TOPIC: What is thrilling and spooky, but not too overpowering?
Pitch Green and Mojave Green are the first two books in The
Dimensions in Death young adult horror series. Based on a scary story we
used to tell as kids to our siblings and friends, these books combine
horror, suspense and mystery, moving at a breathtaking pace as our
protagonists fight for their lives while they battle a monstrous evil
presence hiding in and around an old, deserted mansion in a small mining
town located in a desolate part of the Mojave Desert.
Though what is overpowering to one, is underwhelming to another,
achieving “scary” is child’s play once we understand the rules of the game,
and some of the best games are kid’s games.
Slowly I pushed the door open, straining to see into the bedroom
without actually stepping in. The door opened all the way against the
sliding closet doors behind it. I could see that both closet doors were
closed, so I knew there was nothing immediately behind the door I was
pushing, but I had no idea what might be waiting for me in the closet. The
hallway lights were off, but there was still enough light behind me to cast
a pillar across the room and onto the far wall. Nervously, I crouched to
minimize my dark shadow, knowing there were hidden eyes watching me, waiting
for my next move.
Reaching carefully around the corner into the room, I flipped the
light switch hoping a light might come on, but nothing happened. Though it
was hopeless, I flipped the switch a couple more times, thinking it might
elicit a response from someone in the room–still nothing. Except for a dim
lamp, stuffed into a far corner of the room under a red sheet, the room was
dark and mostly hidden in black shadows–nothing moved. A blanket hung
across the outside windows, blocking all light. Another blanket hung from
the non-working ceiling light across to one end of the window blind,
completely hiding one corner of the room.
This was a new configuration. I had no way of knowing what to
expect. Down on hands and knees, I tried to see under the beds, but
blankets on both beds had been pulled all the way down to the floor.
Holding my breath, I listened for any noise-any sound that might betray a
stalker lying in wait, but I heard nothing. The first move had to be mine,
so I stood and leaned into the room. There were piles of blankets and
pillows on the bed to my right. I decided not to go that way–who knew what
was under those piles.
Sliding into the room with my back against the closet door, I kept
one hand on its handle, ready to prevent anyone from sliding it open from
inside. I stepped quickly to the middle of the wall on the other side.
Back to the wall, facing out, I watched for any movement, listened for any
noise. I was now close enough to the second bed that with a quick step, I
could hop on top. It had no blankets or pillows on it that might be hiding
something–it looked safe. I stepped forward, and a hand suddenly shot out
from under the bed, grabbing my ankle. I yelped in surprise. They had me,
and I hadn’t seen it coming.
In a sudden rush, the tension was released, and I was safe once
more. Of course, I had never really been in danger–it had just felt that
way. And that was the fun of our small haunted house.
This was a game invented by our cousins, Sandra and Steven, fraternal twins.
When they came to our house, there was usually something scary going on, and
one of our favorite games was called, “Haunted House.” Because the grownups
didn’t want us ransacking the entire house, it was really just “a haunted
bedroom,” but that was all we needed to create some serious haunting.
The rules of the game were simple. One kid was sent away to wait in
the front room while all the other kids turned a bedroom into a haunted
house. When someone in the haunted house yelled, “Ready,” the designated
victim would try to find all the monsters hidden around the room before one
of them could grab the victim by surprise. Everyone enjoyed the mystery and
suspense of being the victim. It was a challenge trying to anticipate where
all the monsters would be hidden. Sometimes a monster would be put in an
obvious place to distract the victim from another monster carefully hidden
We all enjoyed being monsters too. It took a lot of creativity to
not do the same thing every time–there was no mystery or suspense in
repeatedly doing the same thing. In addition, a good haunted house required
more than just mystery and suspense. In order to be really scary, a good
haunted house, or a good horror story, needs one or both of the following:
(1) a dangerous threat from a hidden source of power, and/or (2) a warping
or distortion of something that is normally familiar and friendly.
The victim in a haunted house (or the reader of a horror story) must
feel a personal threat (either to him or herself directly or to a
significant other, like the story’s main character). The more significant
the threat, the scarier the threat, with life and death threats being among
the scariest. A good horror story creates a bond between the reader and the
character at risk, so the threat will hang heavy over the reader as it hangs
heavy over the character in the story.
One way to make a hidden power threatening, or to increase the sense
of threat, is to create a sense of revulsion through the warping or
distortion of the familiar. Few things are more fascinating, and at the
same time more scary, as something familiar, even mundane, that has been
horribly warped or distorted to the point of being painfully ugly. Even
without feeling a direct personal threat to oneself, or a significant other,
an encounter with a painfully ugly distortion of the familiar can elicit gut
wrenching feelings of revulsion and fear. This has been done successfully
with clowns, birds and even mothers.
When it comes to “scary,” a subtle presentation of a hidden threat
coupled with a distortion of the familiar will beat a stream of blood and
gore every time, and will keep your readers (victims) coming back again and
again. Though you will need to be creative in building the mystery and
suspense anew in each new story, your readers will love you for it. Good
haunting! Good horror!
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