How can text make you frightened?

The discussion of ‘how to create fear’ is a very complex and debated one. It embraces storytelling as a whole, directly affecting the outcomes of movies, books and - of course - games.

This feeling of anxiousness is possibly correlated with how ‘immersed’ you are in a narrative/environment - the more your senses are fooled into making you feel like in real danger, the more frightened you possibly become. A very interesting video regarding this point is an extra feature of the game ‘Until Dawn’ (PS4), in which they attempt a ‘quasi-scientific’ approach to quantify fear in gaming experience:

So, let’s be more straight to the matter here. As you might know, me and the user MahatmaDagon are developing a Lovecraftian horror/Noir game named Highlands, Deep Waters. There are other games here that also feature a horror experience. In this concern, I ask you: how can a book (textual narratives in general, actually) make you feel afraid?

A text game can’t jumpscare you or cast a shroud of darkness around you through immersive, moody soundtrack (well, at least not in many occasions - which is our case). But there may be some aspects of the text, of the writing itself that can make the player feel threatened, fearful. I recall, as a personal experience, when I first read the book Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. It is a hard-boiled detective book, but it turned me to contemplate a so far ignored possibility: anyone, really, anyone in my surroundings can be a possible serial killer. I won’t spoil the book for you, but it certainly revolves around this idea of ‘the danger can be anywhere’.

Did it make me feel afraid? Well, kind of. Not the kind of fear I would feel while playing Silent Hill or even Until Dawn itself, but it was a ‘cognitive fear’. Texts are generally good in making you think, and I guess this might be a key to create fear in readers.

The works of H.P. Lovecraft can also be interpreted this way. By creating an atmosphere of uncertainty about the everyday things, and by questioning our very position in the universe, this ‘cosmic horror’ stirs and growls in the mind of readers. It is not about colossal monsters with tentacles and dozens of mouths - it is about beings whose existence we can’t even comprehend. Again, it is not about an ‘immediate’ sense of danger or fear, but it is a kind of anxiousness originated through the re-evaluation of our ideas.

Well, I don’t know, lol. And you, how can a text make you frightened? Do you have any experiences worth sharing?



Text can jump-scare you. Take your inspiration from Twine games. You can break your text with a *page_break whenever you want - even mid-sentence. Count down to it, with progressively shorter paragraphs. People will be quivering, not wanting to click that “Next” button (though of course you’ll name it something scarier.)



Yes, sure! There is also the possibility to add a picture after the *page_break to ‘emulate’ a jumpscare. It does happen in comic books as well. It is just when I think of the word, I immediately think in terms of soundtrack and visual content. But yes, you’re right :slight_smile:


Have you checked out the r/nosleep tag on Reddit or cry reads on YouTube? It is a collection of not safe for life short horror stories that manage to scare me even when I haven’t known the narrator or characters for long.

I don’t read or watch horror alone ( which is why I like to look at YouTube let’s plays) , but I like swing the narrator deteriorate and questioning of you can believe anything they say and thriller stories. It is also scary when the villian/monster/ scary thing seems real and you think it’s comming for you long after the story has ended- like at the end of horror movies the monster never really dies.


Text that brings home a reality (or possibility of a reality) to me makes me feel afraid.

I’ll give you an example: As a girl gamer, the possibility of violence against me was something that I dealt with but until I read the following passage, I really did not realize some of the things that were possible. Here is the quote (spoilered for mature people):

[quote] How could I go back to my home? I have people online bragging about putting dead animals through my mailbox. I’ve got some asshole in California who I’ve never talked to hiring a private investigator to stalk me. What am I going to do – go home and just wait until someone makes good on their threats? I’m scared that what it’s going to take to stop this is the death of one of the women who’s been targeted.

Zoe Quinn Gamergate [/quote]

That brought the horror of a possible reality home to me - that is text that makes me feel afraid … I hope this example helps show the concept I was trying to get across.


Well first to consider, interactive fiction is a game genre. There is so much you can do with the coding to invoke fear.

The easiest way to do fear is to do the unexpected. Feelings of ‘wrongness’, like something isn’t the way it should be, or that details are purposely being eluded from the player. Hidden black text on a black background. Subtle sounds far, far into the game when you’ve already lulled your player into the complacency of thinking they’re just reading a book. Color changes in text. Images. Subtle bits that flavor the text with ambiguity. Seemingly illogical sentence structure and line breaks amidst otherwise crisp and clean editing.

You can do this with just straight writing too. Logical errors, gaslighting the player, little tics of repetition placed just far enough apart for de ja vu, whether that’s in the descriptive narration or the dialogue. Player choices that don’t correspond to what actually occurs. Characters showing up where they shouldn’t. Etc, etc.

Lull the reader into a place of security, then let them know that they don’t belong there.


Yeah, I have :slight_smile: There is a pretty amount of good material there. Also, speaking of which, there is the NoSleep Podcast (which I personally recommend, as there are many many stories you can hear for free):

I think you have a good point there: when fiction starts to touch our reality. This is what I meant by ‘re-evaluation of our ideas’, this sense of ‘there are dangers out there I was completely unaware of’. Thanks for your contribution :slight_smile:

Yes, there are many ways to mess up with the player, to make them question their own previous actions and to feel unsure about what to expect. I think Lovecraftian narratives most of all should consider these ‘reality glitches’. To make some dialogues seem like incoherent, and to include some disturbing and unnatural hints between the everyday chat.

I think you also meant to use the element of ‘unreliable narrator’, which is a commonplace for inciting doubt and self-awareness in the reader/player. Can’t think of a better example for this than The Tell-Tale Heart by Poe.


I think it depends on the reader’s sense of imagination. I absolutely adore nosleeps and creepypastas because my imagination goes wild.

I try to put myself in the protagonist’s shoes: what would I do? I pretend that I really am going mad because of the horrors that I have seen. I try to imagine what the monsters look like, how and why they scare me, and how I could battle my fears. I immerse myself in a lore heavy world of the supernatural and unexplainable.

For someone who has a not-so active imagination, the horror genre might shock and scare them, but not frighten them. Those who feel and imagine the most are the most affected.


Well never really had a piece of text make me feel scared, not that I can remember :stuck_out_tongue: . But feel I still have something to share, as don’t read many books, besides COGs, and yeah when I have felt other strong emotions, sadness, happiness etc, it has been based on how well I can relate to the character, to their situation, their thoughts and feelings(really helps if these are explicitly explored…but again only if I can relate to them) . But fear is subjective, what one person finds petrifying, another person wont obvs. For me it would have to be any text about spiders or other icky insects :’( some creepy pastas I’ve listened to elicit fear based on this, and it is so scary :’( . But also isolation, like listened to some creepy pastas that play on this fear, that no one else is around, the fear is even greater if it takes place in a setting normally full of people such as a city. Also things to do with death, exploring what might await us at the end, again can really make me feel scared.


I think fear comes from reality, when you make a player doubt about what is real and what is supernatural. My tip is to predict the reader thoughts and shape your story around that. First you need to envelop him with the story, and then make him think, even for a brief second, that something really bad will happen if he dies in the game. You’d need a hell worth of knowledge about the human psyche to do that.


As a horror writer, I’ve found that the key to a lot of things is control of information and breathing.

The text is sort of like music. It might be flowing along in long, leisurely sentences when things are calm, sucking the reader into a mellow rhythm. Then there is a break. A few short words. Did you see that? Where? Maybe? And then the rhythm resumes because of course you didn’t see anything, that would be ridiculous. Right? Of course.

And then the story continues to flow, but the seed is there, and all of a sudden things are slightly off, maybe the thing you saw wasn’t that weird, maybe…


What was that? Another break, sentences becoming shorter as you start to pay attention, things getting harsher and sharper. There is something here. Close. There’s no relaxed sentences now. Just as much as you need for context. The right context. By now the reader should start to feel out of breath. You have sucked them in. Their heart is beating fast. The text starts breaking down.

Bit. By. Bit.

But all of that is just the structure, the things they solve with music and editing in horror movies. As everyone else is saying, you still need to find something that will make people afraid. Something that will crawl under their skin. Something close to home.

And that will vary very much depending on the person.

Honestly, I have no idea whether it would be easier or harder to write a choice of games horror game than a horror novel. It would be interesting to try, sadly I am busy with superheroes at the moment.

EDIT: I remembered this discussion from tumblr, maybe there will be some interesting things in there (as well as a short horror snippet from me):


It may not be for everyone but I think adding some audio queues to a game can really set the mood, maybe even a short song that describes the environment and / or the situation perfectly. Also keep in mind that not everyone is a big fan of jumpscares. Personally, I think you should try to find a happy medium between proper build up, psychological horror and scaring people out of their chairs. If you can make the reader feel a bit paranoid and tense then you’re doing something right but first they need to get really immersed into the game for that to happen.

As for what makes me afraid… its not a phobia per se but abnormally tall creatures and / or people with extremely lean bodies and freakishly long limbs tends to make me quite nervous and uncomfortable for some reason. Ever read the comic “Enigma of Amigara Fault”? That that in the end really got to me. Also shadow ghosts standing still in the middle of a path or even at the end of a corridor. So. Much. Nope.


I think horror is like that weird middle part of a genre ven diagram, and the most important thing is to not do too much to switch genres.

If you see a dead body and you have no knowledge of the person, you can be scared by it. But, if the dead is someone you have gotten to know and love like your mother or friend, that dead body becomes tragic and sad. The Walking Dead Video game had zombies and death, but I didn’t find it scary; it was sad how the characters you came to love like Lee died.

Adventure games have monsters, but are not scary because the protagonist is strong enough to defeat them. Other games have monsters, but the monsters are nice.

In summary, I think they the key to horror is not killing off lovable characters (or maybe not having lovable characters) and knowing how to correctly manipulate the MC. People don’t like being directly told how the MC feels, but having options that all include some level of caution would help the MC understand that the “monster” shouldn’t be taken lightly. Also, the MC’s vulnerability to the threat should be shown.

I’m not scared by games that try to link to actual threats in reality like serial killers and killer animals because the probability of you dying from that is too low to wory about. I thought that The Night Gallery episode “The Caterpillar/ Little Girl Lost” initially had a scary theme about earwigs agonizingly killing people, but it wasn’t scary anymore after I googled it and found that it was impossible . I prefer the improbable monsters like the Silent Hill nurses, and Freddy Krugger that I can’t easily research away (even though I know they’re not real).

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Well… each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Visual media is simply going to always have an edge over text in ‘faster fear’. Text, however, has an edge over visual media in existential dread. In both cases, each can overcome their shortcoming to some extent, but on equal terms, the given tool will always have a better application. Harder to paint with a pin than a brush, for example, but it -could- be done. Same goes for style of terror being portrayed.

For example: One of my real fears is that ninety percent of the things I’ve learned is never going to be put to use, and that I’ll have wasted the vast majority of my life preparing for situations which will never occur. And the accumulated knowledge won’t ever be passed along in full. Likewise, that it will be something I failed to learn, which will someday be the ruin of me. Not death- too swift, too easy. No, rather, the dread is living with any mistakes that are made. The punishment of not knowing; not being prepared, innocent ignorance.

If the above makes you uncomfortable in a ‘that could apply to me, too’ way, congrats, fear through text achieved. If not, aren’t you an optimistic sort? The type of fear best conveyed through text is the type that lingers, and accumulates more the more you think about it. Some of my favorite ‘horror stories’ are the incredibly short two-sentence types you can see floating around the net. I was inspired enough by them at one point that I wrote a bunch of my own:

I woke up from my peaceful slumber to see my body in front of me without my head. My last thoughts were “I should probably go back to sleep, this seems like a nightmare.”

“At least I’m not alone now.” I told myself, as they filled in the mass grave above me.

What would you do if I told you that you have five seconds to look behind you and dodge? You’d probably laugh, and die.

Time waits for no man, they say. What am I, then, if time waited for me but left because I was late?

“We live because we need to be awake to gather dreams.” my young daughter told me. “And we die so the nightmares can eat the dreams.”

Finally, some peace and quiet. I had to bite my tongue off because my other personality wouldn’t stop begging me to be reasonable.

Some days I don’t feel ill. Other times I don’t survive through the night.

It’s people that scare me. I have to kill them so that they don’t kill me.

I once saw a truck speeding down the highway without a driver. “Where did they go?” I wondered before it crashed into me.

The afterlife was peaceful. Then, she followed me here.

Oh no. This is the reality where you’ve read this.


While not the jump-scare kind, I think that good usage of apocalyptic logs can also help set the atmosphere, especially in a text-dependent game.

If you don’t know, apocalyptic logs refers to stories that are told through a log, diary, or journal that a character used to document their activities and progress through the backstory, before something bad happened to its writer. So, readers may experience a sense of paranoia or fear after reading them.

Also maybe utilize subtle changes in the font style during specific scenes or specific keywords.


Me and Nerull are attempting a few things in our game.

[spoiler]The map of the town (which can be accessed through the stats screen) changes according to your Sanity.

What before was a static image becomes this:[/spoiler]

(We are also experimenting with other effects, like images that pop up during specific moments and then fade away completely by themselves. This will likely become one of them(Warning: Flashing lights):


Some players are visually impared, so it might not be good to rely too heavily on visual scares.


I think that one example of a good piece of scary writing could be “annie96 is typing” which completely scared me out of my mind. Look it up at your own risk guys. Its scary as hell.


I thought myself to be insusceptible to textual horror, until I found this:

There is actually no monster involved, but still gave me quite a fright. Perhaps it is because I am familiar with the setting?

Anyway that letter in the appendix is just too graphic.

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Found it quite cool haha. Also checked out other stories they have on the same format, and it is indeed a thing. I think it is perfectly possible to translate this kind of horror writing—click here to see the next message—to choicescript, as it was discussed previously here

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