The goal of horror is to elicit an intense fear, and there nothing that humans fear more than death. Death is the last curtain call, the ending to the show. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has some level of terror about the final end. Fear of death is universal. Horror stories feed off this trepidation. Every single tale of the macabre contains a death, which is essential to amp up the panic in a character.
The purpose of a story is show the growth of a central character. In order to grow, there needs to be a triggering event that transports the character in a positive or negative direction. Yes, characters can grow negatively and fall from where they originated. Typically in the genre of horror, the main character does descend. Eternal loss is a plot tactic for this catalyst. The build up to death is what generates the character’s (and essentially the reader’s) fear — the intrinsic element of horror. The key to utilizing the tactic of death is to create the eternal loss of the one thing that the main character holds most dear. The event of the death will be the crux of growth for the character: the moment of his / her turning point.
Fear is an aid to the warrior. It is a small fire burning. It heats the muscles, making us stronger. Panic comes when the fire is out of control, consuming all courage and pride.
— David Gemmell, Lord of the Silver Bow
The principal death in a story may not always happen to a human. Death can be existential, relating to non-human, inanimate, or intangible things. The death may be of a beloved pet, favorite notebook, or prized vehicle. Think about how Louis reacted to the hit-and-run of Church in Pet Semetary, and the horror that developed out of that death… and disturbing “funeral”. Then look at what happened with the death of Gauge. Stephen King really upped the fear factor by viciously killing off Louis’ cat and kid! A death can also be the demise of hope, happiness, or dreams. There is nothing more horrific in the world than watching the hope in someone wither away and die (think Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).
Sometimes the best death to play up is the “death of oneself”. Fear of one’s own mortality is experience by every human. We are all afraid of when we will die. Add to that, there is also the fear of how we will experience that final moment. I think everyone hopes that they will go peacefully in their sleep. Yet, in most cases, that can’t be further from truth. In brutal honesty, most of us will go with some amount of pain from this world. Detaching from a body that has carried us through the years is not something that I can believe to be easy (or painless). Sending your main character on the downward, negative spiral through the stages of their own death, and fighting to come to terms that they are about to be snuffed out, will hold the reader in suspense and fear until the inevitable end.
If you are looking to include horror in your story, death must be a component. Your character, within the realm of this genre, cannot evolve (or depending on your plot, “de-evolve”) without it. Deduce what type of loss your main character dreads the most. Lead up to the final moments with accelerated heart beats, sweaty palms, and rapid breathing. Make them question or go through the seven stages of grief. Continue to evoke apprehension in the protagonist that they may one day lose this “thing” that they treasure, and then make them suffer in agony as you brutally tear it away. Your character’s anxiety and despair will transfer to your reader, pulling him / her deeper into your story and rouse their empathy. You will make them resonate with the loss and tremble in fear. And that is the ultimate goal of horror: to make your readers scared.
If you want to be successful in writing horror, something must die in your story.
If you are interested in enhancing horror in your writing, check out these other Elements of Horror posts by The Sarcastic Muse