Mazes, Minotaur and . . . Roller Coasters? How to Write Horror Based on Folklore

Thursday, June 29, 2023


I’m not a huge horror fan. I like books with atmosphere that sets your nerves on edge. I don’t even mind the jump scare. I know, I know. My college student will contradict that. My fight or flight instinct is well honed, and I will jump. But that’s to be expected with horror. I don't mind it although it annoys those around me.

What I don’t love is extensive gore. This is especially true when it is misogynistic. All the victims are women? And you’re doing what to them? Bye. I’m gone. But if the victims are evenly distributed and the monster doesn't go after just one demographic, I'm all in.  

One of the best horror novels I’ve recently read is HIDE by Kiersten White. Not only is she queen of the creeping feeling of dread, but she based the whole thing on a folktale. 

From here on out, this post is going to be a massive plot spoiler. You’ve been warned. No seriously. If this was a horror novel, there’d be one lone shoe laying on its side, maybe with a little nibble taken out of it.  This is a serious warning.  Plot Spoilers Ahead. 

I don’t know if White started with the story of the minotaur in the maze. Or maybe she wrote a draft of her novel and realized that there were similarities, and her story would be strengthened by playing them up. I have no clue. 

What I do know is that she didn’t follow the myth slavishly. The similarities include a minotaur at the center of a maze. This maze just happens to be a creepy amusement park built to channel victims to the monster. 

In the myth, there are seven victims served up at a time. In HIDE, there are fourteen. 

In the myth, the monster is defeated by one hero, Perseus. In HIDE, it takes a trio of characters to defeat the maze. They don’t defeat the monster but that’s okay. I don’t normally like open endings but this one really works. 

In addition to not following each and every point of the myth, White makes the story modern. It isn’t a single person feeding people to the monster, it is the upper crust of a small town. These people are the movers and shakers. They’ve gifted the world with high grade pharmaceuticals and tech, and if their success requires a sacrifice of the less-gifted and less-desirable members of society? Well, shouldn’t they be willing to give something of themselves for the good of all? 

Is it just me? I swear the hairs on the back of my neck just stood up. As if regular white privilege wasn’t scary enough, White has added to it. Additional contemporary touches include reality TV, influencers, plastic surgery, and religious zealotry. 

If you’ve read many Greek myths, you know that the characters are seldom very likable. Child sacrifice? No biggie. Rape, imprisonment and more. They’re all okay. Whether gods or heroes, the characters in Greek mythology are far from perfect. In fact, they sound like pretty good characters. A bit of good, a bit of bad, stir well and bake. 

What does all of this have to do with you, dear writers? This novel is a lesson on how to base your story on a traditional tale while still making it your very own story. So if you aren’t sure what to write, consider looking for inspiration among folktales, fables, and legends. 

Find one that draws you in and then redraw it in a modern setting. Or a historic setting. Or a fantasy setting. When you think that you’ve made your story unique, push it a little farther. Read the original tale again and consider the similarities with your story. 

Think about what the original tale said about the society that created it. How can you do the same? 

And when you get stuck, turn to page one of HIDE. It is definitely a lesson in how to do it right. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of 40 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on July 10, 2023).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins July 10, 2023) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins July 10, 2023).


Angela Mackintosh said...

Oooh, I love horror, Sue! I'm going to read this book! I kinda read your plot spoiler, but sped through it super fast. Your warning is hilarious. :)

I'm there with you about violence against women and perpetuating that trope. I hate it. Do you know the one genre where the protagonist doesn't have to go through major character change? You guessed it. Horror. The protag is typically the weakest type of character: a victim. But horror in recent years has been changing, and there's the burgeoning genre of feminist horror and body horror. To me, the best horror crosses genres and the main character faces internal struggle or an inner ghost. I also love pieces based on folktales and fairytales. When we write from these old tales it creates some magic (plus, they are copyright free - lol). I'm excited to check out Hide.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hi Ang,
The protagonist definitely changes and grows in this one. I don't know that I've ever encountered feminist horror. What would you recommend? This story definitely magnifies our weaknesses as a society. Talk about a harsh light! You'll have to let me know what you think of it.

Renee Roberson said...

I've always been too intimidated to try and use a premise based on a folktale, fable, or legend, but this sounds like a great execution. And creepy as all get out! I also watched the first season of "Grimm" not long ago and like the way they use fairy tales as the inspiration for the storylines. Maybe I could try doing a short story first and then venture into a longer work. More ideas for my journal!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I didn't watch Grimm. Maybe I should! But then I might end up adding to my idea list in my journal.

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

SueBE: I steer clear of horror ... but your preview is intriguing. This sounds way more psychological than just slasher ... great recap!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I think the best horror has an element of both. There is something that isn't human that is . . . well, horrifying . . . and the people are in over their heads. But there is also a psychological aspect. What led this person to do x, y or z? I avoid straight up gore.

Kelly Sgroi said...

Great post, Sue! I think horror is the most sophisticated genre of all! I enjoy horrors that make me think but not ones with too much gore. Love your tip to consider framing some writing around an old fable, I might have to give that a try sometime!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Thank you! I love horror that makes me consider what is going on, what could happen next, what does this all mean. Gore is easy. Making the reader think it tough!

Kelly Sgroi said...

Totally agree!

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