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How To Write a Bewitching Occult Horror Tale


In the supernatural genre, authors often create their own lore and systems of belief, sometimes completely foreign to the reader. In occult fiction, on the other hand, real-world elements are included, such as palmistry, tarot reading, crystal healing, astrology, moon phase study, etc. To fully understand the supernatural subgenre that is the occult, research is a necessity.

Becoming disillusioned with the controlling hand of the Church and the far-reaching powers it wielded, occultists determined to rally against this control. Fear of losing the control it worked to attain, the Church marked occultists as worshippers of Satan, usurpers of God's all-encompassing control over mankind, and virgin-sacrificing heretics intent on condemning their followers to lives of sin and degeneracy. While this occultist portrayal is sometimes overplayed, it can make for a bone-chilling horror story when written well.

What's your occult story arc?

Defining the parameters of occult sorcery and how it affects the protagonist's experiences is the first step in writing your story. Photo by Petr Sidorov.

If the occult is an underlying theme of your novel, you need to understand where you (and your protagonist) stand on the subject.

You might be open to all elements of the occult in your everyday life, but perhaps your story follows a harmless witch along their quest to flee from the pitchfork-wielding townsfolk intent on burning her at the stake for her other-worldly crimes against God and man. Or maybe you are bored by the idea of real-life occult, but as a storytelling element you find it tweaks your literary muscles, so you create an occultist set on a path to attain power and destroy those in their way.

Despite the occult's evolution beyond being propagandized as crazed devil worshippers, long-ago elements still sometimes appear in books featuring occultist themes. Whether the author takes an evolved or regressive approach in their writing, common tropes remain, for e.g., power vs. acquiescence, free will vs. control, etc. It's important to remember that clichés are always discouraged, but tropes can be a rewarding literary tool when executed well.

Occultists come in all shapes and sizes

Green Occultist
Try to avoid the stereotypical broom-riding witch unless the horror story is satirical in nature. Photo by Charles C. Collingwood.

The typical image of three wart-faced witches circling a cauldron might be the first that comes to mind. And if that's the type of character you're going for, start writing. But keep in mind that there are few limitations when it comes to writing your occult protagonist or antagonist (or any secondary characters) and you should always know just what type you're searching for before you begin writing.

Perhaps you'd prefer your main character to never partake in traditional "witchy" actions, instead opting for something a little more subtle.

  • An occultist devoted to divination is as likely to circle a cauldron as they are to pick up a flamethrower. Instead, they study tarot cards to gain insight into the past, present, and future, and read palms to determine characteristics and predict future events.
  • A cosmic occultist will study zodiac signs, horoscopes, and the stars, applying meaning and making predictions based on their alignments. For these cosmic enthusiasts, any research they conduct is used to make changes through energy.
  • A green occultist, attuned to the earth, will draw their power from nature to nurture and heal themselves and others. Whether they use herbs, plants, and flowers for their spells, or they're simply avid gardeners, they feel a significant draw the natural world for its soothing rewards.

But just because these variations of an occultist might seem somewhat timid, that doesn't mean you can't inject some horror to petrify your readers. Perhaps your divinator predicts future events to take bloody revenge on an enemy. Or your cosmic occultist is studying planet alignments to gauge the best time to strike. Even someone as seemingly placid as your green occultist could be growing wolfsbane to brew a batch of lethal poison. Now that you know more about occultists and their practices, what type do you plan to create?

The black vs. the white – a common misconception

Magick usage should be based on character motivation. Photo by I.am_nah.

Most people new to the occult theme assume that magick comes in two forms: black magick and white magic. The fallacy of black magick suggests that the occultist in question exists purely to inflict harm on others, casting hateful spells and vengeful hexes on unsuspecting people. And of course, white magick is widely considered good, pure, and healing, and practiced only by those with integrity and rectitude.

But that's a cliché that should be dispelled long before you begin writing. Magick is magick, and the type of sorcery your protagonist practices depend purely on their respective dispositions. A kind-hearted sorceress will conjure and cast in line with the long-held Wiccan rede, An' ye harm none, do what ye will.

Whereas an occultist with evil desires in mind will live and practice in more ominous ways, their interests aligning with Terry Pratchett's famous quote, A witch ought never be frightened in the darkest forest because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.

When you plan and plot your story, your protagonist's temperament and general disposition will dictate the path they take as they explore the occult, not the magick itself. So, if you want to portray a character as particularly chilling, rely on portraying their panic-inducing psyche, not the magick itself.

Rules are made to be followed

Stone and pestle
Grounded magick makes for a better story. Photo by Katherine Hanlon.

The magical and mystical universe you imagine before writing might seem like a place where anything can happen, but even magick requires rules. Whatever style of magic, sorcery, or any occult theme you decide on, it shouldn't be a free-for-all in which there are no consequences or challenges posed to it or your characters.

The last thing you want is an all-powerful, evil antagonist who, because of their dazzling magical prowess, is undefeatable, thereby predetermining your protagonist's inability to win and revealing all too soon to the reader that their battle is a hopeless, lost cause.

Give your characters a fighting chance in defeating whoever it is they oppose by introducing rules. If a powerful spell, difficult to master but lethal in its execution, is used, provide a deflective spell that protects the intended target but throws them off-course, allowing for tension as they attempt to regroup.

If your protagonist is gifted with second sight, able to anticipate oncoming attacks from every direction, provide their antagonist with the ability to warp that sight or hide from it in some way. Otherwise, you'll force on readers an all-seeing main character who is never surprised and can therefore never be challenged or face any real conflict, which is the bedrock of all good fiction.

But rules are also made to be broken

Don't be afraid to expand upon what's out there and go in a new direction. Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST.

You might be aware of how real-life witches and Wiccans practice their beliefs, whether they cast spells and curses, harness the magical power of moon phases, or place their faith in the healing powers of crystals.

But this is fiction, and it is where you get to break (or slightly bend) the rules, once you know them. This is your story, so don't be afraid to expand on what you about the real-life people who practice in the occult. Create a new subset of the occult, and never be afraid to delve a little deeper and darker.

For example, many occult stories take place on windy, foggy moors, or intimidating castles surrounded by wrought iron gates. These are all fine settings for an occult horror, but it's certainly not a rule you need to follow. Breaking out of this style provides you the creativity to try something new. Instead of the traditional dark and threatening setting, take a chance and set your story somewhere less conventional.

An ideal example of this break from tradition is the 1996 movie, The Craft. Set in Los Angeles, the sun shines throughout most of this film yet culminates in an ominous and dark finale that makes the ending and the ensuing horror really pop. And this change of scenery pays off as this is where the magick really happens (no pun intended).

As always, research is key

Book about the moon
Make sure that you understand what you are writing about before putting pen to paper. Photo by Content Pixie.

While you can create your own angels and demons, Gods and spirits, it's important to do your due diligence when referencing those of historical, religious, or mythical origin. In Zoroastrianism, Ahriman is considered the source of all evil, so it would be a major literary faux pas to mix him up with Algul, the Arabian vampire who lives in cemeteries and takes the form of a woman in order to gain the trust of untended children.

This level of in-depth research also applies geographically. Celebrating the Kalku occultists in Chile as the Native Americans celebrate their Shamans – considered wise and respected in their community – would not go over well with Chilean readers as the Kalku are seen as evil sorceresses and the enemy of Chile's spiritual leaders.

Now that you've decided on the arc of your story, the type of occultist who will take center stage as your protagonist, and exactly what rules you plan to follow and break, when necessary, it's time to put pen to paper and create the invitingly unsettling story that readers of this growing subgenre will be keen to read.

Header photo by Mark Tegethoff.

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