Despite using King's college teaching notes as the backbone of the text, Danse Macabre has a casual, non-linear writing style.
In the introduction, titled "October 4, 1957, and an Invitation to Dance", King begins by explaining why he wrote the book, and then describes the event itself: the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, intended as his personal introduction to what he calls "real horror." This is followed by the chapter "Tales of the Hook," specifically the urban legend of the escaped criminal who left his hook on the door handle of the car where lovers had parked. The author uses this for his contention that horror in general "offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty."
In the following chapter, he creates a template for descriptions of his macabre subject. Entitled “Tales of the Tarot," the chapter has nothing to do with the familiar tarot card deck. Rather, King borrows the term to describe his observations about major archetypal characters of the horror genre, which he posits come from two British novels and one Irish: the vampire (from Dracula), the werewolf (from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and the "Thing Without a Name" (from Frankenstein). King sees deeply sexual undertones—in light of its Victorian Era publication—in Dracula. Frankenstein is reviewed as "a Shakespearean tragedy", and he argues that "its classical unity is broken only by the author's uncertainty as to where the fatal flaw lies—is it in Victor's hubris (usurping a power that belongs only to God) or in his failure to take responsibility for his creation after endowing it with the life-spark?" King does not mistake Mr. Hyde for a "traditional" werewolf, but rather sees the character as the origin of the modern archetype defined by werewolves. The evil-werewolf archetype, argues King, stems from the base and violent side of humanity. These major archetypes are then reviewed in their historical context, ranging from their original appearances to their modern-day equivalents, up to and including cartoon breakfast cereal characters such as Frankenberry and Count Chocula.
The chapter "An Annoying Autobiographical Pause" begins with King's explanation for why he included the section: "I cannot divorce myself from a field in which I am mortally involved." He then offers a brief family history, discussing his abandonment by his father at the age of two, his childhood in rural eastern Maine, and then explains his childhood fixation with the imagery of terror and horror, making an interesting comparison of his uncle successfully dowsing for water using the bough of an apple branch with the sudden realization of what he wanted to do for a living. While browsing through an attic with his elder brother, King uncovered a paperback version of the H.P. Lovecraft collection The Lurker in the Shadows, which had belonged to his long-since-departed father. The cover art—an illustration of a monster hiding within the recesses of a hell-like cavern beneath a tombstone—was, he writes, the moment in his life which "that interior dowsing rod responded to."
King then resumes his discussion of the horror genre by making detailed commentary of horror in all forms of media, beginning with radio, then proceeding to a highly critical review of television horror, two separate chapters on horror in the motion pictures, and finally concluding with an examination of horror fiction.
His critique on the radio examines such American programs as Suspense, Inner Sanctum, and Boris Karloff, and praises Arch Oboler's Lights Out. King ultimately concludes that, as a medium for horror, radio is superior to television and films, since radio's nature requires a more active use of imagination.
King then turns to two separate chapters of horror in the motion pictures. In "The Modern American Horror Movie—Text and Subtext," the "subtext" he refers to consists of unspoken social commentary he sees in the films. The 1951 film The Thing from Another World implies commentary on the threat of communism, "the quick, no-nonsense destruction of their favorite geopolitical villain, the dastardly Russians," King writes. The popular 1973 film The Exorcist was aptly suited in the wake of the youth upheavals of the late 1960s and early '70s. 1975's The Stepford Wives, King says, "has some witty things to say about Women's Liberation ... and the American male's response to it." In The Amityville Horror, King sees "economic unease" and maintains that the film's 1979 release "could not have come along at a more opportune moment." He also calls The China Syndrome, released the same year, a horror movie that "synthesizes technological fears ... fears of the machinery gone out of control, run wild."
In the following chapter, "The Horror Movie as Junk Food" King begins by making the statement: “I am no apologist for bad filmmaking, but once you've spent twenty years or so going to horror movies, searching for diamonds in the dreck of the B-pics … you begin to seek the patterns and appreciate them when you find them, you begin to get a taste for really shitty movies.” He makes the point that his agent Kirby McCauley had selected the obscure 1977 film Rituals as his favorite, while King himself chose 1979's Tourist Trap as one that “wields an eerie spooky power. Wax figures begin to move and come to life in a ruined, out-of-the-way tourist resort.” He continues a reviews of such films as Prophecy (1979), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), The Horror of Party Beach (1964), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), among others; concluding: “Bad films may sometimes be amusing, sometimes even successful, but their only real usefulness is to form that basis of comparison: to define positive values in terms of their own negative charm. They show us what to look for because it is missing in themselves.”
King then turns his most weighty criticism toward television, borrowing Harlan Ellison's description of television as "the glass teat", and subtitling the chapter, "This Monster Is Brought to You by Gainesburgers." He reviews horror anthology programs such as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows, and Night Gallery, ultimately concluding that television is severely limited in its ability to illustrate horror because it is enslaved to the demands of network Standards and Practices censorship and the appeasement of advertising executives that provide the financial means necessary for television to continue its free access.
In the "Horror Fiction" chapter, King describes and reviews a number of horror novels written within a few decades of Danse Macabre, including Peter Straub's Ghost Story, Anne Rivers Siddons's The House Next Door, Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and several others. His primary context is defining what impact they have had on the horror genre, and how significantly they have contributed to the popular culture. Specifically pointing out allegories in his review, King notes:
Shirley Jackson uses the conventions of the new American Gothic to examine character under extreme psychological—or perhaps occult—pressure; Peter Straub uses them to examine the effects of an evil past upon the present; Anne Rivers Siddons uses them to examine social codes and social pressures; Bradbury uses these self-same conventions in order to offer us a moral judgment.
The final chapter, "The Last Waltz", is a brief analysis of how the medium or horror fiction in all its forms has inspired real-life acts of violence. He describes an incident in which a woman was brutally murdered by youths who confessed to imitating a scene from a TV movie, then objectively includes an example of violence perpetrated by a woman who had been reading his novel The Stand at the time she committed the crime. "If it had not been shown", he writes, "stupidity and lack of imagination might well have reduced them to murdering ... in some more mundane way." In an analysis of why people read and watch horror, he concludes, "Perhaps we go to the forbidden door or window willingly because we understand that a time comes when we must go whether we want to or not."
Additionally, King classifies the genre into three well-defined, descending levels; 1) terror, 2) horror, and 3) revulsion. He describes terror as “the finest element” of the three, and the one he strives hardest to maintain in his own writing. Citing many examples, he defines “terror” as the suspenseful moment in horror before the actual monster is revealed. "Horror", King writes, is that moment at which one sees the creature/aberration that causes the terror or suspense, a "shock value." King finally compares “revulsion” with the gag-reflex: a bottom-level, cheap gimmick which he admits he often resorts to in his own fiction if necessary, confessing:
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.