There was a time, not so long ago, when horror legitimately scared the crap out of the consumer.
In 1973, movie theater managers were forced to transform themselves into amateur grief counselors in order to quell the droves of horrified, hysterical movie-goers who, at the time, weren't able to make it through the first hour of The Exorcist.
I was about ten in 1990 and my sister was babysitting me and, in our infinite wisdom, we decided to watch Poltergeist. The movie ended and in our horrified state of malaise, we began to wonder around the house, ensuring that every light was turned on. At some point, somehow, I managed to step on the foot-peddle that turned on the vacuum cleaner. Not realizing that that was a legitimate method of turning on a household appliance, and having just watched the Freeling family home become engulfed by the Cuesta Verde graveyard it was built on top of, I assumed a ghost must have turned it on. So, I ran. I ran out the front door, down the driveway and a half mile down the street before realizing what had happened.
I thought I had the "vampire-game" down pat when I decided to read Salem's Lot when I was about 15. To be perfectly honest, I never found vampires particularly scary. Yeah, they bite people, they're immortal, they don't like crosses or garlic or sunlight, If they bite you, you become one. I get it. So, when I sat down to read the book, I had low expectations. Surely this isn't something that is going to scare the shit out of me. By the end of the book, I was no longer able to read it at night. I was unable to read the book without other people within earshot. I legitimately had a hard time turning the pages in parts. I learned a valuable lesson: "Scaring people is an art form." Stephen King managed to take something that everyone had been exposed to, hundreds of times, and put his own stamp on it. Barlow, and those who answered to him, are not your average romantic, existential crisis consumed, vampires. It fascinated me that someone could put together a story that was so horrifying to me, about something I had never found remotely scary. It still does.
I tend to find things scariest when there's a level of plausibility to whatever in the hell is happening, no matter how bat-shit crazy it may be. When you read a lot of Michael Crichton's novels, let's face it, whatever situation the protagonists of the story find themselves wrapped-up in, is bat-shit crazy. Take his novel: Prey, for example. It is basically about a secret government facility, out in the middle of the desert, where they experiment with nano-particles. Inevitably (spoiler alert) everything goes to complete shit and a giant cloud of intelligent, insect-like, coordinated nano-particles becomes unleashed and begins raising hell. But, this is Michael Crichton we are talking about. By the time you get to the point that his cloud of deranged, bloodthirsty nano-particles are taking over the world, one sorry-ass desert facility employee at a time, he will have provided you with so much well-researched information about the potential dangers of nano-science (citing dozens of actual, real life examples), that you legitimately believe that what is happening, is plausible. And that, to me, makes it far more terrifying. It is rare for me to finish any of his books and not spend the next week researching the actual science behind his antagonist and subsequently finding out how much truth there actually was in his fiction, terrifying myself even more.
Over the years, there have been so many authors that have influenced me. But none more profoundly than Stephen King and Michael Crichton. There's nothing left by Crichton for me to read (sadly) and I've still got a bit of catching up to do with King, but I'm well into the deep end already.
With Crichton, it was his ability to horrify the reader via good old fashioned, pavement pounding research that adds that layer of plausibility to his stories. Giving the reader the idea that: "This crazy shit might actually happen someday." He was also incredible at taking subject matter that you would need a doctorate to properly comprehend and transforming it into material that the average Joe can understand, all in the confines of a single techno-thriller adventure. No easy feat. Without Crichton, do you think anyone (beyond perhaps a passing story on 60 Minutes) would have ever heard of and subsequently comprehended our ability to extract DNA from mosquitoes that have been trapped in amber for millions of years? Not a chance. But you throw some bloodthirsty raptors into the mix, have them eat some people, and now everyone who has been near a television in the last 25 years understands that science. By the way, as good as the movie is, read the book. It is a thousand times better.
With King, well, it's a little of everything. His character development is insane, his ability to put the reader into the setting, how he manages to create and portray mood no matter how vast the scope, how he often manages to make regular people (two armed, two legged human beings) into some of the most petrifying antagonists imaginable (Jack Torrance, Brady Hartsfield, Anne Wilkes). He is very simply put, the gold standard of horror writing. He is Michael Jordan and everyone else is kind of, well, everyone else.
I write what I write because, first of all, I absolutely love doing it, and, secondly, because of my influences. I think there are different levels of horror that can be delivered to an audience. There's scary and then there's terrifying. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is scary, but, The Exorcist is terrifying. One was crafted with meticulousness and plausibility in order to be terrifying. The other was crafted to be scary enough to beat the box office for a couple of weekends. There is something to be said about being able to write something that manages to affect people, long after they've finished reading it. I grew up on the hard, horrifying stuff. I've grown to crave it and it's getting harder to come by.
But, if I can do my part; if I can, at least, attempt to follow in the footsteps of the giants that helped shape the dark recesses of my brain, that's good enough for me. In short, I want to scare the shit out of the consumer. Scary is easy but terrifying is hard. Terrifying a reader, requires a far greater level of effort to build characters, create mood, establish plausibility, etc. If I am going to leave anything behind on this rock, whenever my spin on it is over, I want it to be terrifying.