Thoughts On Horror!



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  • Thoughts On Horror!

    The Horror genre has always been of interest to me, but I never really put my booty to the leather of my desk chair and wrote something about it. Well, by some miracle, I managed to kick procrastination to the curb and actually get 'er done!

    Also, this one is dedicated to Veronique for the generous support!

    Veronique, thank you for being my SECOND patron on Patreon...This one is for you! Hope you like it!

    The Uncanny. One of the most powerful keys used to create truly great "I gotta go change my underwear now, thanks" caliber of horror! Let's get into it!


    Before I define what the Uncanny is, here's something that you MUST remember. Seriously, if you take anything away from this article, it's this:

    Horror is 100% about disempowerment and feeling fear in safe places.

    The goal of storytelling, regardless of genre, is to have your audience feel something. For horror, if you can create a story that makes your audience feel so uncomfortable that they question their sense of safety, then, in my opinion, you've succeeded as a writer.

    What is the Uncanny?

    Simply put, the Uncanny is anything that looks almost familiar, but not quite; and it triggers a feeling of discomfort in us. It's something that is out of place, something that we know shouldn't be there, but is there anyway. It's something that happens but we know shouldn't be happening.

    Masks are unnerving because of their static expressions. Our brains are used to match body language with its respective expression. If someone is happy, they smile and jump up and down/dance/arm-pump/etc...! With masks, we don't know what the person behind them actually intends. We can't see their face to discern if they want to harm us or not. It can be very uncomfortable. Clowns are creep for the same reason....

    ...freakin' clowns, bro.

    Okay, a quick note on...

    Pacing In Horror

    Like sex, it's all about the build-up/foreplay. Release, as most would mistakenly define it, is intense but momentary. In reality, release actually starts right at the build-up! That's how I want you to view your scawy, scawy story from now on!

    Try and have long moments of doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity in the telling; building tension in the quiet moments. While watching, we should be saying,

    Us: "Something is there, I know it. it behind the curtain? Under the bed? Will it fall from above?"

    Us: "AH! Goddamn it, Satan! Got me again!"

    Use this approach sparingly, though, because it can be desensitizing to your audience. They will eventually get used to it and expect it.

    Believe it or not, the audience will actually feel better/relieved after 'surviving' each brush with fear. Subconsciously, our reptilian brain knows this hasn't/won't kill(ed) us! That's why we laugh after every scare, thinking,

    "lol, I'm so dumb!"

    To avoid that, use Red Herrings to misdirect. As in, have moments where you slow down the pacing, turn the setting threatening (check SETTING) and then have it be...nothing. Literally, don't do a shitty jump-scare (check Jump-Scares Suck), just trick the audience. That way, they'll never be sure whether you're going to scare them or just pull their collective leg(s)!

    Jump-Scares Suck

    Let's quickly mention how jump-scares are designed.

    There are three parts to a jump-scare: Setup, False Alarm, and Boo!

    In a Jump-Scare Setup, we ask questions:

    Why is does this space suddenly feel dangerous? Am I safe here? Is something watching me? What's lurking in the darkness? What does it want to do to me? And, so on.

    In a Jump-Scare False Alarm, those questions are answered by an unoriginal high-pitched SCREECH and an almost always poor, startled ***** cat!

    False Alarms rely on misdirection (kitty) so that we lower our guard enough for...

    The Boo! moment. Here, we realize that we had cause to be scared all along, except, we fudged up and let our guard down.

    The reason why jump-scares suck is because they are, at this point in cinema, pretty overdone. We're kinda, sorta, pretty much desensitized to them.

    For most of us, all they do is startle us without expanding on the story or it's emotional content. We just jump because of the loud-ass SCHREEEEEEECH!

    But, there is a way to subvert it, fam! Check it!

    To breathe some life into these moments of tension, try replacing the False Alarm stage with your monster's Calling Card Sound Effect (read MONSTER) and place your monster in the scene.

    The Setup/buildup here can either be short, which will scare the bejesus outta your audience, or long, which will draaaawww out the tension, have us holding our breath and make us, in a great way, wish you'd just scare us already!

    Forgoing the traditional loud SCREECH with silence is also an incredibly effective alternative in most cases.

    If the tension in a scene has been established well and our Rooting Interest for the character exists, then the WHAM! (non)diegetic sound can be done away with.

    Subverting the jump-scare in that way means the audience will never feel in control, and they'll find it difficult to nail-down when you hit 'em with a deliciously terrifying moment!

    Alright, let's talk about the basic elements present in the many sub-genres of the Horror genre.


    First thing you need to realize: Horror comes from the relationship between monster and your protagonist. If you don't take extra care of that relationship, it's Bad News Bears, girls and boys.

    Now, let's talk about how to design your hero.

    Average Jo/anne:
    We have to identify with your protag. The best way to do that in horror is that they must be average, blue-collar, everyday people. They're not uniquely qualified to face off against the source of all evil or be particularly able to stop an army of zombies. They're just normal people placed in really, really shitty circumstances.

    The more capable your hero is, the more you drift away from horror and slip into action flick territory.

    'Do you even lift, bro?!':
    Your protag has to be weaker than your antagonist, that simple.

    That's why horror story heroes are usually kids, babysitters, writers and so on. They are by no means equipped, trained or prepared to take on their respective horrors.

    That being said, not all horror protagonists are built the same. Actually, the way you decide to end your story will dictate the type of hero that drives it!

    Types of Horror Heroes

    Your first flavor of hero is the Conqueror.

    This is the hero that actually manages to kick evil right in the kaboos and take back the night! S/he starts off weak and incompetent, and ends up a Judo-chopping, bubble-gum chewin', level 99 monster slayer.

    We feel empowered by the time this hero's story concludes, because, well, they just showed us that they'll be okay. That, even for a normal person like them, there's hope to defeating the worst evils out there. And, if they can do it, so can we.

    Typically, this type of hero, understandably, takes horror down a peg for us. Meaning, we're not that disturbed or terrified by the end of the film. Because the hero made the monster their b-word!

    The second flavor of hero is, you guessed it, the Fallen.

    This hero is the one that fights, struggles and bleeds, and yet, they ultimately fail.

    When watching a story with this kind of hero, we truly feel dis-empowered. Because, they fought, as we would've. They struggled, as we would've. They were resourceful, as we would've. They tried their best to survive, as we would've. But, despite everything they've done, they, and by extension us, were doomed from the start. The monster was just toying with us. Did we even stand a chance, or have an iota of power to begin with?

    This type of hero makes us realize how small we are in the larger scheme of things. How NOT in control we truly are. If you can write a story with this kind of hero, you're right where you're supposed to be as a write!

    The third type of hero is a very interesting one: the Ogre.

    This is the hero that we, as the story develops, realize is actually the true monster of the story!

    We are terrified of this hero for the very simple reason that, well, they are us! We connected with them, felt their fear, cared for what they cared about, and walked in their shoes this entire story only to realize that we are the monster in the dark. That we all have a dark, insidious nature in us, and that it can overtake us.

    We start to wonder: Do I have dark impulses? How easy is it for me to be a monster? Am I a monster?

    Writing a hero like this takes, hell, I'm not gonna sugar-coat it: It takes a LOT of craft and understanding of the human psyche! Not impossible, by any means, just tricky to pull off! But don't let that stop ya! (Seriously, don't let it!)

    Okay, so now that we know what the Uncanny is and how to tend to your protag, let's discuss the world in which to put your poor, unsuspecting hero!


    Like I've mentioned before:

    Horror is 100% about disempowerment and feeling fear in safe places.

    So, the trick to crafting a truly sinister setting is turning the safe and mundane places into terrifying ones.

    To do that, you have to recognize that this world your placing us/your hero into must:

    Make us feel vulnerable in all the worst ways, and,

    Make us feel like we're really not supposed to be here.

    That's your aim whenever you brainstorm your horror setting, always. So let's talk about how to actually do that in a practical sense.

    Uncanny-fy it!

    Remember the definition of Uncanny, class?

    Something that almost looks familiar.

    So, in terms of setting, start off by building your world to look as normal as possible, then give it a twisted face-lift.

    Let's say your story is taking place in a small town with a local supermarket, barbershop, bar, etc... Seems like a chill place to live.

    But, what if you suddenly realize that the clocks in this town spin counterclockwise?

    What if it has doors that just don't lead anywhere?

    When the people in town get hurt, they simply apologize, pick up their severed limbs and hop away with a smile.

    The birds above never seem to make noise when you look at them, but, when you walk away, you can swear you hear them whisper your name.

    Barren trees that are there one day seem to shift spots the next.

    You get the idea. Root your world in our world, then push it that extra creepy step further!

    Sense Control!

    Humans rely heavily on our sense of sight; we always have. It's why we're all, at some point or another, are or continue to be afraid of the dark. Not being able to see quite literally threatens our sense survival. Which, incidentally, makes it a great quality for a horror setting to have!

    Design it so that your characters' visibility is limited, even non-existent, in this world. (Lights Out - short film) It turns us helpless, defenseless; because, despite knowing that there is something out there, we can't see it coming, and the tension from that is just as unbearable as the characters' slap-stick death scene!

    Manipulating our hearing is also key.

    Imagine this:

    You're in the middle of the street by your house. It's late, no one's around, and you're just taking your puppy out to pee for the 467th time today. Then, you realize how quiet it is.

    Your puppy puckers its ears up, staring into the dark. You look where it's looking. You don't see anything...but, you realize you hear something. It's faint, but it seems to not only be getting closer, but it's all around you now.

    "Eff-this hard!," you say as you football-carry your puppy and run back into the house!

    You look out of your window to see what sort of hellspawn almost ended your life, only to realize that it was just some old homeless dude pushing his house/cart.

    As the saying goes, "the ear is easier to trick than the eye." So, by giving us an Uncanny sound, you not only signal danger, but you also let us, the audience, fill in that danger ourselves. In short, we freak ourselves out with our imagination!

    Side-note: That totally didn't happen to me and I totally was not scared. #TrueStoryBro

    Having a setting that limits your characters' movements is also ideal.

    We experience the world, dare I say, explore it, through our bodies. Seems obvious, but, if our bodies' ability to move freely is constricted, we freak out!

    Ever been trapped in an elevator?

    Locked in a closet?

    Been at the bottom of dog-pile?

    Situations where we experience Cleithrophobia trigger a not-so-comfortable response in our brain and, if the situation is not resolved, we panic.

    So place your characters in places where they feel/are literally stuck, don't have many paths of escape, and where their movements are extremely limited.

    Bro-tip: Watch The Descent (2005).

    Another way to limit your characters' movements, even if they can physically move, is by making the outside environment itself hostile.

    For example: space.

    It's cold, empty, the definition of isolation; and, the only thing standing between it and your hero are a few feet of space-station metal. Anything happens to that fragile shell and your hero is done for! Where else would they go? They are literally surrounded by death!

    Here are a couple more examples of horror settings that you might recognize:

    A cabin in the woods:
    Isolated and remote? Check.

    The woods around it is a hostile environment? Check.

    Our senses and movement can/will be limited in it?

    You bet your blonde, fumbling-through-the-woods kester they will!

    Arctic station:
    Isolated and remote?

    No...Wait, I mean, yes! XD

    The barren, frozen tundra around it is a hostile environment?

    Say it with me, "tun-dra!"

    Our sense and movement can/will be limited?

    ...frozen TUN-DRA!

    Special Settings

    Sorry, everyone, it won't let me post past the character limit!


    Thanks, everyone!

    P.S. If you're feeling up to it, I'd love some feedback! Let's get a good conversation going, girls and boys!

  • #2
    Re: Thoughts On Horror!


    Sigmund Freud already wrote much about this in “Das Unheimliche”.


    • #3
      Re: Thoughts On Horror!

      I'm guessing English isn't your first language.

      Horror is 100% about disempowerment and feeling fear in safe places.
      Many horror films - some of the all-time classics - prove otherwise.


      • #4
        Re: Thoughts On Horror!

        Nearly 2,500 words about horror and you didn't mention "suspense" or "dread"?
        "I just couldn't live in a world without me."


        • #5
          Re: Thoughts On Horror!

          Well, I enjoyed the read.