My father and uncle were excited, in a grim sort of fashion. They banned my brother and I from the master bedroom upstairs where they had recently installed a small television set, and I spied my uncle lugging the heavy VCR upstairs, cables trailing behind him. I tried to discreetly stay back in the room, pretending I was asleep, but they would have none of it. I was sent downstairs just as The Exorcist began playing on the screen.
They came down much later, talking about the movie in hushed tones, how scary it had been and how some man had died while watching it in the movie hall. It took me years and years to muster the courage to read the book and I still haven't gotten around to watching the movie. But I remember how much I enjoyed watching The Omen, even though it wasn't really scary at all (in retrospect). Of course, now, with the internet, I am appalled to realise that the version I had watched had been censored severely. Seeing the photographer's head roll away as he was decapitated shocked me as much as it did poor Gregory Peck.
But the truth is that I get scared easily by horror movies. I might anticipate the jump scare a second before it happens, but that doesn't help my racing heart slow down. I remember watching The Ring in the movie hall with a friend and my heart started thumping so much when the ghastly face of the dead girl was shown in a split second. Years later, American Horror Story became something of a guilty pleasure for me. Even as I couldn't stop watching the show, with its jarringly addictive soundtrack, I went to sleep each night worried about the nightmares that would surely visit me.
Watching a horror movie (or show, thanks to Netflix) gets complicated when you have an overactive imagination.
Watching a horror movie (or show, thanks to Netflix) gets complicated when you have an overactive imagination. So I make sure I watch anything scary only during the day. Even then, as night approaches, or worse, if there's a power cut later in the evening, I imagine I can see shapes moving around me. I leave the door open at night because my burkhas hanging behind the door seem like sinister figures when I wake up at night and if the door is even partially closed. But the open door doesn't offer much solace either, because I'm sure there are some eerie figures lurking right outside my room, around the corner that I can't see. A green night bulb lights the space outside, lending an unearthly glow to everything and I try not to think too much if I ever step outside my room to get a drink of water. When I hurry back inside my room, I feel like I've escaped something big.
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Reading horror novels wasn't something I actively pursued, though. I remember a library book that had creepy creatures emerging from a lake near a cottage. It scared me so much that I was wary of keeping the book on my bedside table, thinking that it pulsed with evil and that the dripping wet creatures would somehow leave the book and attack me while I slept.
Yet, over the years, the fascination with horror refused to go away completely. I realised that one of the ways in which I could control my love-hate relationship with horror was by writing it myself. Being in control of the events, of who dies, who lives and why the fear itself is present, made me feel less scared and able to look at it from the point of view of a creator. However, horror was not my preferred genre and it took me out of my comfort zone of writing romances and young adult fiction. Writing it wasn't easy.
What excites me is that there's so much to explore and so many tropes to choose from and well, adding horror into a normal situation is what makes it so scary—the possibility that it could actually happen.
So far, I've written two horror novels and a novella and I've had to rewrite each one significantly because I wasn't pleased with what I had written at first. I realised that scaring people was easier when they were watching a horror movie (hello, jump scares and eerie music) but getting people queasy and uncomfortable while they were reading a book was a tall order.
I'm glad to admit that I persisted and didn't back down, because writing horror can actually be fun and it strips away the scary element that always held me back. What excites me is that there's so much to explore and so many tropes to choose from and well, adding horror into a normal situation is what makes it so scary—the possibility that it could actually happen. Now I'm quite happy scaring others instead of getting scared myself but I still watch horror shows only during the day.
Ideas for writing horror can come from literally anywhere. Idly looking at mannequins posing outside a store led me to write Night at the Warehouse, a story where mannequins come alive, looking for revenge. A gleaming green bracelet that changes its wearer into something horrific was the premise for It Waits. A young boy screaming in the night because he was in pain woke me up from my sleep, startled and scared, and led me to write House of Screams. I'm now looking for my next inspiration and it could well be the moment I woke up in the middle of the night to find my 12-year-old staring down at me wordlessly, because he wanted to sleep in my room and not in his. Slow down, racing heart, I told myself, as I made space for him beside me.
Andaleeb Wajid is a Bengaluru-based writer. Her horror novel House of Screams will be published later this month by Penguin Random House.