Truth and Dare: The Dangerous Allure of the Horror Story

Victoria Dougherty
6 min readJan 12, 2020


My middle daughter, who’s fifteen, is pretty crackerjack at horror make-up. Ever since going to theater camp when she was eleven and taking a special FX class, her Halloween costumes have been killer.

But it’s my twelve year-old daughter who really loves horror. She binge-watches anything from Twilight to the Halloween franchise, devours Stephen King, and writes her own stories all the time — often from the point of view of some deranged, but charming psycho. Nothing goes too far or is off limits for her. Not demonic possession or vomit-inducing gore or heinous monsters or wicked cults. And she sleeps like a baby at night. Go figure.

(This girl is fearless)

I watch her with a mix of envy and awe. I’ve always been fascinated by horror. The sneaky way in which it toys with our psyches, revealing even the most oh, so rational of us as frauds. The ones who put ourselves above the supernatural and claim to be too smart for religious magic, sorcery, or any paranormal mystery. Things like ghosts, telekinetic powers, space aliens, witches, and the undead. Some of us brush off the whole phenomenon of scary stories, claiming to be indifferent to the dark charms of a chiller, thriller toni-i-i-ight.

(The infamous Michael Jackson’s Thriller hand from theater camp)

And yet who of us hasn’t at one time or another fallen for the jump scare, or feared the unwholesome, insidious threat of the evil spirit, the hungry creature under our bed? Even the most poker-faced literalist, if pressed, will admit to being afraid to sleep alone for a night or two after being exposed to a particularly eerie yarn.

So, I want to challenge you a little if the reason you don’t like horror is because you find the genre a bit cornball. Horror, second only to Romance, is the most maligned genre in fiction, after all. Rarely taken seriously, and treated more like a carnival sideshow.

But I charge that horror is as integral a theme for our psyches as the love story, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s presented in the form of schlocky genre fiction or serious literary endeavor. In the end, all horror stories serve the same master: An instinct to solve mysteries, seek out danger for the sake of mastering our fears and our environment, tame the monster within or without. To investigate, adventure, crusade, and when necessary…run like hell. Horror, even at its campiest, shows us the ways in which we can be complicit in our own demise, can fail in the face of a situation that calls for courage, or can rise to the occasion as a hero, yet still end up with an axe in our skulls.

Heady stuff. And not for the faint of heart.

(Don’t worry, folks, she’s a pro)

My youngest daughter’s obsession with horror is a daily reminder to me of how much I’d love to write a truly great horror story, yet lack her courage to do so. To write the sort of tale that shifts the ground beneath my feet would put everything I have in peril — emotionally, philosophically.

Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but I wouldn’t be the first to feel this way. Think of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and my personal writing heroine, Mary Shelley.

It’s Mary Shelley’s writer’s journey that resonates so strongly with me. Not her private journey, which was a hell of a mess involving an extramarital affair with her future husband, poet Percy Blythe Shelley, and the eventual suicide of his wife. They suffered social ostracization, financial troubles, and the tragic death of their love child. Later, two more of their children died shortly after birth, leaving only one who survived. Percy’s young death by drowning, a final blow, came once their personal storm seemed to have passed.

What I’m seduced by is her audacity as a writer, evidenced in the now famous dare between Shelley and her heavy-weight writer husband and their friends, a group which included Lord Byron, author of Don Juan, John William Polidori, who wrote the first modern vampire story, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister.

The story goes that on one rainy afternoon in Geneva, in 1816, Mary and her literary cohorts passed the time by telling ghost stories — scaring one another and nearly frightening poor Claire to death. A sufferer of “the horrors,” Claire frequently fell into fear-induced states of hysteria and was said to have nightly, ghoulish nightmares. Feeling emboldened, they decided on a contest between them to see who could write the most psychicly savage horror tale. One that cuts to the bone and would leave them up at night having cold sweats. Would make them question who and what they are.

Although Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre” gave an impressive show, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured as a classic.

Knowing a bit about Mary’s life as a gifted outlier, I imagine it took guts for her to delve into psychological horror. Here was a young woman born to an anarchist father and a radical feminist mother during a time of strict adherence to propriety. She was fed a steady diet of rebellion and contradiction laced with conflict growing up, and had a great deal to unpack. It’s not hard to see the funhouse mirror reflection of Mary’s life in her Gothic tale: the brilliant scientist who orchestrates the complete destruction of his life by giving life to a being made of corpses. That could be her marriage to Percy Shelley. The price she paid for love and infamy.

Her tall, powerful creature of rare intelligence is rejected by his creator, who regrets his mistake of playing God, and goes about wandering the earth in search of someone, something that could love him, becoming more cruel and destructive with each disappointment. Mary’s own life was riddled with as much rejection as it was acclaim. Rejection by her father, her step-mother, polite society. She paid a dear price for travelling Europe with a married lover, feeding her imagination, her desires, and her intellectual vanity.

(My horror writer, already a monster at age six)

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” — the Monster

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” — Frankenstein

I can see Mary as both of them, and feel a rare sense of awe for the depths of her courage. For looking herself in the eye and allowing those words to flow. She tempts me to face the cracks in my own carefully, painfully constructed world.

So, what is my fear you might ask? The cold darkness within that won’t let me go there, to write what is to me a horror above all horrors?

It’s a simple fear, really. Like Mary’s monster, I fear estrangement. That beyond us there is nothing. No other worlds, no soul within, no light, no force of good compelling us to follow the moral law. The black of night without tantalizing mysteries, the golden light of day without a hint of tomorrow. Hopelessness. That’s what I fear most.

But maybe this fear in and of itself is a great, cosmic dare not unlike the one between Mary and her friends. The dare my daughter has taken. One that growls at us, taunts us for our weakness. “Don’t just look it in the eye, girl,” it says. “Stare it down.”