Can Books Be Effective Horror? (Let’s Talk Bookish)

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme, hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books & Dani @ Literary Lion, where we discuss certain topics, share our opinions, and spread the love by visiting each other’s posts.

The Prompt: Some people love to be scared – others not so much. When it comes to reading do you think books can be scary? Are you less scared because there are no pictures? Do you feel other mediums such as film are more effective for horror? Have you ever been kept up at night by a book? (Question from Dani)

Star Divider

This is an interesting question because I tend to not read a lot of horror, and the reason is a weird combination of the fact that 1) I hate being scared, so I avoid adult horror books because I assume they are scary and I would hate them, and 2) I generally don’t find YA horror that horrifying, which makes it boring.

So I do think think that books, of course, can be scary, but they often aren’t. (Again, speaking of YA horror here, since I avoid adult horror like the plague.) And while, sure, I would assume YA is supposed to be slightly less scary than adult books in this genre, I’m sure it’s supposed to at least give readers a little shiver, make them afraid to turn off the lights when they’re reading at night. So why do half the YA horror books I’ve read fail at this?

I don’t think it has anything to do with a lack of pictures, as the prompt suggests. I’m sure if horror books were illustrated, they would come with some gruesome or creepy art that would make me cringe and avert my eyes, but the pictures wouldn’t scare me either. The things that make art scary are more the themes and the feelings that the art evokes, not really the visuals. Horror films can create a mood with music, for instance, instantly ramping up tension regardless of what is actually visually on the screen. Books don’t have anything besides words, however, so those works have to work extra hard to create a scary mood, to make me think a monster is under my bed or my soul is going to be sucked out of my body by a ghost or whatever.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on “how to make a book scary” because I’ve never even tried to write anything scary, but I think a lot has to go on with the voice and tone of the work, the pacing, and what the “scary” aspect of the book actually is. Personally, I think evoking some sort of existential dread about death or the afterlife or eternity or whatever might make something scarier than spending three paragraphs trying to explain why a monster looks scary with its big fangs and claws. Things are scary when I can imaging them happening to me, even in a very loose sense. I can see why a character would be scared of a green monster living in their sock drawer, but I have no fear of something similar happening in my life. Something else has to make it more relatable, or make me drawn into the story, so I’m in the place of the character instead of feeling like an outside observer.

That said . . . horror is still not my genre. You might see some slightly scary reads reviewed by me, and fun non-scary Halloween reads, but that’s about it.


10 thoughts on “Can Books Be Effective Horror? (Let’s Talk Bookish)

  1. Hasini @ Bibliosini says:

    I used to find YA horror scary when I read them years back as a kid but now I like to admire the writing and world-building when I read this genre. I remember that in my childhood days, I really lived up to the escapism of these books and got myself sucked into these worlds! Great discussions, Briana!


  2. Michael J. Miller says:

    I used to be like you! I, too, avoided horror like the plague. But my ex/still-best-friend ADORES horror and when we started dating I was tossed in the deep end of the pool. I had SO MANY NIGHTMARES! Hahaha, but I did learn to develop an appreciation for the genre and now I watch pretty much all of it and will read it as well.

    As far as books go, YES I’ve had several scare me (which may be, in part, because I am a baby). Some classics like ‘The Shining’ and ‘Dracula’ kept me up at night. ‘I Am Legend’ freaked me out a bit. ‘The Road,’ while not horror per se, left me scared as I felt the crushing isolation very deeply. I know there are more but I’m planning on going to bed in an hour or two and I’d rather not search those memories out this close to falling asleep XD.


  3. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    This was interesting. I don’t find any horror book scary. They somehow don’t give the same effect as movies. Like you said with or without pictures they makes certain scene gross and creepy but never scary enough.


  4. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I don’t tend to find horror frightening in general, whether it’s in books or movies. My brain just goes “yeah, that’s fake” and carries on. If it goes on overlong, I actually find it tedious. That said, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House did manage to creep me out.


  5. Mary Drover says:

    I agree, it’s very rare that a book scares me because there isn’t the full experience that comes with horror films, but I will say that Madeleine Roux’s House of Furies trilogy got me good sometimes. I kept reading it at night, stupidly, and then would have to sit in bed and convince myself I was going to be okay to get up and turn out the lights. She really managed to capture the atmosphere of slow dread and things seen out of the corner of your eye, and it was spooky. Outside of that trilogy, though, I can’t say that I’ve really been afraid of any books enough to fall into the “no thanks” mood that things like Paranormal Activity manage to put me in.


  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yeah I hate being scared too, but I hear you about YA not being scary. In fact, I’ve read scarier MG books! It’s weird because YA authors aren’t afraid of being dark- it’s just often not in a scary way. But at the same time I can’t really claim to be an expert, because the second someone says a book is scary, I won’t read it!!


  7. Anna says:

    Horror is not what the monster hiding under the bed or in the sock drawer looks like. Horror is about the psychological fear of a monster that may or may not be hiding under the bed or in the sock drawer. Horror is more effective when it captures the psychological effect of everyday fears.

    It’s why stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” is so well known. It is about a man going insane from the guilt of the murder he committed. H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are about the consequences of seeking knowledge. Do we want to know everything? Are we ready to know current things? The Shining explores the psychological fear of isolation. The supernatural element is psychological, for you can make the argument that the ghosts are all in Jack’s head. Because the ghosts appear to him the most and he is the one to go completely insane.

    Music in horror movies is not always effective especially when it ends in a jump scare. It’s why I like horror movies that are slow and subtly build up in tension. The movie Bier Witch is basically a bunch of college kids lost in the woods. What makes it horror is how they react to it in fear. Adding to that there may or may not be a witch who plays more into their fear.

    A common theme in the best horror is the fear of losing your insanity and to take it a step further, the fear of losing your humanity. It is one thing to write about a monster chasing someone. It is another thing to write about a monster in someone’s head that is chasing them. Fear is a strong emotion and writers that can understand that are some of the best horror writers.

    I don’t offend watch or read horror but, I do have a deep appreciation for it. Imo horror is one of the best genres to explore the deep themes of humanity.


  8. Joseph says:

    Not sure about being truly frightened by a book, but a good horror book generally has a fitting atmosphere. I personally enjoy Lovecraft’s work.


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