Three Elements of Horror

haunted castle

Ciao, SEers. We’ve rounded the corner and are in the second half of the year. Even though we’re in the heat of summer, for me, as soon as we hit July, I feel fall coming (my favorite season of the year) and that means it’s time to start thinking about all things autumn. You’re probably already seeing pumpkins in the store. That makes me so happy!

It means it’s time to start thinking horror. Okay, I admit it. I’m pretty much always thinking horror whether Halloween is near or not.

Today, I want to talk about the three aspects of successful horror as defined by Orson Scott Card.

The thing that really elevates horror stories is layering and building suspense. The three layers we want to work with in horror stories are dread, terror, and horror.


“to anticipate with great apprehension”

This is the best one. Easily my favorite. It’s the one you should spend the most time on. Chronologically, it will happen first in your story and last the longest.

Dread is the waiting that happens when you know something horrible is coming but you don’t know what, you don’t know when, and you don’t know why. It’s impossible to prepare for because you don’t know what form it will take, what time it will appear, or what its purpose is. It’s a niggling feeling you can’t identify but you know something’s wrong. Something’s out of place. Maybe someone’s late arriving without contacting you. Maybe something’s out of place when no one could have moved it. Maybe there’s a temperature anomaly inside your home. The feelings start small and are inexplicable. But they’re palpable and unshakable.


“a state of intense or overwhelming fear”

Chronologically, this is the second stage. What was a mystery in the “dread” stage becomes known in this stage. And it’s frightening. The mist coalesces into a vampire. The shadow in the hallway turns out to be an intruder. The deal that was too good to be true really was and the devil came to collect. Terror is a powerful emotion, stronger than dread. But it’s also faster. It lasts only as long as it takes the character to react to his situation. Or to die from it. (Consequently, it takes the reader roughly the same amount of time.)


“an intense feeling of shock or disgust”

On the timeline, horror is the last feeling experienced. And it’s the least powerful of the three. Once the terror has passed, the survivors (and the readers) are left with the aftermath. There’s almost a desensitization to the remainder. The shock numbs you, and if you continue to immerse yourself in the horror, you stop reacting to it. You almost have to as a matter of preservation. The first time you see a zombie eat a brain, you’re horrified. The seventieth time, you just run or hide or do whatever you have to do to survive. If the zombie apocalypse is ever over, you might unpack the horror and live in therapy, but until then, you compartmentalize it. The shock registers, then you move on.

So, those are the three levels of horror in chronological order.

  1. Pre-event: Dread (long lead-up)
  2. During-event: Terror (strongest and fastest)
  3. Post-event: Horror (least powerful, but it can linger)

Do you use all three in your horror writing? Can you see all three in horror stories? Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo Bio

58 thoughts on “Three Elements of Horror

  1. One aspect of horror that hard core horror fans truly love is inescapability. The idea or notion that the characters doom is at every turn. This is Freddy Krueger is such a vivid and well appreciated killer in the Bronze Age slasher genre of horror. He is relentless and gets to his victims in the most vulnerable and Iike clockwork ways.

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    • That’s the fun of it, right? Laurie Strode is going to be the only one who lives through it, but Michael Myers is going to get up at the end and walk away, so we know the battle isn’t over. It’s completely unrealistic (we have to have an incredibly high level of “suspension of disbelief” to enjoy slasher films), but that inescapability is why we like them so much.

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      • Thats absolutely right. One of the best examples of inescapability is in Lucio Fulci From Beyond. The two main characters are in a hotel where a portal to hell opens. They escape and go to a hospital where they are attacked by zombies. At one point they go through to another room and end back in the hotel. It’s like they never left and it’s so cool!

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  2. Hi, Staci! Excellent post! I do incorporate all three in my dark fantasy stories. I will also use dread, terror, and horror in my WIP which is a crime thriller. I believe readers of these genres, as well as the horror genre come to expect it. Thank you for breaking it down for us. ❤

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  4. I don’t write horror, myself, Staci, but if I did, I would follow your guidelines to the MAX. Perfectly written! In my day, I read a TON of horror, too, so I can clearly see how these three definitions relate to the best of them. As a pre-teen, I cut my adult “reading teeth” on Edgar Allan Poe, who remains a favorite of mine to this day, and over the years, continued to read all the scariest horror writers out there, from the classics (Lovecraft, etc) to the more modern (Koontz, King, and many others). Today, I escape more often to fantasy, but my fascination with truly scary books still lingers. And who knows? I may actually attempt to write one someday. If I ever do, rest assured it would be with a copy of this post nearby. Well done! 🙂

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    • I love Poe. I think you’d write a great horror tale because you have the voice for description. You’d kill it (that wasn’t meant to be a pun) in the dread section. But you can use these tactics in your WIP to great success, too. At least, the first two. In any event, thanks, Marcia.

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      • I’d like to think I COULD “kill it,” Staci, if I ever tried my hand at it. I did write a kinda scary ghost in WRR that I received some comments on, so who knows? Maybe I could write an entire horror novel someday. Or a short story. And thanks for reminding me the tactics can be used in other genres, too. Definitely keeping this post on hand! 🙂

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  5. Great post, Staci 🙂 I’m looking forward to autumn too and impatient to put up my Halloween decorations.

    I like to linger in dread for as long as possible, when reading or writing. The fear of the unknown is so much better than gore or knowing too soon. I’ve never thought about these stages but its accurate.

    This makes me want to write a short horror for the upcoming season.

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    • The anticipation is always more fun than the delivery.

      Fall will be here soon. We’ll be decorating before you know it. But there’s no reason we can’t start writing now! (One of my WIPs is actually set in Indian Summer. I’m working on it today.)

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  6. Great post! It made me think of Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. The reader knows something isn’t right for the entire build-up. The dread lasts a lot longer than the terror and horror, and it makes the story awesome. Your ASTRAL CONSPIRACY novels, written as D.L. Cross, used dread really well!

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  7. Loved this post, Staci. I watch horror movies, but don’t write horror. I do thriller/mystery and can see where these apply.
    Autumn is my favorite season as well. I have seen the pumpkins in the stores and there is a house already decorated for Halloween.

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  8. Outstanding post, Staci. The oder of building emotions is such an important topic. I wouldn’t classify myself as a horror writer, per se, but I do include horror elements (as you know). And you’ve done a flawless job of showing how to build suspense for the characters and readers till it reaches a crescendo. Brava!

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  9. What an interesting post, Staci. It almost reminds me of the three-act play structure. I have read some really good horror books and can see all three of these elements applied. Thank you for sharing!

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  11. Powerful, Staci! I don’t write horror, but your stages opened my eyes to how tension is built. Dread — wow, it leads the way, doesn’t it. And it seems to me, dread is very much a part of other genres, like mysteries and thrillers. Thank you for this very informative post. I’ve learned a lot! 🙂

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  12. It’s the dread that I like most – it’s the not knowing what’s going to happen but knowing that something will, eventually! It’s proper edge of the seat stuff and once the threat is revealed it can be a bit like the rubber shark in Jaws : not quite living up to the expectations. Great post, Staci!

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    • Fall is my absolute favorite season. The colors, the crisp weather, the foods and seasonings. It’s just perfect. Every season has its positives, but autumn is special. And it’s on its way, Jill!


  13. Oooh, I love this post! I don’t really write horror but I’ve definitely used these elements in suspense/thriller stye writing, especially the first two. Dread is my favorite, both as a writer and reader. I’m going to make a weird comparison—I’m a huge fan of disaster movies, but I’ve always said it isn’t the disaster or the aftermath that appeals to me, it’s the build up to “the big event.” When everyone is running around trying to figure out what is happening and why.

    And pumpkins in July? Seriously, Staci! 🙂

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    • Yeah, pumpkins already. I’ve seen them. Just one or two here or there, but they’re starting. Because school supplies are starting, so teachers have to have fall decorations. I bet you can find stores with apple butter now, too. (Yum.)

      Disaster movies aren’t a weird comparison at all. They’re horror movies in their own right. Just not slasher films or psychological horror. They’re natural horrors. A perfect fit for the genre because they are the genre. Just a subset we seldom consider because the villain isn’t human or alien but nature. I love that you thought of it.

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      • That’s a cool thought about disaster movies. There’s still a villain but it’s not human. I am such a huge fan of the genre. But–like I said–my favorite part is the build up with all the ominous and strange occurrences happening.

        And, yes, there is a store in my area that starts putting out Halloween–and Christmas!!–decorations right after July 4th. I just hate to see it this early!

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      • It always feels too early. You can never shop for the season you’re in because they’re always selling something two holidays into the future. The worst is seeing swimsuits in February.


  14. Yeah–dread! It can be used almost exclusively, with only a bit of terror and almost no horror. If you have a character who sees things going wrong, but they’re all alone with that perception and don’t know how to change it, that’s cosmic dread.
    One of the best stories of that type is “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. It was first published in 1907, so the language is old fashioned by our standards, but it’s a classic.

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