Writing Horror

So, there’s this movie coming out later this year called Devil, you might have heard of it.

Oh M. Night… we know you can do better.  When did you become Hollywood’s punchline?  Still, at least we can learn how to do horror stories by the movie’s violation of many of the fundamentals (I say this without even seeing the movie – the trailer and synopsis are that bad).  Like Uwe Boll, M. Night violates rules so fundamental, we didn’t even think about them until they’re broken.

  1. Easy solutions cannot be present.
    This one should be obvious: whatever problem the victims in the movie are encountering, there can’t be easy solutions to it that the audience can see.  5 people stuck on an elevator?  Why can’t they just climb out?  We’ve see John McClane do it.  Now there are several methods towards solving this – the dead cell phone, stranded in the middle of nowhere, mystical forces, etc – but when you go about solving this, you have to make sure that…

    • Corollary: Preventing easy solutions should not be increasingly contrived.
      If you have a situation with a hundred easy solutions, don’t bother using it.  1 or 2 can be worked around without breaking the audiences’ suspension of disbelief but when you start getting around a baker’s dozen, they’ll start wondering why God Himself just doesn’t smite the victims already.  A dead cell phone in the middle of nowhere while the killer hunts you is a problem.  A dead cell phone in the middle of New York while the killer hunts you is contrivance and silly.  However, there is one way you can get around a group of easy solutions, and that’s by having the victims in the story not realize they are in a horror story.  Then, once it dawns on them that they are screwed, you can have a lot of solutions expire, pass, or whatever (indeed, watching the characters pass up solutions while we know they shouldn’t can add to the terror of the audience).
  2. Hope HAS to be present.
    If the victims in the story have no hope of escape or ANY solution, then it’s not a horror film, it’s just schadenfreude.  The audience is not going to be scared or unnerved at all.  This doesn’t mean that any of the victims in your story have to survive, but until the end, they must have a chance of surviving (or at least, they and the audience must believe they do).  The most common form of this is the ticking clock.  At X point in the future, the storm will pass, rescuers will come, the genie has to go back into the bottle, whatever.  Keep in mind that your treatment of rule 1 will impact rule 2 – thus the corollary above: if you keep having easy solutions blow up/expire in the face of the victims, then the audience won’t trust you when you say that if the victims just do ___ or last until X:00 PM all will be well.  Devil violates this by – well – having the devil!  Sure it might be a devil instead of Lucifer himself, but the point is: what are the victims supposed to do?  Recite latin and throw prayer beads at whoever winces?  Shoot him with the ColtSummon Santa Claus?

    • Corollary: Contrived hope isn’t OR Hope must be easy to understand/instinctive.
      I know some out there probably brought up some Japanese horror films – like The Ring – but you’ve misunderstood.  While the final solution to the horror might be difficult/contrived/whatever, hope itself cannot be.  If your story works with the horror of the unknown, the hope of the victims/audience is obvious: knowledge – by learning or understanding what we are dealing with, it might be overcome/defeated.  The ten little murder victims trope works well with this in that generally, a group of people can overpower/take out 1-2 killers, if they can just figure out who it is…  However, making the victims’ solution very difficult or completely arbitrary will shove the audience out of the story – they are seeing the storyteller’s hand too much to be invested.  Again, rule 1 will impact this.  If you have to establish a bunch of backstory/rules on why such and such solutions won’t work but this solution will work, you’re trying too hard.
  3. The audience has to care.
    The final rule that so many horror films forget: the audience has to care about the victims.  But then, that’s just kind of true about stories in general.  Get the audience caring about the characters involved and what’s happening to them then you’ll have a scary movie.

Pretty much if you can get those rules down, everything else should fall into place.  Can you think of any I’ve forgotten?

Update: How could I forget… Furious D did something along these lines before.

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