I think humans have a number of fears which are universal. Some are the biggies: war, famine, pestilence. They’re global issues, community issues, and they’ve been around forever. We’ve heard stories, both real and fictional, about these things for millennia. Diary of Anne Frank, Saving Private Ryan, Red Badge of Courage, Angela’s Ashes, Outbreak, Andromeda Strain. They touch on our fears of destruction, of pain, of suffering. Those are deep-seated fears. But they’re also the ones that feel furthest away for most of us.
People in the United States, up until 2001, had never feared war on their soil. Most modern day people living in industrialized countries have little fear of famine or pestilence. So the movies and books which touch on these fears are still seen as entertainment. They’re far enough removed from our everyday lives that they’re not immediate. They’re almost not real.
The stories which hit closer to home are the ones that really scare us, because we have universal fears which are held very close to our souls. Abandonment, death, being alone, rejection, loss of independence (financial and personal), loss of family members, the unknown, failure. Weaving these fears into a story brings about a stronger reaction in the reader (or viewer). Why? Because they’re more real on a day to day basis.
Trusting in people could lead to abandonment, which would lead to being alone. Submitting a manuscript could lead to rejection (and, in reality, probably will at least for awhile). Random acts could lead to death, or failure, or a palpable loss. Stories about these things resonate with people because they’re even more universal than the biggies. These are things we deal with every single day as humans.
Zeroing in on these fears, as a writer, can be done with a sledgehammer or with a feather. Some of the creepiest stories seem inconsequential on their surface, but we walk away from them with their characters populating our thoughts and their circumstances weighing on our minds. What if that had been me? How would I have dealt with it? Would I have survived?
Good fear-raising stories make us question our own abilities to overcome our fears. They make us imagine how we might have come through the situation, if at all. But beyond that, a good story like that also often makes us see that our fears can be overcome. Can we overcome death? Not in real life. But we can keep our fear of it from controlling us – at least long enough to get away from the axe/chainsaw/sword/needle-wielding murderer.
Horror writing is, arguably, one of the more emotional types of writing. Because horror is the art of fear. A writer’s ability to reach out to the reader and draw out some of the basest fears is the art, like a dance. It isn’t about the blood and the gore. It’s about the deeper, emotional reaction to a metaphorical monster that frightens all of us.