Is What You Don't See Really Scarier Than What You DO See?

Many of us horror and dark fantasy enthusiasts have heard that old adage that what you don’t see is scarier than what you DO see, that what you leave to the reader or viewer’s imagination is far more terrifying than what you overtly show.

Here’s where you all come in. I want to know what YOU think. How many of you agree with this? If you DO agree with it, how much should be left to the imagination? Is it possible to show the reader too little?

I have my own thoughts on how to best use this “less-is-more” technique, and I’ve posted them in a reply below, but I’m just one person. I’d love to hear your own takes on this concept and how you think a writer can make the most of it.

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Okay, as promised, here’s my take:

I recently finished an obscure horror tale called “Mrs Rahlo’s Closet” by the late R.E. Klein, and something really struck me. You never once get to see its main villain. You DO, however, see all the secondary villains, horrifying entities described in gruesome, otherworldly detail.

To me, this creates a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too effect. True, we never see the main antagonist, but the fact that we know they’re supposed to be MUCH scarier than the demonic creatures we DO see makes said villain horrifying without making them seem overly vague. Since the other villains serve as a benchmark, we get a clearer picture of our main baddie while still leaving them largely a mystery. It’s like a Goldilocks effect; the main villain isn’t too vague nor are they too specific; they’re given just the right balance between the two.

Now that I’ve read it, I honestly feel this is the best way to leave things to the reader’s imagination: to have “seen” secondary villains to provide a benchmark for how horrifying your “unseen” main villain is.

Like I said in my opening post, though, I’m just one person. What do the rest of you think?

I think that our imaginations are scarier than what we see

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Agreed. For such a simple concept, though, it seems there are so many ways a horror writer can play with it.

For example, do you think it’s possible for writers to leave TOO MUCH too much to the imagination? Do you think it’s possible for writers to make their horror TOO vague?

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To vague yes, too much to the imagination no

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I have one story with horror themes. In the first chapter the MC meets one of the monsters, it’s dark, and all the description that’s given about it is how it feels when he tries to fight it off and some vague details on features. I’ve had some people (mainly hired reviewers) complain about it but most seem to like it. The creature is described in chapter five because horror’s not the main genre, but even then I leave some aspects to the readers imagination. It seems to have paid off well.

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Cool. Are any details left up to the imagination by the end of the story, or does everything eventually get shown?

In my opinion, what we don’t see is scarier. Just last night, I was outside by myself looking at the blood moon and it was very windy and dark. The wind blew hard, making the tree leaves move around and it sounded as if someone was walking over to me. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my heart pounded at a million miles per second. I quickly went inside and locked the sliding door. I know there was no one there, but because I couldn’t actually see, it felt like someone was.

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Wow, I was expecting everyone to list examples from stories they’ve written or read (which is what I did), but you used a real-life incident. Neat! I bet you felt a lot better the next morning.

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Oh definitely.

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Can’t blame you. Is there a book or movie that you feel really does a good job at leaving the horror to the imagination?

I don’t think I describe that type of monster past that scene. I give a description of a another type of creature later on but that one isn’t meant to be scary so giving more detail doesn’t effect its ‘scare factor’.

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I’m not one to read/watch scary stuff, but I have watched some of the Scream movies. Although it’s been a while since I’ve seen them, I was freaked out a lot because we didn’t see Ghost Face all the time. It was always focused on the characters that were about to be murdered and he’d pop out when he was about to kill. The movies did a good job in making it freaky outside of watching it because then I was thinking “Is someone outside my house right now watching me or hiding behind the shower curtain waiting to kill me?”

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I get it. Since you don’t see the killer, he could be anywhere, which ups the paranoia factor.

And yeah, that kind of fear can totally follow you into real life.

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I recently watched the movie It Follows, and I won’t spoil it, but highly recommend it.
What we don’t see is scary, however, what we see, but others can’t see is spine-chilling. Knowing that an unstoppable force, ruthless in its pursuit against you, knowing that nobody can help you and that it can catch you when you least expect it, is one of the scariest feelings I can think of.

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I think what we don’t see is scarier because it leaves it up to our imagination. And our minds can come up with some pretty dark stuff.
I honestly think the horror genre tends to explain or show too much, making it less scary and ruining the mystery. Less is more, in my opinion.

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Is there a genre that you feel typically does a better job than horror at leaving enough to the imagination?

Sadly, no. But in a way, I think other genres need to explain and be detailed. Like fantasy for example.
Short stories, especially horror ones, do a pretty good job though since they’re short.

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This was something I was extremely conscious of while writing my vampire story. I knew what the vampire’s true form was, but I did not want to be too descriptive. I wanted to keep that ambiguity. This is probably the most detailed I get with their appearance:
Barbara stared blankly back at him, taking in the sight in front of her.

This was the thing she had fallen in love with; more horrid than what she could have ever imagined.

Just trying to make sense of this creature was beginning to break her mind. This truly was a being straight out of a hellish nightmare.

Its sunken blue eyes stared up at her in shame, seeing that the girl had her ax raised.

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Of course.

I’d go a bit farther and point out that even scarier is some ‘thing’ that the reader cannot understand. If something remains unseen, but understood in some mundane manner, it’s a good start, however, something the reader gets a glimpse of in his mind, but can’t get a precise feel / hold of, is the most effective way in my opinion. This can be hard to pull of, although various means can be utilized when approaching this - for example, thinking of an evil presense more as a force, affecting its surroundings, but nothing directly, like wind sending leaves flying in the air, forming eerie, unnatural formations - but nothing over the top such as satanic circles, since that’d turn it all into a foolish cliche. Perhaps a simple triangle, or a pyramid.

Even better if the person seeing this is alone, and when asked if someone else had seen it, they simply look at him confused.

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