Five things I learned from my favourite horror films, part 2

 
 
As writers, which successful elements from other horror narratives can we recognise and incorporate into our own works of fiction? (Continued from Part 1.)
 
Most of these are fairly old, but let’s issue a spoiler alert anyway.

#3 The setting can be as important as any character

 

Killer Horizon (2008), recut from Event Horizon (1997)

Deep space is frightening to the human psyche in the same way that the deep ocean is frightening, except that it’s infinite and wants to kill you in so many more interesting and spectacular ways. In Event Horizon, a rescue crew travels to the outer reaches of the solar system to survey the eponymous and long-derelict spacecraft, which looks as though it was designed by Tomás de Torquemada at a point when he was afflicted with a particularly nasty case of the gout. They are vulnerable and alone, at least 56 days from additional help. Oh, did I mention that the ship may or may not be an unstable portal to a dimension of endless pain and suffering?

Killer Horizon
Captain’s log, stardate 1/23/2040: We’re boned

In four of the five movies mentioned here, the protagonists are stranded and cannot expect rescue. The settings add a layer of despair to their predicament, or intensify the trials that they must overcome, because they are far removed from their ordinary world. This is not to say that horror can not occur in the ordinary world (many Asian horror movies, such as Ringu, Shutter and The Eye, do a magnificent job of this), but rather that it must be more convincingly written.
 
Instead of being physically trapped with the source of the horror, characters need to be tied to it in a realistic manner via circumstance: George Lutz (The Amityville Horror, and yes, I’m treating this as a work of fiction) forces his family to stay in their haunted house because they can’t afford to abandon it. He is then convinced he can drive out the spirits that are tormenting his family. Finally, he stays because the spirits begin to affect his sanity.
 
(If you have watched Event Horizon, you may wonder why it is among my favourite horrors. Certainly, in the original movie the gripping premise, strong design and cracking ensemble cast are wasted by a third act so hamfisted that people stopped accepting high fives from director Paul W.S. Anderson on the grounds that it made their fingers smell like bacon. Killer Horizon is a stunning fan edit of the original which slices 16 of the weakest minutes from the running time, splices in some additional footage and leaves the movie with the truly brutal ending it deserves.
 
Fan film edits are a fascinating offshoot of a society which suddenly finds itself with the many of the tools of professional creative production at its disposal, where hobbyists can take professional product and improve on it (in some cases, vastly). See also Terminator: The Coming Storm, which remixes the extremely average third instalment of the series into something approaching the first two films.)
 

Example

The Terror by Dan Simmons. In this hist-horrorical account, 126 men on an ill-fated exploratory voyage are stranded in the Arctic until the unrelenting conditions begin to drive them to acts of mutiny and violence, while some huge thing which is shielded by the endless blizzards pops out occasionally to grab a tasty treat.

#4 Anticipation is almost always better than ascertainment


 

Lake Mungo (2008)

The moment you reveal the source of your horror, people will consciously/ subconsciously begin to probe it for weaknesses. (It is a well known fact that Daleks could not conquer planets with stairs until 2005, when writers were forced to respond by allowing them to fly.) This is the way that human nature works; we see something potentially more powerful and frightening than us, and we immediately want to know if and how we can defeat it.
 
This has led to the maxim ‘never show the monster’. If the audience can only see it for fleeting moments, they will not understand the true extent of its strengths and weaknesses, and it will loom larger in their minds. The low budget, haunted house fauxumentary Lake Mungo doles out the terror in ominous and intensely unsettling spoonfuls, at least until teenager Alice Palmer has to confront it face-first in the Outback desert. What is she and her family facing? What can it do to them? We never fully understand this until the closing credits.

Lake Mungo
Instagram’s three days drowned filter, coming soon to a Facebook feed near you

Of course, all rules are meant to be broken and sometimes, you have to show quite a bit of the monster early on, especially in written narratives. In that case, when the audience can’t anticipate the form, let them anticipate the what the horror is capable of.
 
Even though the form of The Thing has to be revealed in the first act, this is cleverly subverted by the fact that (1) it can assume a presumably endless variety of shapes, (2) the audience is not exactly sure how or why it does this and (3) its favourite form is almost perfect facsimiles of the human characters. If you let your audience know everything about the horror, they will work out a way to defeat it long before your characters do.
 

Example

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. In what is probably the haunted house novel archetype, an unreliable narrator is terrorised by something the reader is only allowed glimpses of. Or is she?

#5 Horror can be wildly inventive

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

In an almost inverse of Event Horizon, The Cabin in the Woods is a clever but fairly ho-hum journey until the final act, in which dozens of monsters inspired by classic horror narratives are simultaneously released from captivity and allowed to run amok through the scientific facility holding them. Sure, we’ve seen the paranormal as an industry (Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice and Monsters, Inc.), characters controlled by carefully manipulated ‘natural’ environments (The Truman Show), comedic metacommentary on horror tropes (Scream, Shaun of the Dead), social commentary (every Romero film, ever) and movies with structurally dissimilar acts (Red State). It’s just that, thrown together in a screaming, manic jumble like this, at that point the film seems incredibly fresh, in concept if not entirely in execution.

The Cabin in the Woods
Upside-down Marilyn Manson head is the worst of all the monsters

Granted, there is a feeling that most horror narratives run to a pretty similar beat: (1) the horror appears and displays its powers; (2) we meet the protagonists; (3) they gradually get picked off while they probe the horror for weaknesses and (4a) they just defeat the horror, or (4b) they think they have defeated the horror, but they are, in turn, defeated by it at the last minute. There is also a feeling that every monster has been done before.
 
The devil is, of course, in the details. Give people characters they care about, who react appropriately, and put them in a setting where they have to rely on their own inventiveness to deal with a monster they don’t fully understand, and most of the audience will enjoy the ride rather than bother with the structure beneath. Similarly, monsters can feature an almost endless variation. Zombies have been fast and slow, alive and dead, cunning and stupid, funny and horrifying, and objects of hatred and love. The decade-long resurgence of zombie narratives have seen them flogged like the proverbial dead horse. (Now there’s a thought – zombie thoroughbreds … racing on a dead track, of course, of course.) And I guarantee that someone in the next few years will come up with a new adaptation which will make them seem like the freshest monsters out there.
 

Example

Selected works by H.P. Lovecraft. The Cthulu mythos, obviously decades ahead of its time, has proved so mindblowingly mindblowing that it has influenced countless subsequent horror narratives across multiple modes. The video for DyE’s ‘Fantasy’, which blends French house and Japanese anime with a Lovecraftian twist, is one of the latest examples of this influence.

Proceed to ‘Six things that terrify me as an adult, part 1’, or return to Re: writing.
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?

Rhys About Rhys

Teacher, writer, editor, cook: a bit like that nursery rhyme, really.
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Comments

  1. Enjoying the posts, Rhys. One of my enduring favourites is the ‘beast with a human mind’, which is normally manifested as werewolves. Now so many books and films feature werewolves who can transform on a dime and retain their human preferences for not eating people, their appeal for me is a bit reduced but they still have some scares left in them.
    I think it comes down to the fact that humans, at a basic level, have only one advantage over large, dangerous animals and that is our understanding of their behaviour. We can learn and adjust our reactions far more quickly than they can. But a werewolf does nearly everything differently from other large predators – hypothetically, they’re as smart and creative as we are. Granted, lots of werewolves ended up becoming stupider the longer they stayed in their furry form, and that plus the silver bullets made them easier to knock off than vampires, but the situation of humans fleeing giant carnivores in the night is pretty primal. Now I think of it, that underpins a whole lot of movies under the horror banner.

    The other aspect that is not focused on as much now is the more insidious ‘neighbour by day, killer by night’. I guess it’s been done to death in so many films that it’s harder to make it fresh and interesting but I still like it. In ‘Ginger Snaps’, lycanthropy is mistaken for female puberty (personally, I think it makes for sense for women to be werewolves than men!), in ‘Wolfen’ it stands in for racial difference (sort of. Same with Twilight, I guess), and in most teen films it stands in for sex. Serial killers, rapists, cannibals – they all look normal when you meet them in their daily routine. That really ties in to your point number 2, of course. Except at the end of werewolf flicks, everyone sadly shakes their heads and says ‘Poor Joe. He didn’t really WANT to eat his ex-wife, neighbours and Alsatian. That was the wolf talking.’ But was it?

    • I like those last couple of sentences, especially in light of the essay on sociopaths and the society they blend into by M.E. Thomas doing the rounds on social media.* (Such a blatantly candid read that I’m 75% expecting it to be some sort of elaborate prank.)

      You’re into werewolf flicks, so you’ll have to ignore my ignorance, but I remember saying to someone that vampires and zombies had been so played out that it was amazing that Hollywood wasn’t latching onto werewolves in a serious way. Aside from bit roles in the Underworld franchise and, of course, Dog Soldiers, I struggled to think of any prominent werewolf films of the last decade.

      * Coincidental irony

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