Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman), the eldest of the Crain siblings in the Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House, needs you to know something: He does not believe in ghosts. Sure, he spent a summer living in the most haunted house in America. And sure, he launched a career as a horror writer by recounting his siblings’ memories of Hill House in a book called, appropriately, The Haunting of Hill House. But wise, rational Steven? He doesn’t believe in ghosts, no way.
Between the jump-scares and tear-jerking monologues of The Haunting of Hill House, I stubbornly was hung up on Steven’s career. More specifically: How does Steven’s research process and writing philosophy compare to the lives of actual horror writers? Are horror writers impervious to fear? Do they believe in ghosts? To find out, I consulted the experts themselves: Seven women renowned for their horror fiction, ranging from slasher tales to spectral stories in which mood outweighs gore. They told me about the thrilling, mundane, and occasionally disconcerting experiences of being a horror writer. “Sometimes, I worry that I’m summoning it while I’m writing. Did I bring something into the world that’s real?” author Sarah Langan asked.
Featured in this conversation are Amber Fallon, an tech professional by day who writes self-described “junk food horror” in her free time; Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, twin sisters who write under the pen name Sisters of Slaughter; Alexandra Sokoloff, a novelist and screenwriter whose Huntress/FBI series has won multiple awards; Madeleine Roux, an author of paranormal YA; Mercedes Yardley, a horror writer who’s pestered by ghosts while she’s writing; and Sarah Langan, a three-time Bram Stoker award winner.
Steven Crain doesn’t believe in ghosts. But do actual horror writers?
Amber Fallon: “I believe in an an emotional imprint left behind with something severe [and] traumatic, more than a haunting, Poltergeist-y ghost. All life and all matter is energy. Something has to happen with that energy.”
Sarah Langan: “I believe in ghosts. When Stanley Kubrick was filming The Shining, he said it was an optimistic story because there’s an afterlife. That’s how I feel about ghosts — it would be amazing to know we don't all go to the Big Black.”
Madeleine Roux: “I don't really believe in ghosts — I feel like we would’ve been able to prove it by now.”
Alex Sokoloff: “I can’t say I’ve ever had a true haunting experience. But because I write spooky books and films, I get to hear a lot of other people’s ghost stories. And there are just too many similarities and patterns in the stories for me not to believe that hauntings and psychic experiences do happen.”
Mercedes Yardley: “We’ve had experiences in our house. One time, my keys were missing. I said out loud, ‘I'm late! I need my keys.’ And then they fell off the ceiling fan blade. I can't reach the ceiling fan with a ladder, it’s far too high. We have vaulted ceilings. I don’t know how it got up there. Things like that will happen constantly. It feels like having another kid.”
Steven tries to be above fear. Are actual horror writers?
Fallon: “I’m really hard to scare, [but] I’ve been unnerved. There are moments, especially when I’m talking over a horror book with friends, I’ll get a twinge of, ‘I wonder what [getting scared] feels like. Is it like getting on a rollercoaster?’ I can’t honestly remember when I was afraid of something like that.”
Michelle Garza: “What terrifies me is anything happening to my children. Monsters aren’t real — real monsters are just dudes. They're people walking around doing horrible things or using their power to abuse people.”
Langan: “Horror writers are more troubled than anyone else. Most people have blinders on that allow them to live in the world, to move on. Horror writers are more sensitive and upset by unfairness. We’re preoccupied not with the details of reality, but with the emotions of reality and the way that institutions, are they family institutions or political or social, the way they impact humanity.”
Roux: “A lot of what I put in my books are my personal, deep-dark fears. There’s a scene in Catacomb where a person gets all of his teeth pulled out. Skin being peeled off is another big thing of mine. I tend to pick things that make my skin crawl. Because it’s a genuine fear, some of it comes through.”
Yardley: “I’m easily scared. I watch horror movies with my hands over my eyes. The real world is terrifying, but the paranormal is terrifying on a different level. You can find a way to explain the real. True crime documentaries are almost comforting: Here’s the bad thing and this bad person, and we have all these people running to stop the bad thing. With something like ghosts, there's no rejoicing. How do you stop a ghost? How can you fight something you can’t see and people don't believe in?”
It was a natural foray for me to go into this darker area. I was drawn to the scary, seedy underbelly.
Steven’s whole career is based on his family’s months in a haunted house. How did horror writers’ childhoods affect them?
Fallon: “I had a very interesting childhood. The first thing my mom read me when she got home from the hospital was Edgar Allan Poe. My parents didn’t see anything wrong with me watching horror movies, so I was indoctrinated by the age of 5. One of my first crushes was Bela Lugosi. I wrote my first horror story when I was 8 or 9. It was about a group of orphan children who find themselves in a candy store; the candy was evil.”
Langan: “I was 5 years old at a family vacation in Moosehead Lake, ME when I said I was going to be a horror writer when I grew up. I never changed my mind. The other girls were reading Sweet Valley High and I was a 10-year-old with Pet Sematary. But I didn’t write a word until college because mattered so much to me, and I was so scared to do it."
Melissa Lason: “Our whole family is a bunch of weirdos. We’ll be sitting around at a family barbecue, joking around about cooking somebody. At our junior high, we weren't allowed to read the Stephen King books unless we had a note from our mother, and of course our mother was cool enough to read the Stephen King. I wouldn’t be half the freaky kid if it wasn’t for him.”
Yardley: ”When I was 7, all of my friends’ dads died in a mine fire [the Wilberg mine fire, which occurred in December 1984, was the most deadly coal-mine fire in Utah history]. My dad worked for the power plant, so he survived. A year or two later, everyone’s getting remarried again, and you’d talk about your ‘new Daddy’ and ‘old Daddy,’ because old Daddy’s dead. The horror of that was commonplace. I would sit there and think about my friends’ fathers. Where are their souls now? I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was a natural foray for me to go into this darker area. I was drawn to the scary, seedy underbelly.”
Steven interviews strangers for book inspiration. Where do horror writers get their ideas?
Garza: “The ideas are everywhere. Ever since I was a little kid, my mind wandered so much. For some reason I’ll latch onto the end of the conversation and it'll morph into something completely different. I find inspiration reading articles or watching a strange story on TV, and stitching it up into our own new monster. I know Melissa is the same way. We’re one person split into two corpses.”
Sokoloff: “Every book I’ve written is based on real life experiences. I want my readers to believe what they’re reading. My Huntress Moon series is about FBI profilers and serial killers, and I’m constantly interviewing law enforcement agents, psychologists, and behavioral scientists.”
Yardley: “I was in a bank in Seattle with my friend. This guy comes up to me in the line. He takes my hand and looks at me with genuine tears in his eyes and says, ‘You're the type of girl who gets murdered.’ I made that the very first line in my book, Pretty Little Dead Girls.”
I moved into a haunted house for a week to research my parapsychology mystery The Unseen, and there were rooms I just could not go into by myself at night.
Steven refuses to tell ghost stories of his own. Do actual horror writers?
Lason: “I worked night custodial for 14 years. One time I was alone, completely alone, cleaning windows in the cafeteria. I heard a singing voice — only for a couple of seconds, but I know I heard it. I turned around and I looked and I felt goosebumps on my skin. I slowly backed out of the doors and locked them. I said, ‘Fuck these windows, they’re clean enough.’”
Roux: “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have a lot of stories from my house that should make me believe in them. When I was really young, I saw a figure in my room. I awakened suddenly at night, and turned over to see this guy looking at my American Girl dolls. He was in uniform; standing, but bent a bit. Clearly looking at them. He seemed really sad. I did the only thing anyone could do: Put the cover over my head and hope he would go away.”
Sokoloff: “I moved into a haunted house for a week to research my parapsychology mystery The Unseen, and there were rooms I just could not go into by myself at night. I’d break into a cold sweat and was just not able to make myself cross the threshold. Another of our group had a specific haunting that other people have reported in that house.”
Yardley: “My daughter was afraid of the ‘Tiptoe Shadow Man.’ She said, ‘The Tiptoe Shadow Man creeps into my room and night and says mean things to me.’ I was freaked out by her level of detail: ‘Mommy, his body bent wrong.’”
Do horror writers have any book recommendations? You bet.
Fallon: “Mayan Blue by the Sisters of Slaughter and Chronicles by Somer Canon.”
Garza: “Jessica McHugh. Her stuff is gory, but the way she words it is like poetry.”
Roux: “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter, NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley.”
Sokoloff: “Shirley Jackson's incomparable The Haunting of Hill House, and Dan Simmons' The Terror, which is the most surprisingly transcendent horror novel I've ever read.”
Yardley: “The Haunted Mesa by Louis L’Amour is the only book that ever really scared me. I’ve read that book maybe four times. Each time, chills.”