40 Scary Writing Prompts to Give Your Readers Nightmares

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

There is something primal and deeply satisfying about being scared. The rush of endorphins that pumps through your body while you’re reading something terrifying (and then again later that night every time your house creaks or groans) is strangely exhilarating.

Or is that just me?

Probably not, since you’re here to check out more than thirty different writing prompts to help you write something spooky.

Not all of these prompts are just for horror stories, either. There are other genres where a dash of fear or suspense are needed. To that end, we’ll be looking at:

  • How to use these scary writing prompts
  • Scary writings prompts for horror stories
  • Creepy writing prompts for fantasy tales
  • Spooky writing prompts for sci-fi
  • Stressful writing prompts for real-word fiction (aka literary fiction)

So grab your favorite blanket, dim the lights, and ignore the scratching noises coming from the closet as we dive into these prompts.

How to Use These Prompts

Before we get into the (grotesque) meat of the prompts, let’s take a second to talk about how you should use them.

If you already know you want to write something scary, take any of these prompts and just run with them. Even if a dozen different authors choose the same prompt as the basis for their story, we’ll end up with a dozen unique books.

Maybe you know the general plot of your story. Use these prompts as inspiration for a particular scene or subplot. Maybe one will make you think of an entirely new way to approach a character arc or theme!

You can use these scary writing prompts for practice, too. Writing something that scares someone is totally different from any other form of writing. The pace, the tone, the level of detail you need to put into it—all of these and more must be fine-tuned for an audience that is primed to experience terror.

The first time I tried my hand at a horror novel came after years of writing dark fantasy. When I was revising what I had, I realized I wasn’t capturing the essence of a scary story. My scenes were fast-paced, like my fantasy writing. There was less build-up and tension than I needed.

So, regardless of where you are in your writing journey, grab any one of these prompts and write a short story. Hone those scary writing skills to become the best, most terrifying author you can be.

Scary Writing Prompts for Horror

The most likely place you’ll use scary writing prompts is for writing horror. The horror genre ranges from slow-burn dreads to haunted houses to splatterpunk killers, with a bunch of things in between. The goal is to make your reader feel uneasy, unsettled, or uncomfortable.

For a complete guide to writing horror, click here. It dives into a lot, but one of the best takeaways is how effective horror is when you combine two phobias that force the protagonist to choose one of them. Keep that in mind when thinking about these prompts.

  1. A woman wakes up in the middle of a swamp, a severed arm handcuffed to her wrist.
  2. Three teens use a ouija board and contact the spirit of a murdered witch.
  3. A father is convinced one of his twins is possessed, but he can’t tell which one.
  4. A cannibal that only eats other cannibals.
  5. A single mom who looks after her child, unaware that she already died protecting that child.
  6. An Antarctic expedition that gets stranded in a bay that shouldn’t exist.
  7. A serial killer who murders and impersonates the new sheriff in a small town before that sheriff can meet anyone. 
  8. A house full of ghosts who are living (as best they can) a normal life when a non-dead couple moves in.
  9. A cult leader trying to con people out of their life savings only to unleash an ancient evil.
  10. A woman discovers a spot on her skin that slowly grows every day. As it grows, it looks like words that describe how she’s going to die.
  11. On a road trip, a family finds an abandoned car on the side of the road. With no service, they can’t call for help so they decide to keep driving, only to have their own car break down a few miles later.
  12. To try and help with their trauma, a grief counseling group goes on a weekend retreat. But their hosts turn out to be practitioners of some ancient religion.
  13. Trying to save his family from losing their home , a man signs up for a gladiator-style bloodsport hosted by wealthy families.
  14. In the wake of a global plague (too soon?) a woman wakes up from a coma and must find her children in a city filled with criminals and virus carriers.
  15. Someone volunteers to donate a kidney to their best friend, but didn’t sign up for whatever they put in its place.

Creepy Writing Prompts for Fantasy

Like I said before, it isn’t just horror that amps up the scares. If you’re writing fantasy, horror elements might be ingrained in your story, like in the dark fantasy subgenre. Or maybe you just want to change up the pace and tone by adding some suspense.

It’s a great way to force your reader to keep turning those pages!

Fantasy can range from epic tales to urban adventures, which means there’s a lot of room to play around. So here are some prompts to get you thinking about ways to creep out your fantasy readers.

  1. The party must dive into the pitch-black, claustrophobia-inducing hive of monsters to slay the monstrous queen.
  2. A necromancer is kidnapping people from the nearby village, stitching their body parts together with magic to create unspeakable monstrosities.
  3. In a clan of vampires, one human child tries to survive a family that would drain them if they discovered the truth.
  4. Two thieves must journey through a cursed tomb to find a magic amulet.
  5. A strange traveler wanders into a village, somehow knowing and exposing a shocking number of secrets held by the villagers.
  6. A plague has swept through the land, turning the afflicted into zombies.
  7. A cleric must exorcise a monarch while demons from all across the kingdom try to stop them.
  8. Centuries ago, a country was cursed by a witch. Since then, everyone born in the country has carried a birthmark representing the curse. Our protagonist gives birth to a baby who doesn’t have the birthmark.
  9. A good witch is pursued by witch hunters, forcing her to seek refuge with an evil coven.
  10. A walled town has lived for decades with werewolves prowling the lands beyond their gates. But resources are running out, and the townsfolk must brave the wolflands to find a new place to settle. 

Spooky Writing Prompts for Science Fiction

While sci-fi can be a great place for large-scale space operas and grand displays of technology, it also presents a massive sandbox filled with the unknown and potentially horrifying.

Us human beings love knowing stuff. So, when we’re presented with something we don’t know or can’t understand, it fills us with unease. And that’s exactly what we’re going for.

  1. A newly discovered moon is thought to have resources a planet needs for energy production, so it sends a mining team. Unfortunately for that team, the moon is also home to a breed of feral aliens that doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.
  2. A company developing a new A.I. has a security breach, unleashing the malicious program through the company’s campus and employees.
  3. A spaceship breaks down near a strange star, and the radiation from that star is slowly eating away at their minds as their oxygen starts to run out.
  4. A peaceful alien race is systematically hunted by human colonizers who want to terraform their planet.
  5. An archaeological expedition in another solar system uncovers remnants of a society and a religion that promises immortality… at a price.
  6. While visiting the matriarch of an alien species, a diplomat is infected by a parasite that connects them to the aliens’ hivemind.
  7. A man addicted to augmenting his body is implanted with something infected by a computer virus that makes him see ghosts.
  8. In the near future, violent solar storms disrupt and destroy technology, plummeting society into an age without electricity.
  9. Scavengers find a ruined ship floating in space and decide to strip it for parts. There, they find a crew that looks exactly like themselves still in cryosleep.
  10. In a dystopian society, burglars no longer break into your house but hack into your mind.

Scary Writing Prompts for Real World Fiction

Bringing it back to (our current) reality, sometimes the scariest things are those we face every day. These can range from stories about natural disasters to debilitating illnesses, common fears to unthinkable tragedies, and everything in between.

When adding scary elements to real-word fiction, you want to keep it realistic. Make the readers think these dreadful events could really happen tomorrow.

  1. On vacation, a family learns a tsunami is approaching and they can’t find a flight to safety.
  2. Friends on a backcountry hiking trip suffer an accident, stranding them days away from help.
  3. In the middle of a bustling town fair, a child is taken.
  4. A stay-at-home mom is delivered a letter claiming her partner has died. She can’t reach them and they never checked into their hotel.
  5. Woken by their alarm, a family finds the front door of their house open.

What Scary Story Will You Write?

Don’t forget, these prompts can be used to inspire a new story, help you with your current story, or get you writing a short story to buff your scary writing skills, use them in whatever way works best for you.

And, if you’re looking for more inspiration, check out the Story Craft Café. It’s a community of writers who support, encourage, and motivate one another. There are writers from all genres, at every stage in their writing journey.

So head on over and say hello. Share what writing prompt spoke most to you. And, when you’re ready, post the story you wrote with one of these prompts and celebrate with your fellow authors!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.