This is not a universal rule, and I’ve seen exceptions to it—but I’ve been noticing a pattern in a lot of horror media. And it has to do with rules and taboos. Now, there’s the whole thing in classic slashers where a character does something (usually sexual) and then is murdered for it—but I mean something else. I mean something not full of outdated stereotypes and implications.
I mean that in stories of horror the main character does something that makes them more likely to die. They undertake an action, make some choice, or piss off someone, and then they are put into the darkness. It can be so minor an action it doesn’t seem fair. It’s a relatively normal dynamic character moment taken to much darker outcomes.
Which suggests that there’s something core in the genre. Something that carried over from those old nursery tales meant to teach kids not to go into the forest and meet a wolf. An element of warning, of cautioning. Sure, this has gotten more abstract and less likely to connect to real events, but there’s still an essence of it in our modern storytelling landscape.
Don’t go into the dark alone.
Don’t obsess over what cannot be changed.
Don’t touch things that look dangerous.
The heroes die because they solve the puzzle box. They picked up the magical item. They moved into the house where someone died.
I call this “the sin.” And I’m trying to incorporate it into my storytelling. I’m trying to include it somewhere, when I can, to deepen the horror.
I’m doing this because I think there’s a valid argument for it being even scarier than random badness befalling a hero. If the horror is a butterfly effect outcome made by a seemingly insignificant choice, then that suggests the reader may have recently made the same kind of decision. That spur-of-the-moment choice of what item to buy, or to try out a new restaurant, or visit some attraction, it could be the catalyst to real horror. And that’s a horror that can stay with a reader long after they close the book.