The 3 Pillars Of Horror

The 3 Pillars Of Horror


Have you ever tried to write a horror story and found the result wanting? In this post, we look at how the 3 pillars of horror can improve your horror story.

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It’s a difficult genre to do well. But why? All you have to do is create a monster and put it in a creepy location. Then you make a bunch of dumb jerks go there and let the monster pick them off in gruesome ways, right?

The problem with that approach is… it isn’t scary. Intense? Spectacular? Sensational? Sure. It’ll get your blood pumping, just not from fear.

Here’s the problem. If the characters are all dumb jerks, we won’t like them; if we don’t like them, we won’t care for them; if we don’t care for them, we won’t be worried for their safety. And if we aren’t worried for the character’s safety, well—we can’t be scared for them in the face of a haunted house or the monster within.

Instead, some part of us might feel these dumb jerks are getting what they deserve. We might even laugh at their horrible fates and become morbidly curious about who will die next and how.

Again, that’s not scary; it’s just a weird, vindictive betting game.

Before we look at what makes a Horror story scary, consider Stephen King’s method. He suggests the opposite of the one outlined above—the one we’ve mistaken for horror for so long.

King says: “I create sympathy for the character, then I cut the monster loose.”

With that in mind, let’s look at The 3 Pillars of Horror.

The 3 Pillars Of Horror

Pillar #1: The Protagonist

A Horror protagonist is the opposite of an Action Hero. An Action Hero is someone we want to be. They’re a capable and powerful person who always does the right thing. But a Horror Protagonist is an ordinary person–a vulnerable victim of trauma hiding some secret shame. These are all things we fear being, so we can’t help but feel sympathy for someone in such circumstances.

We also need to know these aspects of the Horror Protagonist so we can figure out what his Shadow is. The Shadow is the Protagonist’s hidden, secret shame caused by their trauma. His Shadow has haunted him long before he stumbled into a haunted house or met any monsters.

In fact, the concept of the Shadow, of Trauma + Shame + Mortal Fear, should inform every level of the story: character, setting, and monster design. The Character must first have a Shadow, the Setting must remind them of the Shadow, and the Monster ought to embody it. This principle, wherein every story element works together to create a single feeling, is what Edgar Allan Poe called, “The Unity of Effect.” 

Pillar #2: The Setting

A Horror setting is an isolated, disempowering location with a mysterious, dreadful past. These come together to remind the protagonist of his Shadow.

To make the setting even more effective, limit the protagonist’s perception to make them more vulnerable. Often writers do this with fog, darkness, right angles, and closed doors. These all pump up the suspense and mystery as well because… who knows what’s hiding in the night’s fog, around the corner, behind that door?

Heck, the setting may even be a monstrous entity with its own agenda. It may want to kill the protagonist, to banish him, or force him to carry out some perverse, atrocious act.

And, if you want to take a more psychological route, make the terrifying events of the setting manifestations of the protagonist’s Shadow being projected onto the real world. 

Pillar #3: The Monster

The monster is a perverse, threatening menace embodying the protagonist’s Shadow. It personifies at least one or more “deadly sin” or sociocultural taboo.

For instance: The Protagonist is dealing with guilt over the death of his wife by suicide after she found out he was cheating. He is haunted by some eerily attractive ghost or monster stalking him. This monster embodies his shame over how he let his lust control him.

The Monster can be real, a product of the protagonist’s warped imagination, or–best of all–ambiguous. Given the way the story plays out, it is equally plausible that the monster is real or that it is just a product of the protagonist’s imagination.

For maximum spookiness, the monster is best kept obscure and abstract until the story’s end. H. P. Lovecraft said: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Now let’s put all three pillars of horror together using an example from earlier:

  1. “When John’s wife, Mary, finds out he’s been cheating on her with her best friend, Sarah, Mary commits suicide. She kills herself in Sarah’s house in the country as revenge, in the very bed where John and Sarah had been sleeping together (set up past trauma and secret shame—the Shadow).
  2. Month’s later, John moves in with Sarah, who still lives in the house where Mary died (isolated, disempowering location with a dreadful past). They get rid of the bed and board up the room, they even hire a live-in maid, so the house is never empty.
  3. But, to their horror, the maid begins dressing like Mary, acting like her. She even tries to seduce John when she’s alone with him, threatening to kill herself if he doesn’t do what she asks. Now John wonders if the maid isn’t somehow possessed by Mary’s vengeful ghost (Monster embodying the protagonist’s past trauma and secret shame).”

And there you have it—The 3 Pillars of Horror in action!

Now it’s your turn—give it a shot and post your story teaser in the comments.

Have fun!

 by Oliver Fox

Oliver earned his BFA from the University of Memphis (2015). After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch (’16). Currently, he works as a manuscript analyst and is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans.

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This article has 9 comments

  1. Djerith

    Sound very helpful advice. Im working on something a little different, a table top game rather than a set story, but I feel this helps me get a better idea for the sort of effect I am seeking.

    • Oliver L Fox

      Hi there!

      I’m glad you found this article inspiring!

      And–yes, these principles will work wonderfully for tabletop gaming as well. Several of my own friends have used this article and several of my other craft articles/essays to help them with worldbuilding, character development, and plotting in their tabletop RPG design. That’s the great thing about narrative principles, they’re often universally applicable across mediums!

      Keep exploring and– above all– have fun!

      Oliver

  2. Nick Esposito

    Okay, I’ll go first.

    Cardinal Brennan, a good man with a history of helping those in need in both his archdiocese and around the world, issummoned to Rome at the death of the Pope. Hits something in the road while speeding to the airport in a torrential rain, doesn’t know what, but the car seems fine so he keeps going or he’ll miss the flight.

    Lands in Rome. In the cab on the way to the Vatican, he reads on his phone of the hit-and-run death of a little girl who wandered away from her parent’s disabled car near the airport.

    Once at the Vatican, he is housed in the Casa Santa Marta — named after Martha of Bethany, who witnessed the resurrection of her brother Lazarus by Jesus. There are some electrical issues in the apartment; nothing dreadful, but … annoying.

    Over the next few days, during breaks from conclave preparations, he researches the hit-and-run accident. There are photos of the family and the little girl. It’s not clear if his was the car that hit her.

    The night before Conclave he is summoned by the Guards, and follows them to the Basilica, where — oddly — they lead him down into the Vatican Necropolis. He finds himself alone.

    There is a wet shuffling sound from a shadowed cave at the end of side passage.

    • Oliver L Fox

      Hi, Nick!

      This is a great start! You’ve established your character’s hidden shame (he wonders if he was the culprit in the hit and run), and introduced a place of lingering dread (the Necropolis). You’re two-thirds of the way there! All that’s left is to create a monster who could subtly but understandably represent Brennan’s shame.

      Keep going!

      Oliver

      • Nick Esposito

        Thank you, Oliver. It’s kludgy and obvious — written on a cellphone immediately after reading your article — but it was a test of your “3 pillars,” and they absolutely work.

        It might be noted that they are not necessarily THE three pillars, but a terrific framework that, if followed, are a great foundation for a story.

        I say not “THE,” because there are many recent tales (at least, in cinema) that don’t easily fit. “Alien” and “Halloween” are two examples; the protagonists do not have a shadow that informs either the monster or setting, yet remain archetypes of the horror genre (okay, “Aliens” makes “Alien” fit as a retronym, adding and contrasting Ripley’s parenthood-desires — not presented in the first film — with the xenomorph’s).

        Both stories were groundbreaking ideas, however, that could easily represent the exceptions that prove your rule.

  3. Erebus Dirge

    Title – The Knowledge.

    The Knowledge – the traditional study of esoteric and complex maze-like system of the roads of London. Part science, Part Art.
    A London Cab Driver had to learn this to get his Hackney licence. Only when he was in full possession of The Knowledge would he be considered a true London Cabby.

    Synopsis – 7 strangers from 7 different parts of London, all call an Uber ride, there’s a brief distortion on their phones when the order is confirmed. The same classic spotless Austin 1977 will pull up at their location and they will enter the black cab and never be seen or heard of again. Why ? Because The Cabby has The Knowledge not just of the maze-like London roads, but of the terrible secrets and dark crimes which each of the 7 strangers harbour. Like a hellish confessional box, they will be locked in with no hope of escape as The Cabby casually recounts their sordid sinister story of their lives to them in such invassive and perversely intimate detail.

    So what becomes of The Passengers ? And who is The Cabby? How can he possibly know so much ? Is he somekind of vigilante hacker ? Or something all together far far worse ?

    • Oliver L Fox

      Hi there!

      It sounds like you have a solid concept in place–the cabby as a source of hidden knowledge and shame is a great start for your monster charged with metaphorical meaning.

      Here are a few things to consider:

      -Is the cab a place of lingering dread? If not, how might you make it into one?

      -Is it necessary to have so many characters, or could you go deeper into a single protagonist’s shameful history? Remember, the monster must be the embodiment of the protagonist’s shame, and trying to get one monster to represent seven character’s shame might spread it a bit thin.

      This is a great start–keep going!

      Oliver

  4. Anne

    Hi Oliver!

    Thanks for your wonderful article. I love the horror genre and I strive to get it right. The idea of the Three Pillars is totally believable and doable!

    Thanks a bunch.

    • Oliver

      Hi, Anne!

      I’m so glad to hear you found this helpful– that it has helped writing horror feel less daunting for you.

      It was my pleasure to share what I’ve learned!

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