What Makes a Scary Story?

My favorite horror movies have always been the ones where evil wins.

My favorite stories have always been the ones where evil wins.

Consider my favorite movie of all time, The Shining. Danny and Wendy are forced to flee the Overlook Hotel without destroying the evil force lurking in its halls. Anyone possessing the power to Shine who visits the hotel in the future will relive their tragedy, and conceivably, attempt to murder his or her family, like Jack Torrance and Delbert Grady did.

The Stanley Hotel, Stephen King’s inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining”

The Shining isn’t a story where everyone dies, but it is a story where the monster indisputably wins. The world isn’t made a better place by Wendy and Danny escaping. They only survive at all because the regular season groundskeeper, Dick Halloran sacrifices himself to save them, and the implication given as they drive away through the piling drifts on Dick’s snowmobile is that the tragedy will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Gary Oldman as Dracula.

Contrast this with my least favorite horror story of all time, Dracula. Dracula is a great story in its own right, and its villain, Count Dracula is one of the most tragic characters ever created, as was the Romanian prince of legendary cruelty who inspired him, Vlad the Impaler, who executed an estimated 50,000 Turks, traitors, petty thieves, and other enemies of the state by skewering them ass-first on sharpened wooden poles, a kill count much higher than his fictional counterpart, whose–as far as we know–remains in the low single-digits. The fictional Dracula has been given as many motivations for his evil as there are iterations of him, but the real Dracula’s were much simpler: his father and brother were murdered by traitors disloyal to Romania, so he became a monster himself in order to destroy them, and in the end, was betrayed in kind for being a butcher.

Bad Vlad.

But despite being a great yarn, Dracula isn’t scary. Never, for one second, do we believe Jonathon Harker is going to die, or that the story will conclude in any way other than a wooden stake being driven through the vampire’s heart. The story’s own rules prevent us from believing otherwise. The Count is a villain who must be defeated, because he requires redemption; his hostility to us is not innate, it is a condition given by wounds from his past. Dracula is destined to lose the struggle of good and evil from the very moment he appears onstage to greet Jonathon Harker at the front doors of his castle.

The real Dracula’s castle, Cetatea Poienari in Wallachia, Romania. Yes, it is beautiful, and yes, I almost died taking this picture.

And that is what makes a scary story: the feeling, built slowly and steadily, not of being alone in the dark, but of being alone in the dark with insurmountable hostility–an evil that can’t be defeated, because it does not need to be redeemed.

Evil only truly scares us when it becomes likely that we can’t win.

Graves at the Prince’s Court, where Vlad the Impaler briefly ruled in the 14th Century. Bucharest, Romania.

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