Life is plenty scary without stories about scary things. But according to the horror author Scott A. Johnson, that doesn’t mean scary stories aren’t important—and even necessary. “Horror is safe,” he says. “It’s all the thrill of danger and mayhem without the commitment. It’s a catharsis in that it allows you to experience fear and revulsion, but then you can close the book and feel better about how not scary your life really is.” In fact, Johnson says he tends to write the most terrifying things when he’s under stress in his own life, “which solidifies my claim that I sometimes use my work as a form of cheap therapy.”
Though many authors report writing stories from the time they were young enough to write their names, Johnson was a bit of a late bloomer. “I actually didn’t start writing until around 2005, when I was 34 years old,” he says. His first book, An American Haunting, was published by Harbor House in 2004.
Johnson is critical of his debut. “Looking back on that book now, I see so many problems with it, so many clichés, so much I would do differently,” he says. “Would I change it? Not at all, because it documents where I was when I started.”
Johnson received his MFA in writing from Emerson College and attributes his evolution as an author to studying “the masters of the craft,” though he has read quite broadly. “My literary influences are diverse because I believe you can learn something from every book, even if it’s how not to do something,” he says.
His process boils down to diligence and routine. Johnson sets a goal of 1,000 words every day, and begins each day’s work with a central concept. “Sometimes, that concept is a scene or even just a title,” he says. “Then, I flesh it out as I write.”
Johnson also believes that taking a step back from a project after that first draft is completed is an important part of the creative process. “Then, when I go back to do rewrites,” he says. “I’m looking at it with fresh eyes.”
Johnson’s many self-published books have received positive reviews from mainstream sources, including PW. In a 2018 starred review, PW called his book Shy Grove: A Ghost Story a “creative, twisted, and relentlessly unsettling creepy house story.” He noticed an uptick in sales after receiving such a glowing review.
“I sold more copies—that’s for sure,” Johnson says. “But the biggest thing was potential. I had three film companies approach with interest in the movie rights. I never heard back from any of them, but the fact that they acknowledged my existence was pretty exciting.”
Johnson isn’t waiting around for news from film executives. He has a new book, Ungeheuer, coming out soon from Bloodshot Books. He describes it as “a love letter to the old creature-feature films of my youth.” He’s also writing his first YA horror novel, a first sci-fi book, and the fifth book in his paranormal Stanley Cooper Chronicles series.
In addition to fictional paranormal stories, Johnson writes true stories of haunted locales across the United States. He finds these locations through word of mouth and shoe-leather sleuthing. “I start with talking to the people who experienced the hauntings,” he says. “Then I go to city hall or the county clerk and start digging. I look for any information on the property I can find. I go to the public library and scan old newspapers to try to find if there’s a cause for the hauntings, that sort of thing.”
Johnson is frequently surprised by where his research takes him. “For example, there’s a haunted theater in New Mexico that I did some research on,” he says. “The place was reputed to be haunted by a little boy, and much of the story sounded like hokum. Everyone knew the story, but no one knew the particulars. It took me several weeks, but one day I found the boy’s obituary. I found his name. I found out how he really died, and it verified the whole story.”
Though many may associate hauntings with locations of notorious murders, such as the Lizzie Borden House, or those steeped in bloody history, such as Gettysburg, Johnson says that “ordinary” places have their ghosts as well. “Perhaps the most haunted place I’ve ever visited is not a place anyone will find on a tour,” he recalls. “It was just a simple house. The people who lived in the house reported seeing a little girl in their room—they were childless—and having feelings of panic in other parts of the house. I did some investigating and discovered that the family who lived there prior were all murdered.”
If the many terrors that Johnson has both conjured and investigated alleviate some of his own worries, there is one that persists and steadily permeates his work. “I think what scares me the most is the concept of loss of self, like losing my memories and being abandoned by people who love me,” he says. “I know the latter is not likely to happen. But to be trapped inside one’s own body and being unable to recognize where you are or who is around you—that’s terrifying.”