As writers, which successful elements from other horror narratives can we recognise and incorporate into our own works of fiction?
The theme of horror that I’ve covered over the past couple of articles continues, mainly because I’m neck deep in a young adult manuscript which features a couple of paranormal sequences. As ‘research’, I’ve been flicking through some selections from the spookier end of the DVD cabinet.
After watching and eventually thoroughly enjoying The Cabin in the Woods I wondered: what held my attention through this movie that so many other horror movies fail to deliver on? Why did Wolf Creek with its debut director and tiny budget leave me thinking for days, compared to the American remake of Shutter, which I forgot about even before I finished watching?
Most of these are fairly old, but let’s issue a spoiler alert anyway.
#1 Horror needs strong, intelligent, motivated characters
The Thing (1982)
Ignoring the absence of female characters in The Thing (which is probably more of a reflection of John Carpenter’s desire to stick to the source material, John W. Campbell, Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There – a time when society permitted few women to travel to Antartica – than more exotic readings of the text), the movie is populated by headstrong characters who seem to act with considered intent based on genuine forethought. It’s fitting that the silly mistakes, like Bennings lingering with the not-dead ‘body’ of a Thing and Nauls going for a late wander in its lair, are committed either before the characters are aware of the true danger posed by the antagonist, or later, after they have been left awake for days on end in an intensely paranoid setting.
While slasher movies subvert the expectation that characters should act in their own best interests, this cavalier attitude to horror film OH&S has bled across to a much wider array of horror narratives, with an endless parade wandering where Hells Angels fear to tread. Obviously, characters have to confront the source of the horror; Jaws wouldn’t be much fun of everyone stayed on the beach. Instead, the characters in Jaws are experienced specialists who believe they have the skillset required to take down a big shark, and they are so very nearly wrong. Intelligent protagonists mean that the antagonist will need an almost equal cunning. Through this process, both hero and villain grow stronger in the minds of the audience.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Yes, it’s mostly a thriller, but there are enough elements of horror there for the purposes of appropriation. There is a reason why Hannibal Lecter is has perennial place on the ‘top villain of all time’ lists, and it’s not because of his whole animal philosophy of cannibalism. His combination of urbane genius and vicious cunning make him a powerful, unique, almost magnetic antagonist; that such a creature would even joust with the inexperienced Agent Starling leaves us wondering at the depths of her own hidden resources, which are revealed to us in time.
#2 Sometimes, people are the worst monsters
This trope is already in widespread use in a variety of ways, from serial killers (the aforementioned Hannibal) to murderous dictators and the brainwashed fanatics who follow them (The Killing Fields, and if you think the movie doesn’t quite fit into the genre of horror, then read the book). Sometimes, despite our ‘best’ intentions, humans just mess things up because vices such as greed (most of the Alien franchise).
However, this is not the trope you are looking for *waves hand*. Rather, it’s the way that people respond in the face of catastrophe and evil. In 28 Days Later, minor character Mark is bitten by an infected attacker and, despite his desperate pleading, is immediately hacked to pieces by the machete-toting Selena. And just after we’d got to like him, too. It’s a moment of real horror for the audience, who do not yet understand the speed with which the Rage virus will turn him from man to monster. It makes us immediately reassess her character, and she’s one of the good guys. Later, we meet a collection of army deserters who are the real monstrosities – killing and raping in the power vacuum left by the total collapse of the United Kingdom.
There is a line where the immediate rule of society begins to decay during disaster, and that line may be closer than a lot of us believe. Threads, produced at a time when many reasonable people believed strategic nuclear war to be inevitable, details a full scale attack via various residents of Sheffield. Shot in a particularly Brutalist documentary style, we watch as industrialised England collapses to dystopic agrarianism, made all the more powerful because of a complete absence of grandstanding or explanation by the characters involved.
It’s left up to the audience to rationalise the characters’ motivations, which places us uncomfortably close to their positions: we become the fit who abandon the injured and dying, the government planner withholding food from the starving to force them to work, and, in a gutting finale, the illiterate and almost bestial teenage rapist who takes what he wants because he knows no better.
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. The true horror of writing retreats is exposed when a group of scribblers are locked up in an abandoned theatre for three months to create a masterwork. Someone gets coffee granules in the sugar jar! Just kidding, they all go mad and kill loads of people.
Proceed to ‘Five things I learned from my favourite horror films, part 2’, or return to Re: writing.
What are your favourite horror films, books and narratives, and why are they so enjoyable? Is it the characters, monsters, setting, pace, or something else?