Some people love getting scared, particularly when they know they’re actually totally safe. Full disclosure: I’m not one of them. But this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to tackle a genre I’m not a fan of so today I want to look at the modern horror story, something cinema has simply dubbed “horror” though it’s a bit different from traditional ghost stories or scary campfire stories.
Horror relies on tricks of production in setting it’s scenes and drawing readers in much more than most genres. Consider the impact of music in films like Halloween or the eerie claustrophobia of the handheld camera in The Blair Witch Project (the original). Edgar Allen Poe, mastery of written horror, achieved a similar restricted and unreliable point of view using first person narrators in most of his famous horror stories.
That said, these flourishes are not the pillars that hold up this aesthetic genre. Rather, those hallmarks are:
- A sense of isolation. It’s very hard to feel scared in a group of people. Even strangers provide a sense of camaraderie and empathy for most people that builds confidence and helps you avoid horror. So characters must become isolated from those around them in some way before we can get truly scared for them. Poe’s stories almost never mention characters outside the immediate circumstances. The Evil Dead puts it’s characters in an isolated cabin far from civilization that they wind up stranded in due to circumstances. It Follows achieves isolation by making it’s monster visible only to the person it afflicts, leaving the victim alone with the creature even in crowds.
- The threat of death. And actual death. Horror requires us to be well and truly scared for the characters in order to work. Death is the most effective threat there is, period. Even horror stories that aren’t chock full of actual death pile death symbolism onto their stories. The unnatural appearance that drives the apprentice to kill his master in The Tell-Tale Heart, the way the girl’s head spins entirely around in The Exorcist, the deaths of the crew in Alien, all of these make it clear to us that the stakes are real.
- The unknown. Things we understand are not as scary as those we don’t. Consider the contrast between Alien and Aliens. At first Ripley and company didn’t know what a xenomorph was, what would work against them and what wouldn’t. When Ripley killed the alien and escaped only to face xenomorphs again in a new context the xenomorphs are not presented in the same way as before. While Aliens is certainly a thriller it’s not a horror story like Alien is because the weird biology and full shape of the aliens are known to Ripley and us, the mystery that’s half the horror is gone. This is why so many horror stories have supernatural monsters in them – these creatures can operate by their own rules, rules the audience won’t know until the story tells them, keeping us jumping as we try and figure out what is going to happen next.
What are the weaknesses of the horror genre? The biggest weakness of horror is that it’s grown very trope reliant and characters often make decisions purely because they serve the plot. Going places alone, being dismissive of supernatural forces that have proven their potency and malevolence, these are things that no person with even a passing knowledge of pop culture would do but horror story characters routinely indulge in. This can leave the audience very frustrated with the story and is one of the primary reasons I can’t stand the genre most of the time.
Another weakness is the need to provide the unknown. It’s very easy to wind up with contradictory events that are never explained or previous things known about what characters are facing getting undone just to provide new “mystery” about what’s happening. This is a particular problem in long running horror franchises.
Finally the threat of death hanging over every character means many writers never bother to develop the characters who are dying so their deaths can wind up feeling meaningless and lacking impact. This also makes it easy to pick out who’s going to live just by looking for the well developed character or two. Kind of undercuts the suspense which, in turn, is half of horror.
What are the strengths of the horror genre? As said in the opening, the thrill of something scary happening to someone who’s safe is very powerful. Poe’s horrific stories also provided a glimpse into the worst side of humanity from a place of safety, a benefit I’ve advocated for previously.
Good horror is also a great place to find good examples of narrative tension, story pacing and great villain ascendancies.
Personally I don’t plan on tackling horror in any of my writing and I’ve no desire to dig through the pulpy backlog of “classic” horror. But I’ve read Poe and I do know two things. The best horror has a razor sharp understanding of human nature and refines every step of its tales with the single minded focus of the master craftsman. If those are skills you need examples of you can find them elsewhere but I wouldn’t fault you for seeking them in the horror genre either.