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Using Magic in Horror Fiction 

by Teresa Hopper
                                   Horror and Dark Fiction Moderator

2001, Teresa Hopper

With the 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 control.  

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 won’t be able to cover all of them in this article – I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of many more examples that I have missed. I don’t want to just give you a long list of what’s 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. 

White Magic 

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. 

Black Magic 

While there seems to be a more limited scope for positive magic in horror,  almost every aspect of black magic has been explored.

The most 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.  

Yet another 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 don’t be deterred if this is an area that you are interested in. Don’t feel that you shouldn’t bother because there’s 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 wouldn’t 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. 

1. Research

Unless you are already a Satanist or a witch, the chances are you won’t know a great deal about magic, and if you don’t research adequately this will be reflected in your work. You don’t 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 don’t 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. 

2. Don’t Stereotype

I’ve 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. Don’t 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 magic.

Also, beware of other kind of stereotypes – for example. I’m sure that modern witches don’t all use cauldrons or have black cats, or dress in black. But if you’ve done your research, you should be able to avoid these mistakes. 

3. Don’t Use Magic As a Cure-all

At all costs, avoid using magic to solve all your protagonist’s problems. You might think that this is such an obvious point that it’s 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. Don’t do this; for a reader, it’s such a letdown. Don’t make it so easy for your  protagonist – make it tough for them! 

4. Make Your Magic Balance

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 doesn’t seem realistic. What goes in can be up to you – blood, flesh, the person’s energy or life-force, but make sure that there is some cost.  

Happy writing! And don’t 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!