There are two books I sit down with every October. One is A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford and the other is Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic by Mark A. Vieira. These books are not only full of great photos, but also interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. The other night I was reading about the making of Universal Studios’ 1941 film The Wolf Man, directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney Jr. At that time the studio was dominating the horror genre with hit horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. They had figured out how to do horror very well and in an interview with The Saturday Evening Post, George Waggner shared the formula for a good Universal horror movie:

  1. They must be once-upon-a-time stories.
  2. They must be believable in characterization.
  3. They must have unusual technical effects.
  4. Besides the major monster, there must be a secondary character of weird appearance.
  5. They must confess right off that the show is a horror film.
  6. They must include a pish-tush character to express the normal skepticism of the audience.
  7. They must be based on some pseudoscientific premise.

A lot of Universal monster movies do follow this formula and yet manage to be very distinct from one another. Despite containing many of the same elements the stories don’t feel repetitive because the elements get combined in different ways. 

This list got me thinking about my own formula for a good horror story. I didn’t read horror as a child, but I watched those monster movies every year. The early horror era looked to the folklore inspired silent films which emerged out of war torn Europe. They are atmospheric, creepy and gothic. The monsters are almost more tragic than evil; they are cursed or created by things beyond their control. These movies left their impression on me and what I look for in a horror story. There are many types of horror stories. They can be about diseases, serial killers, corruption, cannibals, blood and gore or anything else that might be considered scary. For me, though, the best kind are supernatural and more than just a surface scare.

Following the example above, I’ve made my own list of what I want in a horror story. Unlike Waggner, I won’t claim that this is a formula to make good horror. It is merely a list of elements that make for an enjoyable read.

  1. Have some element of the supernatural that’s not explained away by science.
    It’s not just someone pulling strings from behind a curtain. There’s no need for a scientific explanation. Humans have a fear of the unknown and that fear can be played up when fantastical, unexplainable things start to happen.
  2. Be psychological.
    This is the perfect place for an unreliable narrator. It can also be used to explore what the darker side of humanity looks like through a supernatural, fairytale-ish lens.
  3. Have believable characters and let the reader care about them. 
    Who cares if a large cast of characters get picked off willy-nilly? I prefer a few richly drawn characters to worry about. Ironically, Universal made it’s monsters sympathetic by giving them emotional lives and tragic fates. 
  4. Contain elements of Gothic literature.
    Gothic literary elements include: death and decay, haunted homes, madness, curses, ghosts, otherworldly creatures, powerful love/romance. So let’s have some decaying old houses in which the inhabitants are cursed with madness and haunted by dead relatives. 
  5. Have it set somewhere that’s already a bit odd.
    I prefer it to be a little creepy already and slightly removed from the present world. 
  6. Include some tragedy.
    Horrible things are going to have to happen. The nicest people may have to die. I’m usually in favor of happy endings, but in this context it’s more satisfying when characters are manipulated by fate or evil forces. 

Maybe you can tell from the items on my list that my favorite horror novels generally fall into the haunted house category. My re-read shelf includes Hell House by Richard Matheson, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, or any novels by Simone St. James. This year I’m checking out Shirley Jackson (I don’t know why it took me so long.)  These all have those unexplainable events, slow mounting terror and element of mystery that satisfies the picky horror reader in me. 

What do others look for in a horror story?