I normally hate scary movies, but I love dread.
Now, let me explain.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a movie full of suspense (Try Prisoners). But a movie that’s just out there to keep you up at night, I’ll pass. We’ve all been there. We have that friend…
Friend: *scrolling through Netflix*, “Oooooo let’s watch a scary movie.”
Me: “I’m not about that life. Let’s watch Stepbrothers.”
But at some point in your life you’ve probably, kind of, sort of, enjoyed scary movies. Why? Why do we enjoy being scared? It can be a very uncomfortable experience. Next, we scream, our mouths making noises we didn’t even know were possible.
Have you ever been channel surfing, seen a scary movie, and clicked on it against your will? Then you go on to tell yourself that you’re going to watch something else, but just can’t look away. Why can’t you change the channel? Dread, or as I’ve heard it defined on one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses:
A fear of what is to come. An anticipatory fear.
We may dread our next day at work. Maybe we dread that conversation we need to have with our boss or significant other. We dread going out to our car, late at night, when we just watched a movie about psycho killer clowns with knives and demon eyes. Dread can be much more visceral and all-consuming then just being afraid. We’re afraid of that bug in the bathroom, but dread is capturing something else. It’s future oriented.
Now dread, why do we love you so?
A Hijacked Brain
This phrase, a hijacked brain is used often in the podcast Writing Excuses, hosted by Brandon Sanderson (amazing author!). The podcasters claim that this is one of our goals as writers–Yes, hijacking your brain. MWAHAHA.
They actually mean that a good story creates a series of reactions, physiological in nature: a rush of endorphins, tension in our chest, and a palpitating heart to name a few. Why do we return to our favorite stories again and again? One reason is because we enjoy the physiological responses produced in our brain and experienced throughout our entire body. Then we deal with the fallout and the emotions that follow.
And there is something fulfilling about horror movies.
- We watch as the suspense and tension mounts.
- We jump in our seats, and we experience a rush of adrenaline.
- We now realize we just had our brains hijacked. Jerks.
That’s why the scary moment always comes after you think it’s going to happen:
“No! Don’t go in the basement dummy.”
“Of course the flashlight doesn’t have batteries.”
“Behind you! O, good… it’s just a curtain caught in the wind. All clear.”
*Monster falls from the ceiling* BOOM.
Heart rate and blood pressure jumps. Adrenaline pumps through your body like a drug.
Always remember though, you could have been born a goat. Be thankful! Think of all the injuries from the falls.
3 Ways to Write Dread-Fully
One thing is clear, whether you love scary movies or not, the physiological responses associated with dread can be very enticing to a viewer, or to a potential reader. So here are three ways to fill your readers with dread, ramping up the tension and forcing them to turn the page. I created these three categories after listening to a long series of podcast episodes from Writing Excuses.
1. Make Us Comfortable
This applies most aptly to setting. If you can create a comfortable setting, then you can change this setting and take the reader out of their comfort zone.
Tell us all about John, his two kids and his white picket fence in suburbia. Tell us about his dog, all cute and cuddly. Tell us about his beautiful wife who likes working in the garden and drinking lemonade on the porch. Let us sink into those comfortable and nuanced environments, where the characters communicate with practiced ease. Then, when John comes home from work and sees the front door sitting wide open; well, your reader’s mind will take it from there.
There are a number of ways to make the reader feel comfortable, but it is imperative that the characters feel comfortable. The reader will be right there beside them, along for the ride, but only if you artfully construct your setting. When the character begins to become uncomfortable, so will your reader.
2. Make the Ordinary not so Ordinary
This second tip ties in neatly with the first. If you have established a believable and comfortable setting, then when people and objects start behaving out of the ordinary, dread often ensues. This is common in horror movies. The lights start to flicker. Doors shut unexpectedly (Paranormal Activity). The house starts to creak and moan. All of these examples create tension, raise the suspense, and increase this feeling of dread. You know something is coming, but WHAT? WHAT IS IT?!
However, this is based largely on the character’s reaction. If the characters are reacting in fear, maybe tiptoeing around the house, or peering around the corner, then you as an audience member will feel their emotions. Now, if it’s let’s say Beauty and the Beast, and Belle is talking with Mrs. Potts, then you won’t have that same feeling of dread. This is because you are experiencing the moment vicariously through the character.
This is a great example because your feelings towards the Beast change as does Belle’s throughout the movie. She goes from a place of confusion and fear, living in a foreign environment with a monster, to one of familiarity and comfortability. You go along on this journey with Belle.
Horror movies tend to work in the opposite direction. They go from the ordinary to out of the ordinary. But, in Beauty and the Beast, Belle goes from fear to comfort, instead of the other way around. I mean they get married and live happily ever after in the end, right?
But, as you can see, it all depends on the reaction of the character. Which, leads nicely into my third and final point…
3. Create Engaging Characters
This point is simple. We need to care about the characters. If you’ve created a setting that is comfortable, and if objects/people start behaving out of the ordinary, then you still need characters the audience cares about.
Too many horror movies have an unnecessary amount of gore and characters no one really cares about. If a boring and largely uninteresting character is afraid for his or her life, then we may be filled with dread. But if this character is dynamic, and we as audience members can see ourself in said character, we’ll feel the fear on a deeper level; it hits closer to home.
Look for these three things when you’re watching your next movie/ reading a book and you’re feeling dread-full. Maybe if you know what the director or author is up to, then you won’t have that same feeling of dread. You’re welcome in advance 😉
Can you think of any movies or books that do this really well? Comment below!