Writing Secrets from Cheesy Halloween Movies

Everyone on earth fears the same thing. That’s why horror works throughout the world… I don’t have a secret fear – well, I do, but nobody wants to be naked in front of a bunch of people.
–John Carpenter

Ever stumbled upon one of those bad horror movies on TV and not been able to turn the channel? It’s harder than it should be, isn’t it?


I admit I’m a sucker for a classic scary movie. Especially on Halloween. I just can’t help it. I think it’s because they speak to my passion for writing. What is it about these films that we find so irresistible?

In a word: SUSPENSE

Believe it or not, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Freddy Krueger, Jason, and Michael Myers that will make you a better writer.

Building suspense is all about intentionality. It takes time and effort. Without it, your writing becomes flat and flaccid.

And this doesn’t just apply to horror writing. There is an essential tension to all effective writing that keeps the reader engaged — whether it be memoir, investigative journalism, historical fiction, or another genre.

“Don’t look behind you!”

Most people have the wrong idea about communication. They think good writing or speaking breaks down into three parts:

  • Say what you’re going to say.
  • Say it.
  • Say what you just said.

This is, without a doubt, absolutely wrong and ridiculous.

In reality, great communication is more akin to telling a scary story.

Every good horror movie is full of surprises. This is what we love about this genre; you never know exactly what’s going to happen. But you know something will happen.

This is why you can’t merely tell your audience what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then remind them. There has to be mystery to the story. It has to build on itself.

Slow, but deadly

Don’t you hate it how zombies can walk so slowly and yet still kill so many people?

I never understood why Michael Myers could limp down a street towards a topless, screaming girl and still cut her to pieces. But he did. Hundreds of times.

There is something slow and methodical to his rampages that are like a bad dream. No matter how slowly the villain walks, you can’t run fast enough.

This is what you must do with your plot. Build it slowly and intentionally, moving towards the anticipated end. Don’t jump ahead of each point; focus on what you have to say now. And slowly, but surely, you’ll arrive at the end.

Always end with a twist

The best part of a good thriller is the surprise ending. Just think of any M. Night Schmyalan film or Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video.

We want to be surprised. We want to be shocked. We want to be caught off-guard.

I always try to guess the ending before it happens and rarely am I right. This is why I find these movies so addictive. They’re exciting.

A good piece of writing ends with a twist — whether it be Harry Potter, The Bible or The Notebook. And here’s mine: I don’t really like Halloween movies. But I like good writing. And for some reason, I’ll sit through a horror flick, all because of the build-and-release of a suspenseful story.

I want to get better at this — asking and answering questions through my writing. Just like This American Life on NPR. Or A Farewell to Arms. Or even Nightmare on Elm Street. Don’t you?

Share your favorite scary movie in the comments.

70 thoughts on “Writing Secrets from Cheesy Halloween Movies

  1. I’d love to get better at storytelling, and I think All Things Considered is a great example of how to build tension and interest in a story.

    I’ll let you watch the cheesy Halloween stuff.

    1. I agree, Kim. All Things Considered blows me away with their premise: presenting you stories based on a theme. 
      “Wow, I could have had  V-8,” response. A theme? That I should be so focused. Love Ira’s quick delivery. They gots a great team there.

        1. I was just thinking that a good assignment for me would be to pick apart my favorite NPR stories — both fiction and non-fiction. Free lessons 🙂

  2. Evil Dead, I started watching it on Netflix last night because of good ole Bruce Campbell.  It was horrible, yet I wanted to find out what happened.  I can’t believe that movie was made the year I was born lol.

  3. I thought the original Scream movie was great storytelling. It was great at poking fun at horror movie cliches, and it kept you guessing until the end who the killer was. The original trilogy was a great use of backstory as you learn that there’s much more to the story than you first thought.

    I’d like to create stories with that kind of mystery and intensity, but I’m not much into horror movies anymore.

  4. I don’t watch horror movies, but I do enjoy a good thriller both on screen and on the page. Tension is a huge part of what makes any story interesting–it’s what drives the reader to keep reading and without it, stories feel lacking. 

  5. Good points, Jeff, and nice analogy to our writing.  We want our readers to have a feeling of anticipation, anxious to find out what’s going to happen next and we need to give it to them inch by inch, making them care along the way.

  6. I’m a horror movie junkie, and I love a well-written pice of horror fiction (be it flash, short story, or novel) just as well.  I think it is for many of the reasons you cited.  When that beautiful synergy of suspense and strong character development is achieved, it is hard to stop turning pages, or to stop staring the screen with bated breath, wanting to know what comes next.

  7. “Don’t you hate it how zombies can walk so slowly and yet still kill so many people?”

    I’ve never really thought about this before!  (And being able to catch and kill folks has to say something about Zombie persistence as well… yet another writing metaphor?)

  8. I like to pace my writing similar to the flow of “The Descent”. 

     It hits hard with a quick surprise at the beginning then transitions to more of a slow burn, allowing us to bring down our defenses.

    Then about halfway through, all hell breaks loose and the movie is relentless till the surprise finish.  The whole things just works so well.  Love that movie.

  9. I somehow ended up watching 1/2 of Friday the 13th last night.  You are right, the movie builds suspense and crescendos a number of times.  It’s great drama. 

    I am going to put this analogy to work immediately in my writing.

    Great article Jeff. 

  10. Any thoughts on keeping non-fiction writing from going flat? I think I see the difference when I read it, but I don’t always know how to break it down to actionable ways to add suspense or intrigue.

    1. try using conflict-to-resolution patterns? Conflict creates tension, and explanations that resolve it can be paced. Most non-fiction topics have some amount of conflict/controversy/confusion to resolve.

  11. My favorite scary movie is none of them. I don’t do scary movies. I honestly don’t handle them well. Movies that have supernatural and spiritual elements to them that teeter on “scary” I deal with fairly well…but anything labeled as “scary”…nope, not for me. 🙂

  12. Dog barking in the night with scary sea monster rising out of the water and shooting out some sort of beam/ray. I have no idea what the name of the movie was. Saw it as a kid in the sixties. Scared me silly. “Gorgo” was the first movie I remember seeing at the drive-in with my folks. I do believe I need to give my dad a call and say, “What were you thinking? Taking a bunch of little kids to a monster movie?”

  13. Jeff,
    Journey to the Center of the Earth was scary to me, as a kid: huge beasts with very loud roars!
    First, the characters talked about the fears of a monster. Second, the movie adds MUSIC to accent the scary parts. 
    Movies add zip by seeing stuff – reading scary stories don’t got that (duh).

    I would love to be slick whipping up words to convey suspense. WWEAPD? (what would edgar allan poe do?)

    Repetition, timing. Hey, that sounds like comedy…

  14. Monica,
    Non-fiction can promise boredom – if it ain’t got some brevity to its scenes. Watch Biography (for ex.) they segmentalize the info. They use graphics/photos – breaks up the use of narration. In writing a nonfiction piece (hats off to you), I would consider keeping sections about the same in length. If the “important” stuff is lengthy, perhaps a commercial break is needed – like, finding anecdotes, someone’s recall of a person (to add some dimension to the section). Or, a reference to something that’s also occurring during that time frame (Civil War, Gold Rush, labor strikes, Depression, etc.).
    That might could keep the want to have folks read the account wanting to figure out what comes next.

  15. There was a vampire movie on over the weekend–from the 1990’s I think. I had no intension of watching it. I don’t watch scary movies much.  And yet, it pulled me in. Cheesy at times, but very suspenseful and frightening.

    Aside from the cheese, the movie’s storyline and characters grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.

  16. I actually really hate cheesy Halloween movies. My favorite Halloween movie, although not scary (unless maybe if you’re 5) is Hocus Pocus. Who can argue with that one?

  17. Thanks Jeff, for these ideas. The one I struggle with (and the one by book needs the most right now) is the “Slow, but deadly”. How do you build a slow, suspenseful tension? I know immediacy builds tension… perhaps I’ve become too dependent on the immediacy of the danger to create the tension. Any suggestions on how to build tension with a slow, ‘something’s gonna happen’, imminent doom feel?

  18. I hate scary movies because the suspense makes me so antsy that I end up doing all the chores I procrastinate on in the house, rather than sit through the suspense any longer! But I loved this post. Every year I watch a scary movie with my husband for Halloween (he loves spooky movies). This year we’re watching the shining. Wish me luck! And thanks for another great blog post, Jeff. I wouldn’t be able to take too many scary movies, but I wouldn’t be able to sit and watch one now and again, if everything you said wasn’t true. They pull you in, glue you to your seat, make you root for the good guys, and finally, when you think you can’t take it anymore, they give you the release you’ve been “dying” for. 🙂

    1. I remember going to a Halloween movie with friends. 5 out of 6 of us elected to go that movie. During the movie, I volunteered to make the popcorn runs.

  19. Good post, Jeff. I’ve always thought of horror movies as the ultimate lessons in suspense (no disrespect intended to thriller writers). What always gets me in those movies are the moments between the killings or shock moments. I use that lesson in my own writing: give the reader that feeling of dread BETWEEN the moments of shock or reveal.

  20. Great post and insight Jeff.

    Many scary movies to sort through; but if we’re talking villains and black hats, I’m with you in the Michael Myers camp.

    Keep writing!

  21. When I was a kid I always thought the movie Alice in Wonderland was the scariest movie. LOL I’m not exactly sure what the point of the movie was but I thought it terrifying when the queen was chasing her yelling, “Off, with her head!” Hopefully I won’t get so into the suspense of my writing that it’s hard to tell the point of the whole thing. 🙂

  22. Not a scary movie lover. I do remember taking our son when he was little to see Gremlins and at first the little guys were so cute. Then they turned into these ferocious little monsters. We left. I was scared with the flying monkeys on The Wizard of Oz. Of course we’re talking a long time ago. I did love what you said about building tension. I think I err on the side of telling too much. Trying to pull back a little, but then I’m told people don’t know what I’m saying. I think it’s a balancing act.

  23. When I was a kid, caterpillars crawled up my spine whenever the organ started to play in “The Ghost and Mister Chicken.” I remember those Friday night monster movies on after the news as well. Sounds were used a lot to create the scary atmosphere–a dog barking in the night, a foghorn sounding in the distance, organ music, etc. Decades later I remember both the sound and the suspense even when I don’t remember the movie itself. Good thoughts, Jeff.

    1. TNeal – loved that movie with Don Knotts but you’re right – even though is was more comedy, the setting and especially that organ music made it far too easy to imagine yourself in a similar predicament! He wrote a good article after he survived that first night though!

  24. I recall the movie ‘Konga” from 1961 with Michael Gough (he also played Alfred in the Batman movies) and lived until the age of 94. A scientist injected a chimpanzee and it become a giant ape – this movie haunted me for years! The most graphically disgusting scary movie was “The Fly” with Jeff Goldblum. I think the scariest movies are the ones that are easy to imagine it happening to you. For instance, I cannot imagine a giant lizard (Godzilla) walking down my street crushing cars and people, but the ones where the killers are waiting behind bushes, in alleys, etc. Most of the Friday the 13th and slasher movies are just too much for me – enough is enough – how many times is Jason going to rise from the dead?

  25. A big contributor to what makes a scary movie is that music! Same goes for other movies. Imagine “Raindrops keep falling on my head” as background music for “The Tommyknockers!”

  26. I love that posts all over the web today are connecting themselves to the holiday. I even made a cheesy Halloween post today titled “Are You Leading the Walking Dead?” a leadership angle on the popular TV program Walking Dead. I even included, as you suggested, a twist at the end. Here’s the link: https://wp.me/p1ZQw3-IH Would love to see how you thought I did.

  27. All your posts are great ones thanks for that. I have been looking for a place to ask you this question after reading your “don’t write a book” newsletter email, so forgive me if this is out of context.
    In sharing in blog form, what you would like to put out there in a “book’.
    Isn’t there a concern about someone taking your idea. That feels so self important to ask. But I am curious how you navigate that.
    I don’t mean all content, like you never share a word. I am going to guess you know what I mean.
    One more.. one of the things that has kept me from ‘blogging’ more regularly, okay at all:) is that feeling like things have to have steps – constructive that are delivered. And that they have to be related to what you are “branding’ your self as. Hope my questions make sense

    thanks for all and sharing your words with the world!

  28. Fun post, Jeff. I go a bit more toward science fiction than horror, and love the gamut, from the “message” films like “Day the Earth Stood Still” to camp classics like “Them” and “The Blob.” “Invaders from Mars thrilled and frightened me as a kid.

    Now I’m frightened by inane movie sequels and films where stuff has to blow up every seven seconds. (Not that I don’t like SOME stuff blowing up…)

  29. I find it really is a way of writing or a horror story by weaving yourself. Really interesting to watch horror movies on TV on Halloween night and imagine a horror story for their own

  30. My favorite scary movies aren’t those that feature imaginary threats like zombies, but those that depict disquieting events that either did or could happen in the real world. The two scariest movies I’ve seen of late are “Conspiracy” (2001) starring Kenneth Branagh, and “Threads” (1984). Both are posted on YouTube.

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