by Lisa Hartsgrove
I come from a family of ghouls. Pranks are our love language. Before I was even 10 years old, I knew who Norman Bates was. I knew to head towards the light. I knew all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I grew up with fear as a close friend and so I embraced it at every corner—never missing a hayride, a haunted walk-through, a Halloween event, my mom climbing a ladder to my room to blow an air horn in my window in the middle of the night …
So, of course being raised around a horror-loving family very much shaped my creative voice. Many of my favorite movies and books and poems contain death or blood or monsters because to me, these things are much less scary when looked at straight away. That’s how I was raised—we face the things that scare us. It makes perfect sense, then, that the first stories I wrote contained many of the same elements.
One story I wrote in high school was about a mother who sneaks out at night. The daughter follows her, thinking she’s having an affair. Spoiler alert: turns out she is, but not with the man her daughter thought. Instead, it’s with his cat. We find out when the mother gets pregnant and gives birth to kittens. Another story was from the perspective of a mouse trapped in a cage with a big lizard who ate his family. And in another, all of my friends became characters—ghosts of characters—trapped in a house haunted by themselves.
Clearly, I had a wild imagination. The more I delved into my discomfort, the more it fed my creative spirit. The more grossed out my readers became (my mom, my friends, my teachers), the more successful I felt. And if I could make goosebumps grow in someone’s skin while they laughed at the same time, then I had accomplished my ultimate goal. I wanted to make others feel how I felt when I watched or read this genre. Comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Good writing moves us. I’ve always wanted mine to move like the creeps. I want to instill the idea that fear can be a friend—that when you look at it, it’s really not so scary.
It’s always been the works of others that have been my biggest inspiration. So, if you’re looking to acquaint your readers with your dark side, here are my ultimate favorites in the genre, alongside some creepy writing prompts I’ve come up with to help get you started.
POEM: “After He Called Her a Witch” by Susan Ludvigson (witchcraft)
Writing Prompt: What does the man think his wife “wants to make up” for? Write the scene of the argument that takes place before the moment of the poem. Who is the real witch?
NOVEL: Feral by James DeMonaco (dystopian fiction)
Writing Prompt: What’s the scariest thing you can imagine happening to our society? Is it some kind of widespread feral contamination? Is it another kind of pandemic? Write it.
SHORT STORY: “The October Game” by Ray Bradbury (psychological horror)
Writing Prompt: It’s almost scarier when we don’t see the “monster” of the story. Try to allude to something ominous without being explicit about what it is. Bumps in the night?
MOVIE: Beetlejuice (dark humor)
Writing Prompt: Imagine if the exorcism of Barbara and Adam hadn’t been interrupted and they were sent to the Lost Souls room. Write the story of Lydia trying to save them from there.