The linguistics of horror




There’s a very distinct pattern in what one might, if one were being… incautious, name “Internet horror-speak,” a particular patois that’s arisen in the latest years of this very era, a peculiar dialect lashed together from the flesh of Lovecraft and the sinew of internet culture and the bones of… something bony. Okay so I’m probably not going to be able to keep that gag up. It’s the language of Dread Singles


and Welcome to Night Vale

Mayor Pamela Winchell The fences in the caves. A heart throbbing for what it cannot have. A heart not having what it needs to throb. The fences in the caves. Heat from below and above, but all is cold betwixt. The fences in the caves. The fences in the caves.

to which I refer.

What interests me though is that’s there’s a very distinct pattern and sort of grammar to how this Internet Horror-Speak (hereafter IHS) works, one I’ve been trying to work out for a while now. There are some very obvious patterns, as well as some subtle ones I’m not sure how to put into words. These are the rules I’ve sussed out, though:

One of the most important rules, and I think the one that might be the most surprising to a lot of people, is to use simple, mundane language. Empurpling the narrative with gratuitous polysyllabisms and grandiose prose is actually wholly deleterious to the desired effect. This actually makes a lot of sense. Purple prose has a serious abstracting effect, in that it draws the audience away from the action and makes it sound more like they’re listening to a story. So using purple prose to describe your indescribable horrors can make them feel less real, where using everyday language helps connect the audience and make them feel more like there’s some grotesque violation of normalcy going on

Use fewer ‘s-constructions. Say “the blood of the fallen,” not “the fallen’s blood;” “the intestines of dawn” not “dawn’s intestines.” This is a less solid rule, and it’s still possible to have a powerfully creepy effect with the ‘s-construction, particularly if the construction comes sentence-finally: “They beat them with sticks around which were wrapped dawn’s intestines,” but “They wrapped the intestines of dawn around thick oaken sticks.”

Use older words. “For” instead of “because,” “kin” for “family,” etc. If this makes them shorter than their modern counterparts, all the more effective.

Don’t use commas with conjunctions, just string conjunctions together. So “They laughed and writhed and screamed and died in the gaze of a smiling god,” but not *”They laughed, writhed, screamed, and died in the gaze of a smiling god.” This one’s variable, but I see the former more than the latter and to me it feels like it has more impact and is more visceral. The latter sounds more planned out, more official, more normal.

Use old-fashioned constructions. “The”+[adjective] constructions are a favorite, as are “the [adjective] one(s).” “The laughing ones steal away the dreams of the hopeful and feast on the teeth of the indolent,” “There are no innocent in this place, for to gaze on the Ancient Ones is to know that innocence is a lie, that blood and fear and corruption are the engines of all that breathes.”

Break word associations. If I start a sentence with “The toaster,” you’re probably going to expect something like, “the toasted fell off the counter,” or “the toasted exploded,” not “the toasted laughed” or “the toaster bled.” There are words we associate with animate things and words we associate with inanimate things, and mixing them up can lead to weird mental reactions. It’s why things like “SPANK HAIR — LICK EYES — WHISPER INTO ASS” are so funny. They make us build associations that we didn’t have previously. A toaster isn’t a thing that bleeds, and hair isn’t something you spank, so putting those words together tends to slightly mess with people and throw off our reading. Welcome to Night Vale does this SO MUCH.

Cecil Wednesday has been canceled due to a scheduling error
Cecil Here’s something odd: there is a cat hovering in the men’s bathroom at the radio station here
Cecil Alert! The sheriff’s secret police are searching for a fugitive named Hiram McDaniels, who escaped custody last night following a 9 PM arrest. McDaniels is described as a five-headed dragon

Last but not least, be vague. Let your words imply terrible and alien machinations at play, let them hint at vast supernatural tableaux of incomprehensible splendor and horror hanging just out of sight waiting to be glimpsed, but don’t ever explicitly tell anybody what’s going on. I put this one last because even though it’s the most important, it’s the most obvious, and I think everybody already knows this about horror. But it’s worth noting that IHS generally dials this up way higher, to the point where it’s hard or impossible to tell what parts are literal or metaphorical. Take this sub-par example:

Moving through the ashen ways of eons past, realms of fire and smoke and emptiness rising up and twisting around its path the beast walked on, burning all it perceived.

One on level, it’s possible that we’re talking about a minotaur arsonist who’s taking to the backroads during a forest fire to avoid the cops. On the other, we could be talking about some incomprehensible eldritch abomination warping its way through infernal dimensions outside space and time, ravaging worlds at its passing. Or anything between. I think this is probably the single most salient feature of IHS: its utter vagueness, and lack of proper context to distinguish the metaphorical from the literal.

But anyway. This is a fascinating memetic phenomenon and one I’d love to see some proper research done on this, beyond the idle musings of a lazy linguist with too much on her hands to spend time analyzing hard data.

Rhythm! The subtle things and the things that you ‘feel’ that you’re having trouble articulating? It’s rhythm. Rhythm is one reason why the last example is ‘sub-par’, and it’s absolutely key to (for instance) Welcome to Night Vale. There’s a pulse going through the prose that organises and structures how it’s read. English tends towards an alternation of strong and weak stresses; if you organise your words so that they start to reinforce that stress pattern, then congratulations, you’ve just invented the basics of English poetry. Part of what makes this particular brand of horror-speak so effective is a heightened control over the stress patterns of the language–not as much as in metrical verse, but still more than is usual for prose. Here’s the Mayor Winchell example from above, but with the stresses marked:

Mayor Pamela Winchell The fences in the caves. A heart throbbing for what it cannot have. A heart not having what it needs to throb. The fences in the caves. Heat from below and above, but all is cold betwixt. The fences in the caves. The fences in the caves.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes there are two or three syllables between stresses, sometimes only one–that’s normal, for English, because we speed up or slow down our reading depending on the rhythm we are unconsciously picking up from the words. Sometimes the stresses are unvoiced, in the form of pauses like rests in music. But you can see how underlying a lot of what Winchell is saying is a rhythmic pulsing that when read gives the effect of a kind of gnomic chanting that alters the atmosphere of the statement considerably. When you pronounce this aloud, it gives that characteristic Welcome to Night Vale effect; on the page, its power is lessened, but the rhythm is still strong enough that you can detect it, even if you don’t know that you’re doing so.

Most importantly, the presence of exaggerated rhythm is a conventional signal to your brain that it’s now reading poetry, and that puts you into a different mindset–a mindset where you are expecting the ambiguous, the non-literal and the metaphorical. It’s the mindset you get into when reading poetry, where your interpretative mind engages with a text that works on both a metaphorical and a literal level at the same time–exactly the ‘vagueness’ described by velartrill above.

What I’m saying, in essence, is that a (conscious or not) awareness of rhythm is key to being able to write sentences in this style. The choice between ’s constructions (“dawn’s intestines”) and old-fashioned x of y constructions (“intestines of dawn”) is down to which will best work with the rhythm of your sentence; the effect of the [adjective] ones construction can also be judged based on its rhythmic potential. Almost every effect of IHS, apart from its predisposition towards short, familiar words (which I think is more of a general horror thing; effective horror writers tend to use the vocabulary of their audience), has its roots in its essentially rhythmic nature: its constructions, its rhetorical figures, its ability to waver between metaphorical and literal without committing itself to either.

Tl;dr, IHS is basically prose poetry with a horror angle and a deliberately Anglo-Saxon focus to its words. More of an English literature approach than a purely linguistic one, I suppose, but that is my field, after all.

Another great example of Internet Horror Speak is in the gothic meme, such as Linguistics Gothic and Language Gothic

I’ve also noticed that this style tends to over-use negation to convey a non-literal effect, which I’ve described here