WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres in a continuously changing landscape. Remember, opinions mentioned here are just that, opinions. I’m no expert, but I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel there is a lot I can pass on to my fellow writers. Lively discussion is highly encouraged.
This months column is by Michael Paul Gonzalez, editor of Thundadome: The Writers Collective. Here, Michael uses some popular film examples to illustrate what makes a story scary. What exactly makes us feel fear? It makes sense that when we pick up a Horror novel, or purchase that ticket to go see that new creepy movie at the theater of our choice, that the product actually deliver the goods…right? We know this, yet so many writers and directors fail, and even less actually try.
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be defeated.” – GK Chesterton
My problem with the genre of horror in most of today’s films is that there aren’t any dragons anymore. The notions of fear and suspense have been supplanted by the easy tactics of shock and disgust. When you think of well-constructed horror films (for me, these include Saw, Se7en, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project) the element that is most at work is suspense. It’s not the horrific act, but the anticipation of the horrific act that causes the fear. The final moments of Paranormal Activity, those thundering footsteps coming up the stairs followed by the excruciating silence before Katie enters the bedroom, THAT is fear at work. The movie has worked hard for over an hour, layering moments so that this final act, this is where you’re forced to face your worst fears. Those horrible seconds of silence, all you can do is sit and try to keep your eyes open and wonder what’s on the other side of that entryway. Granted, the movie fails a bit according to the second half of that Chesterton quote – there’s no hint that evil can be contained or defeated. The film’s original ending certainly did this (it’s on YouTube somewhere), but the revised ending was pure Hollywood, leaving the door open for a sequel (or three).
I’m not saying that the bad guy has to have a glorious death scene, or even lose at all. What’s needed most is the knowledge that the protagonist has changed in some way for the better. Those crazy kids at Crystal Lake have learned about the dangers of promiscuity. Jigsaw’s plot has been foiled, even at great cost to the hero. Great endings are earned through deft writing and cinematography, attaching us to the protagonist, making us fear for her safety, and by extension ourselves (they’re the only thing stopping that monster from coming off the screen).
It seems that in most of the recent horror films, Hollywood’s mantra of “Bigger, Faster, Louder, More” is trumping any sense of plot, nuance, and craft. Those quiet scenes that come early in most horror films now just drive me nuts, because I know the only thing we’re being set up for is a giant, painfully loud, THX-enhanced music sting, most of the time with no relevance to what’s on the screen – Hey look, the inbred cousin popped up to wash someone’s car window! Movies like The Human Centipede (and it’s forthcoming, banned-in-the-UK sequel) don’t challenge us to anything more than a staring contest, a “how much can you take before you look away”. The few details that have been gleaned from the UK government’s explanation for the banning make the movie sound like more of the same cheap schlock (or, possibly – but highly unlikely – like the film may end up being an indictment of itself and all torture porn ilk).
I’m not saying there’s no room for the cheap summer slashers, the pop-culture killers, but I am saying that if the formula is going to be changed, upping the gross-out factor is taking the easy way out. Carnival rides like the Final Destination franchise, the Scream movies, those scarcely deserve the moniker “horror”. They’re supernatural suspense films at best, diversions that do little more than move from set piece to set piece. If you want the name “horror” you need to earn it. Give me those old John Carpenter vibes, that Tobe Hooper, seat-of-your pants realism, that moment in Se7en when the man in the massage parlor says “He put that thing on me! He made me wear it! He told me to fuck her, and… and I did! I fucked her! He had a gun in my mouth! The fucking gun was in my throat! FUCK! Oh, god, oh, god… please help me. Help me. Please help me.” David Fincher shows you nothing except the weapon of choice and the fear in the man’s eyes, and leaves the rest of the details to formulate in your mind. That’s where true horror resides.
Bob says: So many good points here. Fear is an emotion of anticipation, and anticipation of the unknown is what makes quality Horror stories scary. The bottom line is that scary products must deliver the goods to be successful. Marketing plays a lot into that, and as we all know it can help or hurt you in the process. Thanks for checking WriterDrome out, we’ll be back next month.
Michael Paul Gonzalez lives and writes in Los Angeles. He’s the editor at ThundaDome.com.