Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An Intro To Horror

Horror stories are scary. That's kind of their defining characteristic. Without horror, they can't really be called horror stories, can they?

It's kind of an obvious thing. So obvious that most people don't think about it, in fact. But a lot of horror fiction falls flat on its face because it doesn't seem to understand that. It isn't enough that your characters have to be put in scary situations. That's important, yeah, but it isn't enough. Frightening the characters isn't necessary to frighten the audience. It definitely helps, but it's not necessary.

That's why a lot of horror movies and horror stories fail. Let's take one of the most egregious offenders as an example for closer study: the Hostel series.

The Hostel films are extremely simple and formulaic. They're set up like this:
  1. The cast goes somewhere to get drunk and party
  2. The cast is kidnapped by an organization that gathers subjects for rich people to torture and murder
  3. The cast is tortured and murdered until one is left
  4. The final survivor "escapes" one way or another
That's about it. There are slight variations regarding the methods of escape, but none of them are particularly important to the story. The vast majority of the movies are dominated by part three, with the escapes tacked on at the end as an excuse to say that the movie has an actual plot rather than just being a series of loosely-connected scenes of torture porn.

Now, here's the thing: the Hostel movies are not scary.

Oh, they're squick-tastic, yes. They have several cringe-worthy moments, yes; the series is practically built on them. The idea of being captured and tortured before being murdered is a scary one, yes. But the movies themselves are not scary. At all. You don't want to look at the screen, sure, because you don't want to see what's going to Hapless Cast Member #3 next, but you aren't going to go home that night looking over your shoulder every step of the way.

In contrast, let's look at what I would consider to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time: John Carpenter's Halloween.

On paper, the formula for the movie is extremely reminiscent of Hostel:
  1. Psychotic killer escapes mental asylum
  2. The cast is stalked by said psycho in their homes
  3. The cast is killed off one-by-one until only a few are left
  4. The survivors drive the psychopath away
And yet Halloween will have you looking over your shoulder for days after seeing it. I know many people who refused to go home alone after seeing the movie. People were genuinely frightened by this movie in a way that Hostel just can't compare to. 

So what makes Halloween terrifying and Hostel merely cringe-worthy? The answer to that is extremely simple, really, but there are many different parts to it which have to be considered. So let's break it down.

POINT ONE: Halloween has a plot.

Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said that the plot outlines for the two movies look very similar? Yeah, that's because the plot outline for Halloween was... well, an outline, whereas the "outline" for Hostel wasn't so much an outline as it was "everything that happened in the movie". Hostel's "plot" is incredibly simplistic to the point of nonexistence.

A plot is, traditionally, structured in the form of a pyramid: rising action, climax, falling action. That's an incredibly simple view of it, of course. The three-act structure is another way of looking at it, and it is possible to have a plot which doesn't fall into any established category. But Hostel doesn't merely have a non-traditional plot. It almost lacks a plot entirely, existing only as a vehicle for scenes of graphic torture and mutilation. The only thing which might be considered to be part of any sort of plot is Paxton's escape and subsequent killing spree, which doesn't take place until the very end of the movie and is largely pointless, serving only to add a few more death scenes to the list.

Halloween, on the other hand, has a much more complex plot than implied in its outline. Doctor Loomis' involvement, for example, or the fact that Michael is stalking his sister in particular, or the implied supernatural abilities that Michael may or may not possess. There is a lot going on in Halloween beyond "psychopath killing random people".

In Hostel, there are a grand total of two notable events: Paxton and his friends being captured and Paxton escaping to go on his murder spree. One happens at the beginning of the movie, and the other happens at the very end. So little of note happens in this movie that there isn't any reason for the audience to care.

Lesson to take from this: you need an actual plot in order to frighten your audience. Otherwise, the audience has exactly zero reason to care what's going on.

POINT TWO: Halloween has likable characters.

This point is very simple, but something that a lot of horror writers don't seem to understand. You can't just throw a bunch of characters into a scary situation and expect the readers (or viewers) to feel anything other than apathy.

There is a huge difference between seeing Captain Dallas' death in Alien and seeing Josh die in Hostel. Josh has little to no developed personality or defining character traits. He is essentially a prop for one of the antagonists to poke sharp things into. The only emotion anyone in the audience will feel watching Josh die is "eww, that's nasty". 

In Alien, on the other hand, Dallas is set up as the lead. We see Dallas trying to lead his crew to safety in the midst of the xenomorph attack. When he dies, it genuinely surprises and frightens us, establishing an atmosphere which declares that we cannot trust our expectations in this movie, heightening the feeling of suspense. This makes the movie scarier. 

Or, going earlier, Psycho sets up Marion Crane as our lead up until the famous shower scene. That scene terrifies us because we weren't expecting her to die. Her death meant something more than "oh, that prop with a face has been removed from the movie".

Lesson to take from this: you have to develop your characters if you want your audience to have anything but the shallowest reaction to their death. Sure, Josh's death was gruesome. But did we actually care that Josh was dead, or just that having your Achilles tendon cut sounds painful? Josh's death doesn't scare us, because there isn't really a "Josh". There's a mannequin with the name "Josh" painted on it. Seeing a mannequin get tortured doesn't frighten us. It just squicks us out.

POINT THREE: Halloween has contrast.

This is something that I think is vital in pretty much any kind of art. Contrast keeps the audience engaged, makes them want to see more. A work with no contrast between its various parts is entirely uniform and therefore uninteresting. Dragonforce is an uninteresting band because its music is nothing but shouted lyrics and wailing guitars all the way through. "Save Me", by Queen, is a fantastic song because of the contrast between its slow and sedate verses and its raw, powerful chorus.

Horror fiction benefits from contrast more than any other genre, though, in my opinion. This is something that every horror writer really needs to understand. The scariest things are those which are contrasted against things which are not scary.

This is yet another failing of the Hostel series. Once the torture starts, that's all there is for the entire rest of the movie. There are so few scenes with anything other than people being brutally tortured that the audience ceases to care, if they did in the first place. It's horror overload.

One scene of torture might be particularly effective, but each one afterward has less and less of an impact, because we've already seen lots of torture and are becoming inured to it. If there are multiple scenes of torture, torture ceases to be something to be afraid of. Even in real life, the threat of torture is more effective at extracting information than the torture itself.

Having one scene of torture is fine, after serious build-up (or even as part of it); it can help to drive home the helplessness and genuine scariness of the situation. But an entire movie consisting of a series of torture scenes stops being scary, because we know exactly what's going to happen. There's no suspense. There's only squick. Squick might be hard to watch, but it isn't scary.

Lesson to be learned from this: suspense is more important than the scare. A single scare, even a relatively "tame" one, which has been built up properly is infinitely more frightening than a series of "technically" scary things. The Thing's initial transformation in The Thing was more frightening than the first torture scene in Hostel simply because John Carpenter understands how to set up his horror. Horror without suspense is just boring.

POINT FOUR: Halloween doesn't open the door.

This is the most important part of horror, and something that I think that every aspiring producer of horror fiction needs to understand. I can't take credit for the analogy I'm going to use to get it across, though. While I had this thought myself a long time before I read Stephen King's Danse Macabre, he says it much more simply and eloquently then I could.

Imagine that you are producing a monster movie. Your monster in this movie is a giant, one-hundred-foot-tall cockroach. Early on in the movie, the protagonists are trapped in a building with the bug outside. It's time for them to open the door and unveil the monster for the audience. It's time for the big scare. Everyone watching your movie will scream and faint at the sight of this horrendous beast -

- except that they don't. Instead, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Do you know the thought that's running through their heads? "Oh, well, that's not so bad. I was afraid it would be a thousand feet tall."

The lesson from this? Don't open the door.

How this applies to other types of horror may not be immediately obvious, so allow me to elaborate further. Always leave some element of mystery in your horror story. What the audience can come up with - or, rather, what they can't come up with - in the privacy of their own heads is always infinitely more frightening than what you can actually show in the story. However much we might like to think that we are just that awesome, we are not actually capable of writing down "cosmic truths" so horrific that the reader will literally go mad from the revelation. This is why Lovecraft only showed snippets of the Necronomicon's texts in his stories, and why he left the Outer Gods so vaguely-defined. The element of mystery means that they're genuinely ominous.

The understanding of this fact is Halloween's greatest strength. The lack of understanding of it is Hostel's greatest failing.

In Halloween, we never really get an explanation as to why or how Michael Myers does what he does. He's shown killing, without any mercy whatsoever, from a very young age. He's described as having "pure evil" behind his eyes by Doctor Loomis. He designates freakish strength, offscreen teleportation, superhuman durability, and absolute sociopathy - if, indeed, he possesses anything that can be called a personality at all.

What made him like this? We don't know. We never get an explanation. We never even get explicit confirmation that anything he does is actually supernatural. We don't know what he is, and that makes him a thousand times more terrifying than any normal human with a knife.

Hostel, on the other hand, tells us exactly what's going on. Rich dicks with a murder fetish. That's it. That's the entirety of the threat the characters are facing. And that could have been enough to base a plot around in another genre, but not in horror. It might have made for a good thriller or some decent suspense or an action movie. But "rich people being dicks" is not enough to scare someone.

That's not to say that all horror must necessarily include an element of the supernatural. But it does have to leave something unknown for a decent length of time to give the audience some suspense. Se7en has no supernatural elements, and yet it's an effective horror movie because we know almost nothing about John Doe except that he's crazy and kills using a seven deadly sins motif. The Silence of the Lambs is scary because Buffalo Bill is painted as barely human, and we don't know how or why he got that way or to what lengths he's willing to go. Lecter is even more terrifying, because he's shown to be something more than the normal killer but we never really get an explanation as to what's so different about him. And so on.

So, to sum up, I'll leave you with this well-known quote from H. P. Lovecraft. It's something that you should take to heart if you want to do anything involving horror.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."


  1. Ooh. This was nice. Very well thought out piece of opinion here. Since most of the movies you mentioned (Halloween, Psycho, Silence of the Lambs) are not exactly modern, are there any more recent horror movies that you have liked?

    1. I haven't seen too many modern horror movies other than Saw and Hostel, and I only saw those because I was basically forced to watch them. I will say that I really liked the original Saw, though I don't think it's the scariest movie I've ever seen (I like it more for its genuinely well-executed twist ending than for its horror elements).

      Probably the most recent horror film that I've both seen and liked is Pontypool, which was released in 2009. It's an extremely low-budget zombie movie - so low-budget, in fact, that we don't get to see most of what happens. Despite this, it manages to be incredibly disturbing and unsettling. The movie is about a group of radio producers who are doing their morning talk show when the apocalypse begins, and, instead of showing us what the zombies are doing - which would make this into just another zombie action flick - we get to hear the phone calls, police reports, and the like that people are making to the station. It also has a fairly original take on what caused the outbreak, though I won't spoil the secret for you. It gets a little outlandish at the end and stretches suspension of disbelief just a little with the aforementioned original take on the virus, but it's an extremely entertaining movie nonetheless, and its earlier parts have made it one of my favorite horror movies of all time.

  2. I'll agree with you on Saw not being scary. But that ending, that perfect song. It wasn't a very scary movie, but Saw was definitely a very fun movie for me. I just wish they had left it at three movies, and not gone any farther.

    The only movie that's actually scared me (and kind of followed all the rules you set above) is an indie film called Evil Things. It's basically Blair Witch with a twist, but it works so freaking well. The scares are all legitimate, even the jump scares, which normally make me hate horror movies. You never get a glimpse of the monster/bad guy, you just watch as he messes with the kids. It's a horrible premise, because ripping off Blair Witch isn't the best of plans, but it has such a great execution. Anyway, rambling. As far as I know, Evil Things won't be available for purchase until later this year, but you might want to look into it.