How Stephen King scares his audience

  • Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers in the horror genre - he's sold more than 350 million copies worldwide.
  • His books are very similar to the style of H.P. Lovecraft, the father of the cosmic horror genre.
  • It's not the evil clowns, the ghosts, or monsters that make King's books so scary, but their firm link to the society we live in.
  • He uses three of the most basic literary devices - foreshadowing, callback, and payoff - to achieve his scare.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

"The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years--if it ever did end-- began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspapers floating down a gutter swollen with rain." This is how Stephen King begins "It," his 22nd novel, published in 1986. It's a passage that really exemplifies what King does best: instantly engrossing you in the horrific and unknown. And it's this unique ability that has made him one of the best-selling writers of our time, selling over 350 million copies worldwide and earning him the distinguished title of Master of Horror.

Yet, despite his success and popularity, King is still a difficult writer to discuss among the literary circle. Once described by The New York Times as "a writer of fairly engaging and preposterous claptrap," there has been a long-standing discussion on whether King's works are really literature or just glorified pulp. Nonetheless, King has managed to create some of the most iconic and haunting stories ever to come out of the genre. Which raises the question: How does he do it?

Like any writer, King isn't shy to share his sources of inspiration, most notably writers like Richard Matheson of "I Am Legend" and Bram Stoker of the now classic "Dracula." But perhaps the writer that most closely resembles his style is H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential writers of the horror genre. He single-handedly created a whole new subgenre that is now more commonly known as cosmic horror, in which unknown cosmic entities and phenomena beyond our understanding, often portrayed as ancient, mythical monsters, became the subject of horror. But the monsters of Lovecraft were never really monsters.

Instead, they were metaphors that symbolized Lovecraft's deep fear of the rapid technological and scientific advancements in the early 20th century. The helplessness he felt towards the changes around him reflected in the hopeless struggle of people against forces that are far beyond their control. Lovecraft believed that people's inability to truly understand their reality was the most merciful thing in the world and that doing so would be enough to drive anyone to insanity.

In many ways, this is the same kind of horror that King taps into. Whether it's vampires, a haunted hotel, or a rabid dog, the subjects of King's horror all represent our fear for something else. More specifically, the societal fears of the American people. In "Danse Macabre," King's study of the horror genre, he explains that there are two different kinds of horror.

The first is horror that plays on our phobic pressure points. These are fears based on our individual phobias, like the fear of spiders or ghosts, something that a lot of recent horror movies have based themselves on. But these horrors also have a clear limit, as they target a very specific group of people with that specific phobia. Which is why more effective and successful works of horror play with what's known as national pressure points. These are political, societal, and psychological fears that are shared by a wider spectrum of people. Like in the works of Lovecraft and King, are represented by the abnormal and the supernatural. It's what King excels at, living through some of the most tumultuous periods in American history.

His debut novel, "Carrie," on the surface a book about a girl with telekinetic powers, is really a story about the suppression of female sexuality in the '60s, published just six years after the famous Miss America protest in 1968. And in "The Shining," a book about a family stranded in a haunted hotel, King picks apart the concept of patriarchy that is deeply rooted into the American culture to discuss the cyclical nature of parental legacy. Sometimes it's more personal.

Two of his most famous works, "Misery" and "Cujo," deal with addiction and the lack of self-control it accompanies and were written by King during his own struggle with drugs and alcohol. Like Lovecraft, the horrors that King portrays are self-reflective and grounded in our reality. Which in turn makes the horror feel that much more real. They're representations of American fear. Things that threaten the very foundation of the society we live in. And just like Lovecraft, it's reality that terrifies King. As he once put it, it isn't the physical or mental abnormalities that really horrify us, but the lack of order in our reality they represent.

So, how does King put this on paper? The first thing to note is that situation comes first. King's books are often based on situations rather than intricate plots. Every single one of his works is based on a series of what-if scenarios. Like what if an ancient, cosmic evil in the shape of a clown terrorized a small town in Maine? Then he drops a group of well-fleshed-out characters right into the heart of the situation. But it's not to help them work their way free, but to simply watch what happens. And it's this spontaneity that allows for some of the most unexpected and shocking moments in King's stories. And it's impossible to talk about Stephen King without talking about suspense.

Another master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, once said suspense is "the most powerful means of holding on to the viewer's attention." And it's what King also excels at. Grabbing your attention and keeping it on something horrific, so you're unable to turn away. And he accomplishes this by applying three of the most basic literary devices. The first step is foreshadowing. Both his books and adaptations are riddled with lines and moments that hint at what's to come. This is why King's stories have an overarching sense of doom and dread.

Unlike most horror novels and films, it's not the uncertainty of danger that has you on edge, but exactly when that danger will finally happen. Then, the next step is callback, where King racks up the suspense by continuously reminding the audience that the danger is lurking. And oftentimes, it takes a while for the danger to actually show its face. And then, finally, the payoff. In which the suspense we've been building towards reaches its peak and we finally face the danger we've been waiting for. And it's at this final moment that King scares us. And you can very well see this throughout King's career. Even in the passage that started this video. With just one line, foreshadowing the terror to come, a callback to the longevity of said terror, and, finally, the payoff to the very thing that started it all.

Analyzing the works of Stephen King is a great opportunity to understand what really scares us at the end of the day. His works are prime examples that show us that our object of fear very much exists in our own reality. Sometimes it's not the monsters or ghosts that scare us, but the horrors of everyday life lurking in the corners, waiting to strike. And it's this horror that King knows and understands perhaps better than anyone. And if that's not enough to make him the Master of Horror, it would be hard to find someone else that deserves it more.

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