The Beginner’s Guide to Horror (October Special #2)

While Horror may not be the most difficult genre to write in, it’s still in the top 5. Horror is extremely difficult because inducing fear takes different methods for different people. For some, all that’s necessary is darkness and jump scares. Others need unnerving atmosphere, excellent technical elements, and disturbing concepts. The latter is particularly difficult, so that’s what I’ll try to teach.

First off, the atmosphere. Good Horror lives and dies by its atmosphere, so getting it right is absolutely essential. First off, the visual tone for the likes of movies and illustrated books. Darkness is extensively common in Horror media, for an obvious reason: Darkness contains the unknown, and anything could be lurking in it. However, there’s a very fine line between eerie shadows that can obscure a monster and just filling the frame with so much darkness that the audience can’t tell what is going on. In many third-rate Horror productions, the entire ordeal will be so dark that it’s almost impossible to follow the events that are occurring. This is often used to disguise cheap effects or otherwise hide less desirable details, but it’s a distinct misfire. An example of how to mask cheap effects properly can be found in the original Alien. Due to Alien releasing in the 1970’s, special effects were of distinctly low quality, and the alien was portrayed by a man in a rubber suit. To mask that, Ridley Scott simply lessened the screen time of the alien, and rarely if ever showed the entirety of it. Mostly the audience would see an arm, a tail, maybe the head. Indeed, arguably the most iconic scene in Alien is when Dallas is in the air ducts, and gets ambushed by the Xenomorph. He turns, we get an image of the head and one arm, and then cuts. I cannot stress this enough: If you aren’t confident in your effects, mask them by showing the monster less, and not by filling the frame with darkness. Doing the latter does nothing but annoy the audience. This all ties into a much bigger problem with modern Horror: overexposure to the object meant to cause fear. Familiarity breeds contempt, so overexposing an audience to your monster will do nothing but annoy them.

Next off, the premise. Horror has hundreds of different potential premises available, divided into over a dozen sub-genres. There’s supernatural, which is further divided into several categories including ghosts, zombies, demons, vampires, or other supernatural creatures, as well as animals, sadists, cults, insane people, aliens, and many more besides. Of these, there are a few genres that work better with certain formulas than others. For instance, Horror focused around aliens or supernatural entities have a very common formula: show hints of monster early on, make allusions to how dangerous it is, notable reveal later in production. For Horror focused around insane people, it’s better to show the villain more, but keep their insanity subtle for a while. Subtlety is key to Horror, and a lack of it WILL kill a horror story immediately. When focusing on a lunatic as a premise, the motive is also necessary. Sure, a story can just say a character was born with their condition and continue from there, but it works much better if the character is given a backstory (and a tragic and believable one at that) that adequately explains the character’s motivations and psyche. In the realm of Horror, nothing does this better than Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni. Higurashi is a very interesting case, in that I refuse to label it as a “real” Horror, if only because that misses part of the point. I’ll get around to explaining that in detail later, but the necessary information for this point is that absolutely everyone in Higurashi has some kind of unfortunate backstory that explains the motivation behind every action they take, and gives full clarification as to their outlook on life, as well as what the others mean to them. In this case, I’ll be focusing on the backstories of Shion Sonozaki and **** ******, whose backstories result in multiple murders and the unfortunate events of the series. The story of Shion is revealed in the fifth story arc, known as “Eye Opening”. It’s revealed that Shion was shunned by her family for her whole life due to her being the younger twin. After escaping her school, she hides out by disguising herself as her sister. It’s there that she meets Satoshi, who we already know disappeared shortly after this event occurs. It then spends a while developing the relationship between them, and proceeds to throw a wrench into the mix. Due to multiple reasons, Satoshi ***** his ****, which sets the police to suspect him. To cover his “alibi”, Shion is forced to reveal her true identity, which results in her family catching her. She’s forced to tear her ********** out in order to take responsibility for the events of the previous few weeks. Shortly after, Satoshi disappears, which becomes the catalyst of the killing spree that follows. A year later, and Shion’s memories of Satoshi are re-ignited by a seemingly minor incident, and thus the bloodbath begins. I’m being purposefully vague for the purpose of not giving away the emotional gut punches that occur during Eye Opening. As for ****, her backstory isn’t revealed until the very last book, but it’s perfectly hard enough to justify her role as the arch-villain of the series. When she was a young child, her parents died in a train accident (with her father coughing blood into her face), thus sending her to an institution. This institution is perhaps the cruelest orphanage in any form of media, and she goes through hell on earth there for a long time. Then she gets in contact with ****** ******, who takes her away from all that. She then learns of his dream to prove the existence of ***** *********, which gets scorned by the entire scientific community. After he dies, she dedicates her entire life to fulfilling that dream by any means necessary. Through both these backstories, their motivations for their horrific deeds are explained, and honestly they’re at least sympathetic, if not relatable. Obviously this is just an example, but it’s a paragon of good storytelling that applies perfectly to Horror stories. Think of Horror like Mystery: “Whodunnit?” and “Howdunnit?” aren’t enough. There must be a “Whydunnit?”, or the story will never live up to its full potential.

Next is the design of the villain. When the perpetrator is a human, there’s a list of annoying clichés that any aspiring writer ought to avoid. First off, chainsaws. Chainsaws were honestly never scary, and they have a few characteristics that make them inherently less threatening than other melee weapons, such as the amount of noise they generate. Their rampant overuse has just made them boring. Next, masks. Unless your story is also a mystery, there’s no reason for a perpetrator to wear a mask. If it’s not essential to your story, remove it. Finally, I must stress the value of making a villain understandable at the very least. If you can do that, your villain will be more memorable, and thus your story more appealing to an audience. Horror is a very niche market, so you have higher standards to meet if you want to impress them. Using clichés heavy-handedly is the single fastest way to alienate that audience.

Even though they tend to die, protagonists are essential in Horror, just like every other genre. The fastest way a Horror story kills itself is when it makes the protagonist an unfathomable idiot. If that happens, the audience loses sympathy for the protagonist, and thus loses investment in the story as a whole. Keep your protagonist’s intelligence level at, or perhaps slightly above, that of the average viewer.

Finally, I’ll talk about the scares themselves. In the modern day, the hack Horror writer relies on the same tired formula: everything goes quiet, then suddenly loud noise and jump scare. This formula is so incredibly overdone that using it is absolutely dreadful by now. Horror, by its very nature, is slow in pace. Early on, you need to establish your characters and setting, then hint at the events that are about to happen. After that, begin hinting as to something being unusual, and include evidence of whatever the object meant to cause fear is. Once you’re done with that, slow it down. Feed in new evidence slowly, and ensure that they’re distinctly connected in order to maintain audience intrigue. That’s not to say you can’t include a jump scare every once in a while, but it’s essential to include proper buildup. Instead of draining all sound, keep the sound playing the whole time. Don’t use a loud sound cue unless the situation specifically demands it. And finally, don’t put in false scares. All that does is weaken the element of fear for the audience. Last of all is the visuals and sound design. Aesthetic in a Horror production is very difficult, as it’s a balance between realistic and unrealistic. Beauty doesn’t create fear. Ugliness creates fear. However, don’t think that means you can safely operate on a micro-budget. It’s a remarkably difficult task to create something ugly enough to be alien to a viewer, yet recognizable enough that they understand what it is. The eldritch faces of When They Cry come to mind in particular, where the character is still recognizable as a human, but their expression has become horrifyingly distorted in ways a normal human face simply doesn’t. With that out of the way, we end on the sound design. Horror requires skilled actors every bit as much as other genres, as they need to sell the notion of their reactions to the situation being genuine. Use of high-profile actors isn’t a particularly worthwhile idea, since they’re so recognizable that the audience doesn’t take them as seriously. Rather, find an actor who really fits the role, and can brilliantly pull off everything expected of them. Horror often involves extremely demanding roles, such as screaming in pain while making a realistic face, crying and pleading in terror, or otherwise showing distinct fear involving the situation. Music is a challenging one as well. Too often, a Horror production uses nothing but high strings and slams on piano keys. Like much of the genre, the music should be slower paced and quieter. Good instrument choices are the deeper strings, the pipe organ, drums, and the deeper notes on a piano.

When writing a Horror story in print, a major decision revolves around the style of narration. Who gets to be the narrator, the culprit, a victim, or a third party? Each has its own set of rules and drawbacks. If the narrator is the culprit, the issue of how they narrate the story comes into question. Are they confessing to authorities, are they writing it in a journal, are they just recounting it for reason x? In these instances, the culprit needs to know the victims, because that’s how the victims themselves will get any character development. If the victim narrates, the issue of whether or not they survive dictates what frame the story takes. So, if they end up dying, the story makes no sense in past-tense. If the narrator is a third party, the obvious choice is to make it an investigator. In this instance, the story needs to be constructed as though the clues were discovered by a professional investigator. This latter is extremely rare, for the reason that there’s no room for third parties in a traditional Horror story.

There you have it, the basic elements of a Horror story. This one is a bit less extensive than the other s, but it should be enough to avoid the most terrible mistakes made by Horror creators.


Author: WhenSomethingCriesAgain

Several years ago, I found myself positively brimming with opinions and insight, with no way to express them, so I began writing, and found that I liked it. I decided to start a page to keep records of my writing, and hopefully convince a few people to agree with my ideas.

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