One of the best ways to discover frightening stories and powerful imagery is to open the door to the unconscious mind, keeper of our nightmares and secret anxieties, which can play a vital role in the creative process. My most powerful work as a writer is a direct result of allowing the unconscious to enter, including ah-ha moments of story inspiration and sudden leaps in the drafting process.
For inspiration, story ideas, and solutions to difficult storytelling problems, long walks away from the computer are a great way to enter a trance-like state where ideas emerge from the unconscious mind. I find it's helpful to set an intention for the walk; for example, the intention to create a creepy premise for a new story--and then I just walk, swinging my arms and letting my mind wander. I sometimes can come up with three new developed ideas in an hour of walking.
Long stretches of freewriting with cursive handwriting will create a similar writer's trance where I can clear away the editorial constrictions of my critical ego and allow a different part of my mind to speak. Why cursive handwriting? I am convinced that long stretches of cursive handwriting engages the mind differently than word processing, creating a mental state where exciting things can emerge. At this point, I hear the voices of my writing students who dismiss these ideas as silly, opting instead for long hours locked in frustration before a blank document on the computer screen. All I can say in response is to give it a try (I should note that some people can achieve this mental state through long stretches of typing like Kerouac). For me, this mental state has served as a powerful source of imagery and metaphors that have sparked new stories, enriched stories in revision, and opened up new possibilities for stories beleaguered with problems.
Of course, the unconscious mind can enrich your writing in the context of disciplined habits and practices: consistently recording and reflecting on your dreams, setting aside time for stretches of freewriting and walking, and finding a way to avoid those frequent side trips to Facebook and Twitter, which keep your attention on the surface and prevent your creative mind from sounding into the depth of the unconscious.
Chad Helder is the author of The Vampire Bridegroom (Dark Scribe 2011) and Pop-Up Book of Death (Rebel Satori 2010). He is the Stoker Award-winning editor (along with Vince Liaguno) of Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet (Dark Scribe 2008). Helder teaches writing at Portland Community College.