Lions and Tigers and Vampires! Oh My!

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.

IMDB’s 50 Best/Worst Horror Films
Amazon.com’s Top Horror Novels
What are your faves?

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  1. I still think the best horror films *suggest* more than they show the actual source of the horror (i.e. the monsters, ghosts, ghoulies, etc.). What you can't see is usually scarier than what you can see. It's a matter of involving the viewer’s own imagination here.

    Take The Shining for example. Throughout most of the film, the horror is as much suggested as it is shown. The ghost guy in the animal suit is extremely creepy because we only see him briefly, he's presented out of context, and we don't know what the heck the animal suit thing is all about. It's slightly surreal but it's also extremely creepy…

    Or take Jaws as another example. The shark is more suggested than shown until the end of the film. This was done mostly due to necessity — the shark effects didn't work as well as Spielberg planned — but it worked out great for the film.

    It's an old convention, but it still works today — as the success of horror films as diverse as The Blair Witch Project to The Devil's Backbone will attest. I haven't seen Paranormal Activity yet, but it sounds like it employs similar techniques.

    Another element that horror films often employ is isolation. The protagonists are often isolated in some way: be it physical isolation or psychological isolation. For example, the isolated location in Antarctica works great in John Carpenter's The Thing. I don't think this particular story would be as scary if it were set in a major city.

    An example of psychological isolation: The protagonist in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The protagonist is seemingly surrounded by people, but they are actually body-snatching aliens. In the end, he ends up alone with only a few unbelieving humans left to keep him company.

    I could go on but I think you’ve already caught my drift. ;-)

    Cheers,
    Mote

    Mote99 says:
  2. Geez, I wish we could edit these comments after we post them. What I meant above was "The protagonist's *situation* in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

    Anyway, I'm sure you still caught my drift, so to speak. ;-)

    Cheers,
    Mote

    Mote99 says:
  3. I thought of another example of psychological isolation: The Sixth Sense.

    The kid in the Sixth Sense, Cole Sear, isn't as much physically isolated as he is psychologically isolated. This is due to the fact that he's the only character who can see the ghosts. There are other people in his life, but they can't see what he can. This psychologically isolates him.

    Okay, I'll try to stop listing examples now… It’s just too much fun. ;-)

    Cheers,
    Mote

    Mote99 says:
  4. Absolutely. Yes!

    dianejwright says:
  5. I agree completely with the heart of this, which is that it can be far too easy to get carried away with trying to load something up with "surprising" twists and turns, when really well-developed character lies at the heart of all, and if that part of a story doesn't work, no number of tricks will cover it up. What a fresh and engaging angle to compare horror films to romantic comedies. I love it.

    Kamy says:

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