The Unknown, or: Why Mystery is the Horror Novelist’s Best Friend


Now, I’m not a horror writer. Well, not just a horror writer. I’m more of a sci-fi/fantasy/ mystery/horror/supernatural writer, at least at the moment. But I’ve noticed something really interesting, in my 18 years of being a horror movie nerd.

Zombies are cool, but they get old after a while. The tried-and-true demonic possession story is a bit of a bore. Even ghosts can sometimes get boring. You want to know what never once bored me?

The unknown.

The creature in the pitch-black room. The man on the other side of the street — you can’t see his face, you don’t know who he is, but you know he wants to hurt you.

Creatures in online horror forum stories like the Slenderman — who is he? What does he want? Why does he kidnap children?

We, as people, aren’t comfortable with questions we can’t answer, the unknown. Why do you think so many people turn to religion, to explain the origins of the world?

I like scaring myself. I’ll read creepy stories online before I sleep (sue me). And then, when I inevitably get thirsty in the middle of the night, I don’t turn on the lights in the kitchen or living room. The cat’s so cute, I don’t want to wake him. So the only light I have is coming down the hall behind me from the bedside lamp.

So I’m looking over my shoulder every five seconds, in my own house, even though I can’t see a foot in front of me because it’s so dark. I grab my drink, then I run back to my room as fast as possible.

Because if I’m in bed, “they” can’t sneak up behind me.

It’s my house. I know there’s no one there. But I can’t help it.

Why do these stories of the unknown scare us so much more than creatures that can be defined?

I think it’s because of the age-old adage: you have to know your enemy. If you know them, then maybe you can defeat them.

But the Slenderman; the ghost-creature from the Paranormal Activity movies; any horror or mystery that’s never actually answered by the end of the story, really. What do we know about them, except that they’re terrifying, and they most likely want to hurt us?

The TVTropes Wiki has an entire page relating to this raw, visceral horror of the unknown. Some other sites call this “Xenophobia,” because apparently “xenos” means stranger, and what could be more strange than not knowing what’s happening?

Too many movies ruin the suspense, the fear, by showing their bad guy. Showing all about them, who they are, where they came from, what they want and why they want it. I don’t think it’s possible for a movie to live up to a viewer’s expectations when it comes to their monster. That’s why I think Cloverfield was a really cool movie: I haven’t seen it in years, but I don’t remember any really complicated explanations, except maybe in the behind-the-scenes footage. All I remember is some great big monster ruining New York City (what else is new?).

Maybe my stories aren’t outright scary, per se. But I do at least want them to be unsettling. I like it better when there’s just enough mystery to keep the viewers uncomfortable, but not too much that they’re completely lost. Writing from an outsider’s point of view helps with this, like in the Woman in Black. The main character (I can’t remember his name) isn’t from the village, so he has no idea why everyone’s all uncomfortable with the island he’s headed out to. If he had been from the village, had known everything from the beginning, well… A) he wouldn’t have gone out there, and B) some of the mystery would have been gone.

Mystery helps with every aspect of horror, unease, that sort of thing. The Vsauce channel over on YouTube has a great video for why we find things creepy, which I think also applies to the fear of the unknown. And try not to listen to the unsettling moaning in the background, which is way creepier than Michael’s voice.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep at it. I know everything about my story’s monsters, but my readers don’t. The tease: that’s what every great author does 🙂


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