Looking for some scary story ideas for your next writing project?
Sometimes, a good scary prompt idea is all you need to get started on a dark story your readers won’t be able to put down.
And that is the goal. What’s a horror story without white-knuckle suspense?
You want your readers at the edge of their seats, unable to stop though they know something bad is about to happen.
You also want to reward them for reading to the end and leave them wanting more.
So, how can this collection of horror writing prompts help with that?
Horror Story Ideas
Every good story needs an idea that takes root in your imagination and doesn’t let go. Horror stories in particular need to affect you a certain way. If they don’t sound an alarm in your head, they won’t sound one in the heads of your readers, either.
They need to reach into your psyche, take a scrap of memory, and turn it into something that would keep you up at night.
And as you’ve no doubt read already, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Look through the prompts that follow, and choose one that calls out to you and lingers in your imagination.
Paint a picture in your mind of the characters involved. Give yourself a reason to invest in them by giving each one some interesting backstory.
Then set a timer and write.
What Are the Main Elements of Horror Writing?
Since Earl Horace Walpole’s gothic horror The Castle of Otranto hit shelves in 1764, English readers have clamored for dark plots that excite primitive instincts and tickle our fear bones.
Many horror authors leverage shadowy impulses by sprinkling stories with uncomfortable happenings and gruesome fatalities.
But that’s not all it takes to write within the genre, begging the question: What are the main elements of horror? Traditionally, there are five: suspense, fear, violence, gore, and the supernatural.
- Suspense: Creating anxious tension is a critical component of horror as it keeps the audience glued to the story. They need to find out what happens! Traditionally, suspense is valued as a sophisticated form of horror, and building it well is a skill.
- Fear: Confronting fearful things is a powerful emotion with chemical reactionary consequences, making it a hallmark of horror writing.
- Violence: Savagery is scary because it’s inextricably linked to death and pain — two of the four great human fears.
- Gore: Brains and guts are a cornerstone of classic horror. For better or worse, our neural pathways light up when confronted with intestines, brain matter, and gushing fluids. Successful horror writers keep readers and watchers engaged by deploying gore effectively.
- Supernatural: The main difference between “true crime” and “horror” is a supernatural element. While horror stories draw people in with realism, they usually feature an emotional detachment valve in the form of an explicit or implicit otherworldly presence.
List of Most Common Horror Themes and Tropes to Write On
Vampires, ghosts, zombies, and murderers are big-picture mainstays of the horror genre. But what are some other, more detailed tropes associated with scary storytelling?
- Babysitter Alone in Big House: The naive babysitter trope is oft-repeated because it works. The sitter acts as a stand-in for the reader or audience in that, like you, they’re vulnerable. Horror-sitters are the character conduit through which readers and viewers can experience the impending fear.
- Manipulative Vampires: Maybe it’s their piercing eyes, snappy attire, or mysterious penchant for the “nightlife.” Whatever the case, people stan vampires, and sensual and manipulative ones are an incredibly effective horror character trope.
- Ghost-Haunted House: Ghost-haunted houses are a recurring horror motif. Whether you approach it from a traditional or modern angle is up to you. Both can work.
- Creepy Kid: In real life, it’s kind to see all kids as precious and special, no matter their quirks. But when it comes to Horror World, creepy kids are a dime a dozen! Sometimes they’re the main attractions or “red herrings” (which we’ll get to more below); other times, they’re supernatural catalysts that serve as a story’s MacGuffin. Whichever the case, unnerving kids go a long way when devising a disturbing scene and fomenting suspense.
- The Nonbeliever: Most horror stories have at least one character whose lack of fear or faith (in the story’s “supernatural” element) lands them six feet under.
- The Red Herring: A “red herring” is a false clue. The term dates back to the 1400s to describe a culinary preparation for fish, but the first known use as a euphemism for “distraction” appeared in 1884.
- Isolation: Few things frighten people more than being all alone while danger looms. As such, isolation can be a helpful trope when crafting horror stories.
- Graveyard Chase: A well-conceived chase around a graveyard is another horror mainstay that continues to deliver. Try adding a twist to modernize the trope.
- Distorting Mirrors: Whether a single reflecting glass or a full-on maze, using mirrors as a motif is a tangible and effective way to signal distortion.
- Aliens and Cultists: The human psyche can’t resist rubbernecking when confronted with the possibility of aliens and the sociopathic underbelly of cults. Resultantly, they work well as engaging frameworks for horror stories.
66 Horror Writing Prompts
Whether you’re writing for a special occasion or just to experiment with the horror genre, any of the scary story prompts in the following groups should get you started.
Go with your gut on this one, and choose an idea that feels both familiar and provocative. Then give it a go!
Halloween Writing Prompts
1. A mysterious gift from an estranged aunt arrives on Halloween with a crystal ball and a note addressed only to you, her godchild.
2. One of the trick-or-treaters bears an uncanny resemblance to your departed sibling and repeats that sibling’s last words before picking your sibling’s favorite candy bar.
3. On Halloween night, you find a box at your door that contains a strange note and a little something from each of the people who have hurt you in the past year.
4. On this Halloween night, your guinea pig won’t stop running in circles, and your dog keeps staring at the door, emitting a low growl.
5. You run out for candy on Halloween afternoon to find the streets empty and the store abandoned. A single car cruises into the lot and pulls into the spot next to yours.
6. Every time you went to answer the doorbell, no one was there. The next day, you heard about the missing children. The worst part? Your kids spent Halloween with your ex and were supposed to come trick-or-treating last night.
7. You arrive home on Halloween to a large package from your new boss, who’d bought every piece of your favorite candy from local stores. The note reads, “Save some for me.”
8. You’re watching TV on Halloween night when your show is interrupted by a faintly familiar someone declaring their love for you and saying they’ve watched you all your life.
9. You come home to find a stranger walking through your home, sipping your wine and admiring your collected antiquities. They startle at your approach and act as though you’re the intruder.
10. The night before Halloween, you have a dream in which you wake up to see a dark shape standing outside your closet. You wake up screaming with your hands around your spouse’s throat.
11. Election day looms, and Halloween feels more ominous than ever. You’ve kept the lights off, but that doesn’t stop one visitor from leaving a note: “Knew you lived here.”
Mystery Writing Prompts
12. Your best friend has gone missing, and someone keeps leaving small reminders of them in your mailbox. You see someone approach to deliver something else, and your heart nearly stops when you recognize them.
13. You’ve always wanted a dog, so when a rain-soaked mutt shows up on your front step, you let him in. Unfortunately, something else hitched a ride.
14. Someone moves into the apartment next door and starts playing loud music at night. You call the police, who find the guy dead holding a note with your name and address.
15. Someone keeps replacing items in your home with different objects that look vaguely familiar. No one else has a key to your home, and there are no signs of forced entry.
16. You bake some cookies to share with the new neighbor, but the terrified woman backs away from the plate, shaking her head. Someone from inside calls out, “I’ll have those.”
17. Someone at work has offered to do a tarot card spread for you, and you politely decline. You find a single tarot card in your mailbox when you return home.
18. You don’t remember wandering alone on a country road as a small child, but someone does. And he wants to make sure you’re not around to testify against him.
19. Someone has gotten to your laundry before you and left it neatly folded in piles on top of the dryer. A note reads, “For more TLC, knock on #303.”
20. The window of your apartment leads to a fire escape, but twice you’ve come home to find it open. Nothing is missing. But someone keeps leaving a ring on your kitchen table.
21. You order a Christmas wreath for your door and the company sends you a package with money instead. The note reads, “Keep half. I’ll pick up the rest in 72 hours.”
22. A child knocks on your door and tells you you’ll be visited by three people that night. One of them will show you your future. The child’s face reminds you of someone.
Psychological Horror Story Ideas
23. Your best friend is dating a woman who seems familiar to you — and not in a good way. Turns out, she’s got a bad feeling about you, too, and she warns your friend.
24. You receive a surprise delivery of a holiday flower arrangement with a note from someone who went to jail for assault. The message reads, “I’ll be home for Christmas.”
25. An abuser from your past has written you a long letter of apology, and you agree to meet them for coffee. You find your favorite coffee place deserted — on Black Friday.
26. You broke up with your sweetheart when he lied about taking you to the prom and begged you to run away with him so he could escape an abusive home. He’s back.
27. An old friend, who had tried to warn you about an ex-boyfriend years ago, has come back to town to run a diner. Within a week, known bullies start disappearing.
28. For the past three dates, the guy you met ended up dead and posed as if proposing. A note on each one’s empty chest cavity reads, “My heart belongs to [your name].”
29. You’re with a friend at the home of the guy she’s dating. In the bathroom, you find a box with jewelry for almost every birthstone. Yours is the only one missing. You hear a scream.
30. Everyone keeps telling you your memories can’t be trusted. You’re safe with them. They’ll protect you. But you haven’t left the house in years.
31. You thought it was cute when your little sister wanted to wear your aunt’s high heels and pose with a hand on her hip. But your sister had an uncanny way with accidents.
32. You never expected to win the ‘57 Chevy from the church raffle. Neither did the car’s owner, who immediately tried to buy it back. He didn’t respond well to “No, thanks.”
33. Every time you saw anything like “Tornado Warning” or “Flash Flood” in the news, you knew someone would end up dead. And your ex would blame the weather.
“The Monster You Know” Story Ideas
34. You come home to a dozen roses from a guy who’s been telling his friends you’re dating, and you get angry. For some reason, though, everyone you know is on his side.
35. Your “Secret Santa” leaves an expensive bottle of wine with a note, “Drink me.” You call a familiar number and hear the phone ring on the other side of your door.
36. Your dad has a secret known only to his twin brother, who mysteriously disappeared but left a note with a box of his belongings in the attic. You take it with you when you leave.
37. You just broke up with the person who’s catering your best friend’s wedding. They also made the cake.
38. Some of your in-laws have decided to deliver their sibling from you. When they cross the line, you make a promise to them and to your spouse. One by one, they disappear.
39. Your health is steadily declining, and you don’t know why. Neither do your doctors, who test for the usual health issues and find nothing. Then someone calls to warn you.
40. Your estranged father sends you a porcelain doll — the one he swears you told him you wanted. It has the face and hair of your missing mother. And her eyes are glued open.
41. You’ve just told your family you’re asexual, and they seem to accept it. Out of the blue, the handsome guy next door shows up to ask you out, and your parents quietly nod.
42. A cop pulls you over for driving a few miles over the speed limit, tells you to get out of your car, slams you against the hood and whispers in your ear, “This is from your ex.”
43. You emailed your fiancé for months before meeting him for the first date. Now, you’re getting strange phone calls from someone claiming to be his wife and telling you to run.
44. You stood numb at the coffin of a close friend and flinched when your father rested a hand on your shoulder. “Had to be done,” he whispered. “Remember the bigger picture.”
Ghost Story Writing Prompts
45. A small package bears the name of your sister, who died five years ago. It contains a pendant that matches her own and a note asking you to activate it by chanting, “Sisters Forever.”
46. Your elderly neighbors died on the same day of an apparent suicide pact. In their will, they left their pug to you, along with a small box of what they called “magical items.”
47. You receive a note penned by your best friend, who died in a car accident the month before, His parents had found it in his room and hand-delivered it, barely looking at you.
48. You pounce on a new opening in the apartment building close to your favorite coffee place. The first night there, you wake up to ghostly shapes surrounding your bed.
49. At your first slumber party, your friend’s older brother surprised you during a late-night run to the bathroom. He died a decade later in prison. Now you see him in your dreams.
50. Your home is the high-tech brainchild of your best friend, who bequeathed it to you (rather than to his wife). It anticipates your every need and desire.
51. You’ve been having dreams about a door that shows up in your room. In one, you walk through it and see someone you love being murdered. You warn them the next day.
52. You’re the lone survivor of a horrific train crash, and everywhere you go, you see the ghosts of some of the passengers. Some have told you the crash was no accident.
53. You’re looking through your mother’s possessions when a note slips out of the book she’d been reading, warning you about “the ghost who runs this house.”
54. Your new boyfriend is obsessed with ancient artifacts, but when something hitches a ride on his latest find, you witness disturbing changes in his behavior.
55. Your life is already complicated when your boss asks you to stay at his home to care for his dog while he’s away. You soon learn the house is as mischievous as the dog.
Funny Horror Story Ideas
56. You’re an editor for the college literary journal, and you’ve been getting poetic hate mail from a student who’s angry you didn’t choose their poems for the latest issue.
57. Your favorite neighbor is a trans woman named Lani who looks out for you. She warns you about a guy down the hall, who keeps trying cheesy pick-up lines to get you to smile.
58. Your co-workers tease you about your weight gain. One is found dead in the bathroom, her mouth stuffed with candy. Everyone but the custodian suspects you.
59. An anonymous admirer sends you a singing telegram with a chilling question. Now you have less than 24 hours to sing your answer in a public square, with a flash mob.
60. You sign up for wine deliveries but are disappointed by the first bottle you open and taste. On the label, you find a crass, insulting note from an old enemy.
61. Your date finds out your BFF is asexual and starts asking intrusive and insensitive questions. When your friend shuts him down, he insults and warns you both.
62. You’re working the dinner rush, and a customer loudly insists on changing her order the moment you deliver it. Someone quietly follows her as she storms out the door.
63. You’re having an open house for your new shop, and you catch a customer shoplifting. She says, “I was told to come in here and take these. You’re being watched.”
64. You arrive at your new house, and the keys from the realtor don’t work. Someone answers the door with a disarming smile. “So, you’re here about the room? Come in!”
65. Your date is going well until you reveal that you have a dog. “I’m not really a dog person,” you hear. When you get a bad feeling and end the date, things get messy.
66. Your journal goes missing, and within a week, a goofy, adorable guy starts showing up at your usual stops. He seems surprised to see you, but something isn’t quite right.
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Go Forth and Terrify
Armed with this generous sampling of horror story prompts, what stories are brewing in your mind as you read this?
No need to stick to exact details, either.
If any part of the writing prompts you just read teased your imagination and became the kernel of a story, run with what you’ve got.
And don’t worry if the first sentence isn’t perfect (you’ll probably change it, anyway). Just write.
May you love this new story every bit as much as your readers will.