I’ve always had night terrors. Just as I draw most of my positive inspiration from dreams, so does the subconscious mind sometimes wreak havoc. Last night was the first time I’d ever awoken truly drenched in a cold sweat. I flung off the blankets thinking I was too hot, only to realize I was actually freezing.
What is horror? What is terror? We see these concepts appear in many ways in our culture, entertainment, and personal lives. The movie Seven horrifies with special effects and psychological manipulation. In Greek myths, Zeus takes the form of animals and rapes mortal women. A fairy tale depicts a mermaid, a living being, dissipating into bubbles and carried off by the wind.
Really good horror is relative. For example: Losing your dream-father in a helicopter crash. Your dream-spouse unleashing a torrent of secrets and private disagreements can wake you up in tears. Sometimes the worst nightmares are seeing yourself (or someone you care about) fall prey to depravity: drugs, dangerous fetishes, murder.
Sometimes the guilt of something you’ve done in a dream haunts you more than the dream itself.
As always, I bring this back to the art of writing, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. Horror, like romantic tension, must be built upward from a firm foundation of character and setting. You can always show a dismembered head—sure, fine. But the dismembered head of your narrator’s spouse/brother/father?
There is horror.