Not all horror mediums function the same way. Movies have an advantage when it comes to portraying horror, thanks to the combination of audio and visual components. You see something scary, but the music builds up tension until released by a slasher or ghost jumping out. With books, the audience receives neither of these, but gains the freedom to imagine things in a way that’s terrifying to them. If a character in a book gets decapitated, the reader gets to envision how the head flies off, where it lands, how the blood spills, all of that.
Horror comics work differently. They contain the visual aspects of film, but lack the advantage of audio. There’s some space for the reader to influence the action with their imagination, but not as much as traditional books. It’s an awkward middle ground to navigate, but writers continue to make successful horror comics.
So how do they do it? What’s the trick? Here’s a couple tools horror comic writers use to their advantage.
Line Work and Color
Since comics are such a visual medium, you’ll obviously need some scary visuals in order to be effective. What the audience sees will be the truth of the story — every reader will be seeing the same thing, so the creepier you can make it, the better the reaction. A strong concept and a talented artist will take you far in this regard.
In addition, you can enhance the images themselves in more subliminal ways. Using small, intricate lines can guide the eye throughout a drawing towards a specific detail. Delicate lines for shading can generate unease (like the works of Junji Ito).
If you’re using color, some comics (Wytches by Scott Snyder) use a spattering effect to alter the colors and create a dingy feel to your images. This technique looks like a water stain on the page, but it’s subtle. It gives the work a dirty, tarnished feel, as opposed to the usual clean-and-crisp imagery of other comics. If you’re looking for a subliminal way to create unease, try spattering.
Unlike books, where your imagination creates the picture, comics simply show you the picture. But since we know ourselves best of all, we know what scares us the most, so we imagine the things scariest to us when we read. Comics don’t have that luxury quite as much — what you see on the page exists in the story as it is. That’s the definitive version of the character, crime scene, whatever.
Comic writers can still leave space for the reader’s imagination by prolonging the reveal of something scary. By not showing you whatever monster or killer right away (Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote), the writer also helps to build tension. Perhaps including a silhouette, or singular hand in a doorway, the reader can pick up clues to start forming their own idea, but until then, each little reveal creates suspense and leaves the reader wondering “what is it?”.
In the same wheelhouse as the jump-scare of movies, the ever-beneficial “page turn” helps with this tremendously. If you show a character’s reaction on one page, but don’t reveal what they see until the next, you immediately build suspense followed by a release of tension.
What’s scarier than watching something bad happen to another person? Watching it happen to yourself. Utilizing second person point-of-view into a narrative situates the reader directly into the action. Every movement the character makes ties back directly to the audience.
With comics, you can illustrate a reveal to appear as if the reader discovered the object on their own. In addition, narration and dialogue can also utilize the second person, further immersing the reader into the horror of the story. Once again, it’s a subtle trick, but when used correctly, it proves highly effective.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.