Where Do Horror Writers Get Their Ideas?
The Illustrated Guide
People love to ask writers where they get their ideas. Those of us who write horror fiction get asked that a LOT. (With concern. By people glancing over our shoulders and calculating the distance to the door.) I usually just shrug and mumble something. But in case you are thinking of getting into horror writing yourself, here are my two top tips.
1. Get Horror Ideas at the Thrift Store!
I shop at thrift stores because I am pathologically cheap, and because they make me wear a polo shirt at work. (My career path has led me through museums and historic inns, and I have never not looked like I am about to try to upsell you mozzarella sticks.)
I refuse to pay more than four dollars for a shirt I am going to look objectively terrible in, so I buy them at thrift shops. And then I browse the other merchandise for inspiration. I don’t buy anything, because I’m cheap, but writers can get great horror ideas by looking at things someone desperately wanted out of their house.
Dolls are a quick way to get the imagination going. Picture the doll designer trying to capture a baby’s soul in porcelain. Babies, after all, with their pudgy hands and their toothless smiles, are everything that is right in the world. Perhaps, the doll designer thinks, the only thing right in the world. But her deadline is coming up and it’s been a while since she’s seen an actual baby — she is estranged from her family — and pressure is mounting for her to capture a moment of joy and innocence, to create the one thing that will make people, people like herself, forget their awful lives and for a brief moment remember all that is pure and holy and perfect —
Can you imagine growing up with this in your house? Imagine the parent who didn’t donate this abomination with the tags still on. HORROR GOLD.
Another horrifying topic? Homemade gifts from the deeply disturbed heart. Picture, if you will, the ceramics student who enrolled in class after class to gain the skills and knowledge to master her craft. She makes her mistakes, but she keeps learning. And then one day she thinks, “Finally. Finally I am skilled enough to execute my vision.”
Why is his chest shaved?
Perhaps she had a recipient in mind when she created this work of art: “Mom will love this. It will fit right in with her manger scene and whatnot.” And at night when Mom is just trying to watch her Blue Bloods reruns her eyes keep straying to the shelf with the desperate hobo in the lovingly shaded jacket. He is staring at her. Is he moving closer? He is pleading with her. Presumably for the release of death, I mean, look at him. But if she gives him what he wants and smashes him into a million pieces, what force will she unleash …?
Again, you don’t have to purchase these items to get horror writing ideas from them. I sure as hell don’t want them in my home. Although they might be fun to leave around a museum or historic inn.
2. Get Horror Writing Ideas by Moving to Florida!
I’m not even talking about the prehistoric murder reptiles or the face eaters on bath salts or the falling iguanas or the feral pythons or the rampant racists or the cults or the fact that the sun and the rain and the wind and the ground and the ocean have all agreed to wipe it off the face of the planet and then never speak of it again.
No, I’m talking about the things in my yard.
My YARD, my ¼ acre sanctuary that is mostly septic field. My yard, where my dogs run and play joyfully and occasionally murder armadillos, also joyfully. My yard, where I can stand for a moment and feel the sun on my face and hear birdsong and my trashy neighbors screaming at each other, which they always do in their driveway and which is always on the topic of twenty dollars. My yard is my refuge, is what I’m saying. We fenced it in so we don’t have to look at anybody. We pay someone to keep the grass short even though I find it physically painful to part with money. There is a tree that blooms and a couple of bushes. If you don’t listen beyond the fence line, it is a genuinely pleasant place to be.
And then this shit happens.
What is that? WHAT IS THAT?
This pod is four inches long. I never saw a smaller version of this thing before I saw this skin clinging to this board. And if that is a husk, does that mean it is now still nearby? BIGGER?
Taking that picture was an act of bravery, because I usually don’t stand under trees if I can help it. I am Irish and I sunburn very easily, but I court melanoma every day because of this:
Or sometimes you go to bed with a normal yard and wake up the next morning to 600 snails on your fence, sitting there silently, even though you have lived here for 12 years and have never seen a snail in the back yard before.
This, times 300
Every day I live in Florida I feel like a character in the opening scene of an alien invasion movie. Like you see the words DAY ONE and then you see me step out into my yard. I am not even the main character, I’m the one who dies immediately so you know the stakes are high for the characters you do care about. I’m the character who brushes against some spore that starts sizzling on her flesh, or pauses to examine the empty shell of a creature, and then a giant shadow falls on her and they cut to a flock of birds flying away and then the scene changes to a city scene and you just know I died offscreen. Screaming. And if it’s a workday, in a fucking polo shirt.
So, you see, even the tamest life is a nightmare if you look at it right. If you’re an aspiring horror writer, ideas are everywhere. And if you need more inspiration, follow my Instagram. It is terrifying.
skull painting by Steve Ryder