gritty details makes it more powerful.

Hot blood splattered onto John’s face. He licked the crimson from his lips, savoring the metallic taste before plunging the razor into the vagabond once again, this time splitting open his bowels and spilling the contents of his stomach onto the ground.

With only a few more sentences, the scene starts to actually show the taboo. The previous sentence only told, which has a lot less power behind it. People tell about taboos all the time; that’s how anyone knows they exist. Showing is what engages the audience.

The Gross-Out draws people in with curiosity and shock value. They want to know the experiences they don’t dare to have. People want to know what lines the writer will cross and how far over that line they will go. There is also the danger with The Gross-Out that the writer will cross the line too far and offend or disgust the reader to the point where they put the book down. It is also possible that it just becomes too much for the reader to handle and they have to stop reading to keep themselves from losing their lunch.

This type of fear focuses more on physical descriptions and making the reader feel queasy and nauseous. Often, it doesn’t stick with the reader and constantly has to be escalated to remain effective. It plays mostly with automatic responses and doesn’t engage the reader’s mind too much. For many writers it is considered the cheapest form of fear.

The Horror

The Horror uses an iminent and direct threat to instill fear. From a simple jump-scare where the monster suddenly flashes onscreen to the adrenaline rush of the protagonist trying to unlock their apartment door before the monster can walk ominously down the hallway, it is something known that can and will cause pain and harm.

What is the The Horror actually doing? It is engaging the natural fight or flight response. A story using The Horror correctly will make the reader want to run away or fight. Then the stakes will rise when the running and fighting don’t work. This is one of the most important parts of creating effective fear. The original fear of the threat and the anticipation that something bad is going to happen is a good start, but it needs to be reinforced with a sense of helplessness. It’s effective when a character can give their absolute best effort and have an enormous amount of luck, but still fail.

Characters making intelligent decisions brings the horror to a new level. It makes the threat feel even more powerful and the danger even greater. When they are stupid and don’t fight back it doesn’t create much fear. Here is an example of how not to do it.

John decided to walk down the alley holding a roll of cash in one hand while whistling. Then a mugger snuck out from behind a trash can and stabbed him in the back.

There is no fear in this situation. A reader imagining themselves in the situation would tell themselves, I wouldn’t go down an alley alone, and definitely not with a roll of cash in hand while whistling. The only thing you get is skepticism of John’s mental capacities. It’s more effective to do something like this.

It wasn’t until the third streetlight John passed that he realized he was being followed. He decided take the longer path home through better lit and more crowded streets. John turned down what he thought was a busier street but as he walked down it the lights dimmed, the thrumming of engines faded away and the murmur of crowds died out. A single light shone before him. Below it stood his pursuer. He saw the whites of its eyes shining. He stopped and the intense desire to run filled him. He tried to follow that urge but he couldn’t persuade his legs to lift themselves from the ground. It smiled, baring row of long jagged teeth. John froze completely as it approached, saliva drooling  from its mouth and down its front.

Here we get a clear and present threat in front of John and he gets in that danger despite attempting to make intelligent and logical decisions. The threat is made greater because it can overwhelm him despite his efforts. A reader will become invested in a character and care about them if the reader watches them struggle. Then when the character fails, the reader will have a sympathetic emotional response, instead of chuckling as the mad serial killer bludgeons the character to death with cinder block because really, who is dumb enough to sneak into a circus at night?

The Terror

The Terror focuses on the unknown. It occurs when it is uncertain what is wrong. When the character knows they are alone but can feel the hair rise on the back of their neck as if someone is watching them. It inspires people to hurry upstairs after they turn off the basement lights. Physically, it is a shiver, a chill, or a tingle up the spine.

This is the type of fear that will stay with the reader the longest. It asks unsettling questions like, “what is hiding in the darkness?” and refuses to answer.  It keeps people awake at night. Often referred to as the most powerful type of fear, it is also the most difficult to achieve because it takes a lot of setup and planning. The audience has to have a picture of what is right and then things are flipped over and twisted. Terror plays on the fear of the unknown and the general anxiety of wondering what will happen next. An effective way to do this is to hide what is wrong behind other explainable phenomena.

Jacqueline came home to find that her cat had shredded her dirty laundry.

We have an understandable event. Now make it unusual.

She swore she locked the door to her bedroom to keep the cat out, but in the rush of being late to work this morning she must have forgotten.

The question of how the cat got into her room is asked. Then a logical answer is given. She forgot to close the door. Now that it has been answered we are going to want to ask more questions in a similar way until, finally we reach the moment of Terror when the character finally realizes that something is really wrong.

Jacqueline searched the crawlspace for the pests destroying her things.

“Alright you raccoons, mice, whatever. Prepare for your reckoning.”

She crawled forward until she bumped into something. She focused her flashlight in front of her. Was that one of her shoes? A cherry red high heel glinted in the light. Those stupid animals stole her favorite pair of shoes. She thought she left them at Karen’s party. How did it get here? Next to her shoes sat an old hairbrush, a jacket, and a couple of old pairs of silky underwear. She remembered when she found her dirty laundry shredded by her cat and froze. She did lock the door that day. She raised her flashlight and found pictures tacked to the wall above her things. They were pictures of her sleeping.

The character finally realizes that something is really wrong, but does not know the details. The reader asks the questions what is happening, how long has it been happening, how could it have been unnoticed, and could this be happening to me?


Using fear effectively can be powerful and really leave an impression on the reader. It is an old practice that still works to firmly set stories in people’s minds. Think about what stories have scared you the most. What kind of fear did they use? How did they create that fear? Let us know in the comments below.