Creative Combat Arms: Writing Horror

Jason and Freddy didn't think he was hard... until they checked him in his B-boy stance.

Today being Halloween and all, what better way for a writer to celebrate than to talk about writing horror?

I’m going to preface this Creative Combat Arms by saying that I’m in no way a master of horror. I’ve only written a handful of stories that would count as credit in the genre. I tend to like upbeat endings, and for a long while now I’ve always thought horror had to have a disturbing, jacked up ending. That was until people in my writer’s workshop critiqued one of my dark fantasy stories and called it horror. “Wait,” I said. “This is dark fantasy or urban fantasy. Horror stories have to end badly for the protagonist.”

Not necessarily. The first Halloween ended well for Jamie Lee Curtis, who left that crazy suburb and hooked up with Dan Akroyd in Trading Places.

So what defines horror? Is it the subject matter… ghouls, ghosts, chainsaw wielding psychopathic killer clowns? It can be. But when Dan Akroyd left Jamie Lee Curtis to become a ghostbuster with his friend Bill Murray, we as an audience wasn’t afraid of no ghosts.

Maybe it’s the sense of dread the protagonist displays… him or her undergoing a horrible fate that we can relate to. But when Bill Murray stopped ghostbusting and got trapped living the same day over and over again in a podunk town, we weren’t scared despite his fear, even though most of us would similarly share his dread in this situation.

Horror movie? Only for lawless jaywalkers.

Don’t say music. We’re writing stories here, not scores. Go find Danny Elfman’s blog if you think music makes horror.

Here’s what makes horror, by all accounts. Wait… there is no definition held by all accounts on what makes horror. Only the results are defined. To be horror, it must scare.

That puts a writer in a precarious place. What scares me does not scare you and what I laugh at becomes nightmare fuel for little Timmy. While there IS a slippery slope from writing something frightening to penning some cliched drivel, there isn’t a magic formula on how to write horror. So stop looking for it.

I can give you some guidelines. And I stress guidelines because any of this can get discarded depending on the story you’re telling. Saying “rules” makes them sound unbreakable… and really, in writing there’s really only one rule. So, without further delay, here are my guidelines on when horror’s done best.

Horror is best when: horrible things happen to good people for no good (or an unknown) reason.
This is probably just my preference when it comes to horror because I’ve seen a lot of stories where a bad guy gets his horrible comeuppance. I’m by and large sick of those stories.. I mean, how “horror” filled can it be if I’m rooting for the guy to die? Likewise, I prefer no good reason or unknown reasons as to why this horrible stuff is going down. If the killer pyscho clown/ghoul/undead evil has a good reason for its bad behavior, then it’s largely justified. I can’t really be scared that killer dude, armed with a knife and a good motive, is doing what he’s supposed to do. Going back to my earlier example, we don’t know why Michael Myers wants to stab up Jamie Lee Curtis. Does he like her rack? Maybe. Does he want to stop her from selling us yogurt in her later years? A safe bet… but we really don’t know. We just know that he wants to keep her from getting a lifetime achievement award and we know we don’t want her to die.

domestic terrorist or time traveler who had seen his fill of "A Fish Called Wanda"? You decide!

Horror is best when: it borders on reality so much that the audience feels that if it isn’t true, it could be.
Let’s face it, the ghost of W.K. Kellogg haunting specially marked boxes of Frosted Flakes isn’t going to frighten anyone. Aliens aren’t making your lights flicker and turning doorknobs through your farmhouse just because they think it’s fun to play pranks on humans in Iowa.
Believeability is the key. One reason why Texas Chainsaw Massacre scared the crap out of people was that moviegoers thought it was based on a true story. To this day, people won’t go near a ouija board because of the Exorcist. Point is, if it could happen to anyone, it could happen to you… which is scary.

Horror is best when: the unexpected happens.
Granted, this is a good rule for all stories in general. But it’s especially more pointedly obvious in horror. Lemme guess… the music’s all ramping up, and the scared girl’s fingers are inching toward the doorknob, her hands all trembly… and she opens the door as the music hits crescendo… and silence. Nothing’s there. So she turns around and BAM!! Evil bad thingie’s right in her face with hot breath! That was genius… no one saw that coming.
Go screw yourself, everyone saw that coming. At this point I think it’d be more effective to go back to the original version of something actually being behind the door. The reason they went to the “delayed suspense” fright was because the audience got jaded to the “something’s behind the door” fright. Basic human principle… once we’re familiar with something, we’re comfortable with it. After we’ve seen the first couple of serial killers take insane amounts of punishment–stabbings, shootings, pushed from several stories– and still keep on ticking, we’re kind of numb to your flavor of psycho crazy beyond human limits type pyscho. Also, see general guideline number two on believeability. Horror movies should be disturbing… not comfort food. The reason the first Scream worked is because the psycho killer actually played with the well worn horror tropes… when some crazy guy calls you up and starts talking to you about what they do in horror movies, you know his deranged ass is going to do something different.

Well, those are my guidelines, and like any good guideline, can be broken and discarded like used tissue for the sake of the story. Ultimately, remember that none of this stuff matters if you end up with the result that is heralded as good horror: Did you scare us?

Here’s my trick or treat gift to you all in the bit abyss.  Now get your Samhain on.

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