“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” That quote by Stephen King couldn’t be truer. For all of its tension and bloodlust, horror is just entertainment – fantasy with more blood, as I like to call it. And the similarities between the two genres don’t stop there.
Consider these elements: monsters; death; fear; supernatural happenings; a struggle between good and evil; characters cast into unfamiliar environments. All of these components could be used to describe Game of Thrones just as much as The Walking Dead. So what is it that separates them?
A prominent factor that contributes to this theme is that horror lacks some of fantasy’s main character types. Now, this isn’t true in every case but there’s often no mentor or sidekick present in horror stories. There is no cavalry rushing to help the hero. The protagonist is on their own, frequently experiencing the epitome of humanity’s greatest fears: feeling alone; feeling trapped; feeling helpless.
So, Can Horror Be Written for Children?
Admittedly, those are pretty heavy themes to tackle, even for adults. So can it be done for children? In a word, yes. I’m proof of that, having written two zombie books for teens and four dark fantasy books with horror elements for middle grade readers.
The key, I think, is first to write a good horror book – for all ages – and then to prune back some of the more explicit adult elements. In my case, that’s all but the mildest of bad language and sexual references. While those two elements are staples in adult horror, they simply don’t work in children’s literature. You can get away with it for teens, but even then I would approach with caution.
“And what about gore?” I hear you say. “Can we include blood and guts?”
“Oh, gore is fine,” I reply, sipping a red liquid – probably wine – from a human skull. “More than fine, actually. It’s encouraged.”
Honestly, the gore level needed in your story depends on the kind of horror you want to write. For ghost stories, the fear is far more psychological. The moment the monster is revealed, you diffuse the situation. As Alfred Hitchcock once said: “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.”
I, on the other hand, write about zombies, my primary readership sitting in the 12-18 bracket. And if there’s one thing you learn while writing zombie books for young readers, it’s that they want gore. Even those on the younger end. Creative death scenes are all part of the fun.
Just look at Halloween and you’ll understand. Fake blood is everywhere. Kids walk the streets, slathered in synthetic guts, chewing gummy eyeballs. They play games where characters lose limbs. They stay up late watching horror specials on TV. Even to kids as young as eight, a monster biting off a man’s head is greeted with the same enthusiasm and awe as seeing a dragon torch a whole army as it flies overhead.
They love bodies thrown into wood chippers, heads exploding and survivors defending themselves with the severed arms of the fallen undead. One of my stories, The Dead Woods, contained all three of these elements and it was voted on of Wattpad’s “Top Zombie Stories” back in 2016 – on a site with more than 40 million readers, the majority of whom are under 18.
How to Adapt Horror for Younger Readers
Darren Shan, arguably the king of children’s horror in the UK, rose to fame using the same logic in his uber-successful Demonata books. In an early scene in book one, the hero Grubbs Grady finds his parents ripped apart by demons, his father hanging upside down, decapitated. Twelve-year-old me, along with thousands of other readers, devoured that scene. It wasn’t scary, it was cool.
Admittedly, Shan has revealed in an interview with The Guardian, that his editor took an exception to seeing the mother decapitated, so it had to be changed to the hero’s father. By his admission, mothers are protected in children’s horror. They can be killed, but it can’t be described explicitly, because of children’s attachment to their mothers. If it is described, it must be overshadowed by a more barbaric act elsewhere to cushion the blow – in this case, the dad.
While I’m not sure I agree with that idea (and neither would plenty of dads, understandably), his point still stands: horror, being an adventure, should never stray too close to the dangers of reality. It’s meant to be enjoyable – to fill the reader with the sort of tension that ends in an almighty jump, followed by a self-conscious laugh, not the sort of tension that forces them to face the hard truths of the real world.
R. L. Stine, who has sold over 350 million books in his Goosebumps series, words it well: “The real world is much scarier than [my] books. So, I don’t do divorce, even. I don’t do drugs. I don’t do child abuse. I don’t do all the really serious things that would interfere with the entertainment.”
One good way to create this entertainment-based brand of horror, I’ve found, is to write in first person. To focus the lens and omit details that could release the tension. That way, the main character doesn’t expose too much and ruin the tension because they are living in the moment, unprotected, without a narrator to shed a light on the shadows.
If the hero doesn’t see the monster until it’s already too late, neither does the reader, which allows the tension to keep building. It postpones the inevitable bang Hitchcock mentions. And with the reader seeing your world through the hero’s eyes, they experience that true human terror as if they were the hero.
Believe it or not, kids can deal with that sort of tension. Better yet, they thrive on it! They’re tougher than you think.
Daniel Parsons is a fantasy and horror author from South Wales, UK. So far, he’s published seven books, including installments in The Twisted Christmas Trilogy, The Necroville Series, The Canvas Chronicles, and The Creative Business Series for authors. He has been an Amazon bestseller in the USA, Canada and Australia. Plus, he was fortunate enough to see his debut novel become the fastest downloaded children’s book in America on Christmas Day 2017, four years after publication.
His comedy zombie story, The Dead Woods, has received extensive acclaim on the story-sharing website Wattpad. There, it garnered over 35,000 reads across 70 countries and was named one of the site’s Top Zombie Stories as part of a campaign to promote Hollywood’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie.
To contact Daniel, sign up to his bi-monthly newsletter at his website, check out his books online, or join his 80,000 Twitter followers. He loves hearing from readers.
12-year-old Toby escapes the cruelty of the workhouse and dreams of a life of freedom in Victorian London. He joins the Winter Freak Show, a band of travelling acrobats and performers, who put on a spellbinding show each year before Christmas. But all is not well in the City of London. A shadowy force is kidnapping children, and only Toby knows the terrible truth. In a race against time, Toby must catch the kidnapper. If he fails, Christmas will never be the same again.
ONE BOY. TWO WORLDS. AN ANCIENT EVIL THAT WANTS THEM BOTH.
It’s been a year since thirteen-year-old Toby Thornton found his long-lost family. But already cracks are appearing in his dream life. Forbidden from seeing his magical friends at The Winter Freak Show, he begins to realise how much he misses adventure. So when he gets word that the elves are in danger, that’s all the excuse he needs to run away from home.
It isn’t long before he discovers that things are worse than he imagined. Nicko has been kidnapped. And without the ringmaster’s guidance, his elves have descended into chaos. A band of shapeshifting enemies lurk among their ranks. Monsters are on the loose. And the secretive mastermind behind it all is trying to resurrect the most frightening evil the elves have ever faced. Only Toby stands in their way.
If he fails, forget Christmas. This time, the human race will fall.
THE PAID ACTORS AT THE NECROVILLE SURVIVAL EXPERIENCE ARE VERY GOOD AT PRETENDING TO BE ZOMBIES. TOO GOOD…
When Will and his friends decide to spend one last night together after graduating university, none of them realise the danger that lurks in plain sight. At first they’re having fun, caught up in the thrill of running through the forest, firing Nerf guns at under-paid zombies-actors. Then that all changes when darkness falls.
It quickly becomes apparent that the actors are very good at what they do. Too good. Armed with only an arsenal of Nerf guns, the group quickly figure out that they’ll need more than just foam bullets and sandwiches to get them through the night.
WHEN ALCOHOL MAKES YOU INVISIBLE TO ZOMBIES, A BAR CRAWL COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE.
Milo’s fear of everything has held him back for as long as he can remember. He knows university will drag him out of his comfort zone but he has no idea just how uncomfortable he is about to become. When zombies strike during his first night out on campus, he quickly discovers that making friends is a matter of life and death.
A chance encounter reveals that zombies don’t attack extremely drunk people. Can Milo and his new flatmates band together to survive the most dangerous bar crawl the world has ever seen?
Last Crawl is the first novel in this comedy horror series, inspired by the author’s critically acclaimed short story The Dead Woods. If you like Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies, or Zombieland, then you’ll love Daniel Parsons’ new zombie comedy.