What is it about scary stories? We, collectively, just can’t get enough. Whether creepy wet girl-child, voraciously sexy vampire, gangrenous undead, or senselessly psychotic scythe-wielder waiting to kill, we keep coming back for more. Horror consistently tops the bestselling and box office lists, whether presented as out-and-out gore or more seductively as true crime or psychological thrillers. Just what is the secret to keeping an audience on the edge of their seats when they know the bloodbath is coming?
Would you be surprised to know that a similar construct is at work in romantic comedies? Consider: in both genres, you pretty much know what you’re signing up for the moment you see the poster or cover art. Boy meets girl. Boy kills girl in nightmarish bloodbath. The draw is how. We’re fascinated with the endless permutations of how both ends come to pass. Will he woo her with his orchid collection or will he lop off her head with his bear trap? We want to be entertained with plausibly executed novelty.
No surprise that the element of surprise is part of the fun. But it’s not that simple, is it? We people are a crafty and suspicious lot when it comes to being outwitted. We’re on the lookout for the reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror when it closes the second time; we’re waiting for that chainsaw that’s just lying around the tool shed to deliver its ruthless stroke. The more we read, watch, and share our reviews of frightening stories, the more we expect the next time around. On top of that, the moment we sniff out fakery, the experience is ruined.
So it’s not enough to rely on tricks, twists, and mind-blowing toppers. Our methods must fit the madness. In other words, our characters must be sufficiently established, believable, and developed in context in order to make their disjointed actions truly effective. Take Stephen King’s The Shining for example. There’s a good old fashioned creepshow that keeps on giving. Even once we know something is very amiss with the old hotel, we also know that it’s just the beginning of much, much worse. The horror truly lies is the unpredictability of Jack–of human nature, really–and of what he’ll do to the family he loves despite his best self. Turns out that the scariest situations of all are the ones rooted in familiar character traits gone awry. They reach us closest to home.
Writing a story designed to frighten and chill? Try digging around in your own nightmares, phobias, and fears for good character material rather than jumping straight to conjuring up elaborate killing machines. Sure, Zombieland was an enormous hit with its witty take on bile-spewing friends and family; over-the-top gore and violence will always have fans, but I’ll take Repulsion or The Birds over a predictable stock slasher any day.