Is there such a thing as the perfect horror story? One so tight, so focused, and so scary that it cannot be improved upon? Probably… but I haven’t found it. ‘Masterpiece’, comes close, though.
There are several versions of this story online, but this is the first one I read a few years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since, becoming one of my favorite horror stories; it’s short, concise, to the point, and haunts you long after its over with. But more than any other monster story, or tale where a ghoul or alien chases people around, ‘Masterpiece’ sticks with me not from the blood or gore, but from the way it so effectively uses sadism and the fear of inevitable pain. So in honor of Halloween, let’s see what we can learn from this short and chilling tale:
Consider starting your story in media res
What’s in media res, you ask? It’s when you start the story not at the beginning, but at the halfway point or later, before cutting back to the beginning, which is almost guaranteed to get your audience’s attention and curiosity immediately. ‘Masterpiece’ does so by starting with our unnamed narrator alone in his bedroom at night, staring at the dead bodies of his parents, leaving us to wonder how on earth he got there. Yikes.
Consider having something awful happen to your loved ones in a horror story
We often like to imagine ourselves in stories, taking the place of the protagonist as they go on adventures, save the day, etc. But when it comes to horror movies, that imagination can backfire. While we learn nothing about the narrator’s parents, that’s not necessary to feel the horror of them being murdered and defiled. It’s all to easy to imagine our own parents going through such horrific treatment, and while that would be enough to make some people close the page and walk away, it does serve as an effective way to suck readers deeper into the story. And it doesn’t have to be parents, either: it could be a beloved aunt, grandparent, or pet.
Consider having your antagonist be an intelligent, non-human being who psychologically torments its prey
It’s a bit cliché, but having your non-human monster be intelligent is a surefire way to ratchet up the creepy factory in a horror story. By going with something that can think, plan, and outwit the protagonist/s, or worse, torments its prey with tricks and mental torture, you make your protagonist’s predicament all the more dangerous and gripping, as cruelty can be more frightening than the raw power of a simple-minded beast. The monster in ‘Masterpiece’ is memorable not because it kills the protagonist’s parents, but because it toys with the narrator and letting them know they’re screwed no matter what they do, and presumably taking great pleasure in such a fact.
Consider having your protagonist be truly helpless in a horror story
It’s common for heroes to be initially helpless against a monster in a horror story, but as they learn more about their opponent, they’re able to fight back, either by getting a weapon, creating one, or exploiting a weakness of the beast. The narrator in ‘Masterpiece’ has no such hope. He/she is in a bedroom with a monster under their bed, and the moment they try to get out or run, they’re dead. That feeling of helplessness, of not being able to fight back or inflict any harm on a tormentor, is one of the most visceral and effective feelings in horror, and arguably the bedrock of the entire genre.
Consider ending your horror story with the promise of pain
Of all the ways to end a horror story, there’s perhaps none more chilling than letting the reader/protagonists know that the only thing they have to look forward to is pain and suffering. ‘Masterpiece’ ends not with the monster ripping the narrator apart, but the simple act of telling him/her that it knows that they’re awake. With the monster less than three feet away, it’s easy to imagine it smiling and waiting for the helpless narrator to just try and run, and that they have no chance of escaping. The narrator is going to die, no matter what.
What’s so good about this type of ending is that it’s a perfect example of the mind being more effective than anything the author can create. There doesn’t need to be any bloodshed, shots of mutilated flesh, or limbs being cut off because our imaginations are so much more effective. If you end a story with a scene of a person being dragged into a dungeon and seeing a tray holding an ice cream scoop just the right size for a human eyeball… well, you can guess what happens next.
Sometimes, not showing what’s going to happen, and leaving the details to the imagination, are far more effective than showing it.
For a really effective horror story, have an intelligent, sentient monster do something horrifying happen to a helpless protagonist’s loved ones and then trap them in a situation where they can’t escape or fight. But to take the story to the next level (and freak out your audience), have the monster psychologically torture the protagonist.
Wow. That was intense. Let’s calm down with someone being a goofball cop in 1940’s Los Angeles.