It’s tough to scare people—to make the hairs on the backs of their necks stand on end, to make them feel deeply and irreversibly alone, to make them genuinely frightened. Of course, you could always go for shock tactics: blood or guts or Saw-esque horror, or the “Oh no, there’s a monster behind you!” jump scare. But those are too easy. The McDonald’s of horror, all empty calories, with nothing to stick to the audience’s ribs. These tactics don’t work because they’re expected and banal, laying everything out on the table. To really scare someone, you have to dig deeper.
When my coproducer Daniel Powell and I dreamed up Archive 81, a fiction podcast in which a lone archivist struggles to make sense of a trove of disturbing audio tapes, we wanted to really scare people. We were looking for deep horror. We wanted to convey the disquieting loneliness of cities, touch on the terrifying urban isolation, and explore the frightening possibilities of audio. We learned how to do all this by reading weird fiction.
Weird fiction is a type of horror that examines the thin barrier between reality and the fantastical. It’s dreamlike, uncanny, and concerned with, as the fantasy writer Jeff Vandermeer says, “the spaces between.” (It’s described in far greater detail in The Weird, a wonderful door stopper of a collection edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.) I’ve been a fan of writers like Kelly Link, Laird Barron, Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson, and Samuel R. Delaney for a while now, but it was as I was writing Archive 81 that I really dove into figuring out why these stories terrified me so much.
After reading and rereading stories such as Link’s “The Hortlak” and novels such as Kafka’s The Castle, I think I figured it out. Weird fiction transports you to a world where the rules that you thought you knew just don’t apply, and where everything is hazy, as though you can’t quite put a finger on the essence of the world you’re in. It draws forth something we’ve all felt—the first night in a new bed, the oppressive sameness of roadside diners, the gnawing sense that you can never truly understand even the people closest to you—and heightens that feeling, teasing it out and using it to explore themes of alienation and distance.
Writers like Vandermeer and Jackson don’t just call forth this feeling by describing the unsettling worlds they create. They also do it through a lack of description—by not clearly explaining the rules of the fictional universe, by not describing the monster or the monstrous men in great detail. They give a few key specifics, then leave the reader to fill in the rest. They shine a flashlight on one corner of the mind-shattering temple, on one tentacled eye, on one always-screaming mouth, and leave the rest in shadow.
That’s what Powell and I took from weird fiction as we were making our audio drama. The lesson we learned about making a terrifying sound production was to let the listeners terrify themselves.
As I wrote the scripts, I thought about ways to leave certain details out. For example, the protagonist encounters a tape of a museum tour, in which the exhibits are all strange, unsettling objects. The tape is a dead end, the museum’s history is never explained, but the information on the tape serves to let listeners fill in their own details of the world.
We also took this lesson to heart in our sound design. If there are monsters approaching our protagonist, we hint at their appearance with the sound of dripping flesh, rather than force our characters to describe them in every detail.
What we learned from weird fiction is that the audience—readers or listeners—will fill in the blanks with their own fears. The stuff readers—or listeners—can conjure up on their own will be far more frightening than anything an author can come up with. Show a tooth, unleash the steady beat of a heart under the floorboards, or play an unearthly opera that shatters the minds of those who hear it. Be specific, but only illuminate part of what’s going on. That’s what really terrifies people.
Scaring people is difficult. You have to strike a balance between suggesting something and spelling it out. It’s tough not to resort to gore or jump scares. It’s tough to get people out of their comfort zones. But when you do it right, what happens next is only limited by the audience’s imagination.
Marc Sollinger is the cocreator of the podcasts Archive 81 and The Deep Vault.