What makes a building scary? What makes it ripe for a haunting? Is it the structure’s location? Is it the history of the place?
When the phrase ‘haunted house’ is mentioned, there’s a certain expectation on the part of the reader. The reader, rightly or wrongly, believes that the house should be a house. A home. A structure where someone once lived. Generally, this means that the building should have the appearance that we are familiar with. If it is an older house, it should be a Victorian, perhaps Edwardian. Should the setting be in the South, then we believe it should be a grand old plantation. Further up into New England, we expect farmhouses or cottages at the least. In the cities, we look for tenement buildings. Out west, entire towns of false-front buildings. And on the West Coast, we expect beachfront villas.
But what about those in-between places?
What if in the city it’s not an apartment building, but a rundown garage? Or if it’s the seacoast, why not part of a marina? In a New England town, why not an old store?
Horror and terror shouldn’t be confined to stereotypes, no matter how comfortable that might make a reader feel. Because no matter how much they might enjoy the ghost story or terrifying tale, if it doesn’t push them, at least a little bit, then they’re not going to be moved by the story.
Yes, a haunted Victorian is interesting. Yes, it could even be disturbing if there was the ghost of a cannibal in it.
But can such a structure compete with an old corner store, if the same sort of tale was told in it? We expect something horrible to exist within the confines of a Victorian. How about the closed down bar at the end of the street? Do we really expect some hideous entity to be patiently waiting in the cellar? Or beneath the bar?
No, we don’t. And it’s there – when we challenge the reader’s expectations – that we will succeed in the main goal of storytelling: giving them something to remember and to reflect on.
Scaring them is easy.
Making them remember why they were scared a year or two down the road, that’s the real challenge.
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