Monday, February 25, 2013

Dr. Heath Sommer on Horror and Psychological Thrillers

Horror is worse when it has pigtails.

When one comes home and sees a questionably unsanitary male lurking in the hallway--blood-stained knife, twitching snarl, camo pants, tattoo of El Diabolico covering his face--one is going to be scared, energized. Fight or Flight is going to kick in. But that’s just horror. Terror occurs when one comes home and sees a tiny child draped in a cutesy bear outfit, hair descending beyond her pale white face, motionless, unapologetic, and unexplained, standing in the hallway.

Uh, little girl? Why are you staring at that carpet stain, clutching a tattered Teddy Ruxpin?

That is creepy. But why does that fill us with terror? The answer is because we have no label for it, which makes our arousal (see: terror) climb. This is what old experimental psychologists call “two factor theory.” The idea that arousal leads to a feeling that needs a label, and vice versa.

In the tattooed butcher situation, we get anger, fear, action. Either the hero or the victim’s blood is spilled, the problem is resolved, and we go home and forget it instantly. In the innocent-looking girl situation, we get multimillion-dollar blockbusters like The Ring, Firestarter, Watcher in the Woods, and on and on. Why? Because we have no box in which to put a creepy little girl and still feel safe when our spouse goes to sleep and we are left to ascend the dark stairs alone.

Recently I have turned my hand from psychological thrillers and entered into the world of terror. A fan of all kinds of suspense, terror-based suspense, to me, is the freaky sherbet. Though I love writing psychological thrillers and am close to completing my fourth novel in The Manufactured Identity Series, I have also been developing a YA horror novel called, tentatively, Bull Trout Lake.

Juxtaposing the styles of the two has been interesting, and I find myself using a lot of psychology to try to suit the stories to each market. For instance, in our arousal-label thinking, the arousal (e.g., blood pressure, dry mouth, a tingling spine, shallow breathing) is going to be fairly similar regardless of age. What drives the arousal, however, is profoundly different, and theory can assist a good writer in ruining the reader’s perceived comfort for the next several days.

For an adult, terror can sizzle when it is connected to the developmental crisis the adult is experiencing at the time, but because we play different roles in our 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, that is really, really hard to do. We are just too abstract and cognizant to make many things believable fears. On the other hand, an adolescent, who is still unsure how a metaphysical presence pushing on the floorboards differs from age-related decline in lumber, is perhaps more likely scared when the fear object is simple and personally relevant.

The word here is egocentricity. YA fiction has to be centered on the adolescent. The teen’s life is in danger. Her protectors (whose job it is to potentially die while saving her) are not home. She pulls the sheet up to protect herself, and it doesn’t matter who is coming to get her or why they are there. She is in danger...period!

Good, pervasively frightening adult terror often has to have larger implications. Has to grab you in the darkness of your soul and whisper that you are not strong enough to make it through what you are about to see, hear, smell, and touch. The fear might not be death (anyone raising kids can appreciate the escape that death might bring!) but preserving life. It might be about being big enough and strong enough to help the helpless, to save the vulnerable.

Speaking of fear, I think many writers are afraid of dabbling in this domain because it can be hard to perfect the language of terror. Start with the plot and velocity of the story first, comforting yourself with Salvador Dali’s reminder that we should “have no fear of perfection--we’ll never reach it.” Once you have yourself nice and freaked out, then go back and add the d├ęcor of nuance of prose, grammar, and presentation, and you’re ready to scream. Add a five-year-old and Teddy Ruxpin staring back at you vacantly in the hall, and your friends will never invite you to a dinner party again.

About Dr. Heath Sommer:

Author Heath Sommer’s debut novel, The Manufactured Identity, surprised critics with its plot twists and psychologically rich characters in 2009, and books two and three of the suspense series have met with similar acclaim since their publication in early and late 2010. Heath is currently writing book four of the series, crafting a tale of forensic psychology and, of course, murder. He is also drafting his first YA thriller, a forest mystery set to ruin camping for all his children.

A native of Sacramento, California, Heath earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an additional degree in the family sciences. He is a regular public speaker, adjunct professor of psychology, and CEO of Seasons of Hope. Currently an Idahoan, he spends his time with a mixture of metropolitan intensity and country living, presiding over a clan of junior novelists who are never fully impressed.

The Manufactured Identity at Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook.
Visit Dr. Sommer's website.
Also catch him on Twitter

23 comments:

  1. I can relate to this. Though I don't write horror, I've definitely experienced it. The only Dr Who episode that ever truly scared me involved a young boy as the main scary feature. I could never get into bed or move around in the dark for years without being scared that he was going to pop up somewhere and get me!

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  2. I have to admit I don't like scary stories. Why in the world would I want to freak myself out and make it so I can't sleep for weeks? I scare easily, so pretty much anything would work for me.

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  3. So the secret is to freak ourselves out? Check!

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  4. I absolutely won't read or watch any terror that involves kids. It horrifies my mama's heart. I prefer reads that engage my emotions and my mind, causing a shift in thinking or possibilities rather than blatant emotional triggers and manipulation. But, having said that, I realize the allure of total escape and vicarious thrills these kinds of books create for readers.

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    1. You may find you'd like Dr. Sommer's psychological thriller trilogy if you like books that strike at the heart of your emotions and life philosophies. I know I did. They had me thinking through nights and weeks on end...

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    2. Oh thank you! I love recommendations.

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  5. As an avid camper I may have a love-hate relationship with a terror novel set in the forest. Probably won't be able to help myself but to read it anyway!

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  6. If I'm with my friends, I can take horror stories to some extent. But I have to admit, horror stories are not my thing.

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

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  7. As someone who has always adored the horror genre, I completely agree with this post! The more truly terrifying elements in a story almost always seem to be when something normal and mundane is twisted on its head. If one thing like that can be made threatening, what else is untrustworthy in our day-to-day lives, after all?

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  8. I've never heard it explained quite like that. It doesn't make me like having the wits scared out of me anymore, but it was interesting to read. :)

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  9. Great post. I loved Heath's trilogy, can't wait for the 4th, one of the best psychological thrillers ever, if you enjoy a mess with your head read, go for it.

    Love Salvador Dali's quote and trying to scare yourself while creating a story. Great advice.

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  10. You know the most terrifying thing I can handle is myself and the cast of Monsters Inc.

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  11. This is an awesome post. I used to love horror when I was young. Now I'm a big fat wuss, but I'm getting into it again. I may sleep with a nightlight on after reading the books, but who cares, right?! They're fun!

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  12. Excellent post. I've never read horror, but in a sense, psychological thrillers work the same way for me. :-)

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    1. Thanks for spotlighting the post, Misha!

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  13. This is an amazing post. As someone who has recently (as in the past 2 years) made the leap from fantasy to horror, I can relate to the fear of not "getting it right". However, when I wrote a story that actually freaked ME out, that story was the one that scared my friends! So, to echo Alex above, the key IS to freak ourselves out :)

    I wandered over thanks to a mention Misha Gericke gave you in her blog post. Nice to "meet" you!

    ~Jen

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    1. It's great to meet you, Jen. Folks don't come any better than Misha, and she's doing great things over there on My First Book. (I still have to cast my votes for this month's Paying Forward nominees.)

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  14. "In the tattooed butcher situation, we get anger, fear, action. Either the hero or the victim’s blood is spilled, the problem is resolved, and we go home and forget it instantly." No necessarily. :)

    I get it though. I find the difference between scaring an adult and scaring a teen interesting, even if--at age 34--I remain in the teen, egocentric scare zone.

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  15. That would be *not* necessarily.

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  16. I tried to write a kid's scary story and it was woeful. Writing fear is an art, that's for sure.

    The 'two factor theory' is an important concept for any genre, I think, i.e., tension rises because our brain has conflicting 'labels' for what's going on. Dr. Sommer's books sound like something I'd really enjoy, so thanks for the introduction as well as the insight.

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  17. I was asked once to write a scary story for children and read it to them. Afterwards, the company got complaints from several parents saying that their kids were too scared to sleep for weeks after the event :-)

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  18. Oh no psychological thrillers for me! I don't do scary. The mysteries I write for YA are cozy, lol. Cozys don't show the blood and gore, just the process by which to solve the mystery. But I certainly can appreciate the awesome writing that goes into psychological thrillers that makes me scared as if it's real! Well done, Heath!

    Hi Jeff! *waves*

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    1. Thanks, Gwen! In fact, much of Heath's work IS "cozy" in the sense that it's not graphic or bloody and never includes explicit sex scenes. It's incredible to me how he can spook me without the gore. (By the way, I'm the author's publicist. Thus the "thanks.")

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