Magic in Horror Fiction
Horror and Dark Fiction Moderator
exception of fantasy, horror fiction probably features magic more than any other
genre of writing. The magical seems to have a strong hold on our psyche, for
even the most educated and modern of us is, somewhere very deep down, not so
different to our ancestors we fear what we do not understand and cannot
In the past,
magic has been respected. However, our modern culture holds up the magical
as a thing to be mocked, but also feared. Are we not all warned as children not
to meddle in the occult - that we do so at our own detriment? That there
is something dangerous and uncontrollable about magic? And there is the reason
that it makes such good horror material, for in our sanitised and controlled
lives there are few things left which we have no control over.
Every kind of
magic has been used by horror writers over the years, and I wont be able to
cover all of them in this article Im sure that youll be able to think
of many more examples that I have missed. I dont want to just give you a long
list of whats been done before. This is a brief overview, then, to give
you hints as to how you can do it yourself.
Magic is often
classed as white magic (for good use) or black magic (for bad use). As we will
see later on in the article, this definition is arbitrary, but I will use it
here to illustrate my point.
This sort of
magic is not frequently used in horror fiction, probably for the reason that
magic used for good is not particularly frightening. There are a few examples
though, one of the most recent being The Green Mile by Stephen King,
featuring a man with healing powers.
seems to be a more limited scope for positive magic in horror, almost
every aspect of black magic has been explored.
popular example is the practice of Satanism and devil worship as used in the
classic The Omen by David Seltzer, and many authors since.
The use of
witchcraft has also been well explored. One of my favourites has always been
Macbeth by William Shakespeare; more recently, Anne Rice wrote the Mayfair
Witches trilogy (The Witching Hour, Lasher, Taltos). Gypsy magic and curses have
always been popular the protagonist of Thinner by Richard Bachman is
killed by a gypsy curse.
Using magic to
contact the dead is another favourite of horror writers, and is explored in
Darkness Tell Us by Richard Laymon, featuring a group of young people who
experiment with a ouija board.
common type of magic used is the mind magic psi powers. There are many
variations, including pyrokinesis (the ability to create fires using only
the mind) in Firestarter by Stephen King, psychokinesis (the ability to affect
physical objects with your mind) in Carrie, also by Stephen King, and telepathy
(mind-reading) in The Face of Fear by Dean Koontz.
So as you can
see, there is a wealth of magic-related horror out there, but dont be
deterred if this is an area that you are interested in. Dont feel that you
shouldnt bother because theres so much written already. Every writer
will approach a story from a different angle you could write a story about
Satanists trying to bring about the end of the world through the antichrist, and
it wouldnt be the same as The Omen.
So, how do you
use magic in your horror fiction? There are a few things to remember that will
make your story better many of these also apply to other genres.
Unless you are
already a Satanist or a witch, the chances are you wont know a great deal
about magic, and if you dont research adequately this will be reflected in
your work. You dont need to go over the top and have the exact words of a
real cursing ritual in your book, or know exactly which herb is used for raising
the dead, but if you give yourself a general knowledge in the subject, the
things that you write will be more realistic. Most libraries and bookshops have
a wide variety of books, and dont be deterred by the strange look that the
librarian might give you when you check out A History of Devil Worship! There is
also a growing amount of information on the Internet.
Ive lost count
of the number of books that I have read where black magic is only practised by
the bad guys, and white magic only by the good guys. Dont stereotype the
magic that your characters use sometimes your good characters might need to
use black magic, or your bad characters might do something good with their
Also, beware of
other kind of stereotypes for example. Im sure that modern witches
dont all use cauldrons or have black cats, or dress in black. But if youve
done your research, you should be able to avoid these mistakes.
Use Magic As a Cure-all
At all costs,
avoid using magic to solve all your protagonists problems. You might think
that this is such an obvious point that its not worth mentioning, but I have
read published books where the hero has just been able to recite a spell or
smash a magical amulet and the bad guy is beaten. Dont do this; for a reader,
its such a letdown. Dont make it so easy for your protagonist
make it tough for them!
4. Make Your
By this I mean
that if the result of the magic is very large (i.e. raising the dead), then the
input required to carry out the magic should also be large. I hate it when I
read books that have people casting huge spells with no effort whatsoever it
just doesnt seem realistic. What goes in can be up to you blood, flesh,
the persons energy or life-force, but make sure that there is some cost.
And dont forget that if you write any magic-based horror, then the Horror and
Dark Fiction Board is the place to show it off. Pop in and see us!