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

Horror isn’t a beginner’s genre in any way, shape or form. While not quite as difficult as Romance or Tragedy, making a good Horror requires a mastery of craft and an understanding of people in general, because to truly scare someone, you need to understand the types of things the human mind is frightened by, and then capitalize on those basics in more and more creative and unfamiliar ways. So this time, I’m going to do something a little different, because Horror is the most flexible and ever-changing genre of them all. Rather than teaching specific rules and approaches (for the most part), I will explain the logic behind core aspects of Horror, and you’ll need to figure out how to apply them yourself, because being too derivative is often a death sentence for Horror. Now, let’s begin.

Horror differs from other genres in that it lives and dies not by the story, but by the tone. In a Horror, while a good plot is certainly a major positive and a distinct element shared by the great works (minus a few exceptions), the key element is the tone. If you get the tone wrong, everything sinks. Every masterpiece of Horror, be it the classics like Poe and Lovecraft or the modern ones like Urobuchi and Ryukishi, follows the same core tone principle, at least to some extent. Horror is dark and moody, which is a very difficult atmosphere to do correctly. If you do it too little, your story can become cheesy. If you do it too much, your story can become annoying. Getting the tone correctly requires mastery of shot composition, editing, character and environment design, pacing, descriptives, and musical/audio design (all where applicable). As I said, true Horror isn’t something just anyone can do. However, if you’re skilled enough to create such a tone, then you can choose between several different ways to create it. The first is to create an oppressive atmosphere of hopelessness and misery, which goes well with psychological affairs like Silent Hill. It’s best to avoid this style, unless your story has themes in the vein of hopelessness. This is because it’s extremely easy to overdo this type of atmosphere and just get annoying. It has the potential of deeply unsettling the audience, but it’s incredibly difficult to get right, because monotone gets boring. You need to vary the tone, even within the sphere of bleak and miserable. This is very difficult, so it would be wise to keep this risk in mind when working. The other, equally effective method is to include sections of levity, which is to say moments of calm happiness, especially early on. The reason for this is to contrast with horrific events to occur later, as that sense of contrast can strongly unnerve the audience if executed properly. (Note, I sometimes call this the easier method, but that’s only by comparison.) With this method, there is no better example than my most constant citation: Higurashi. Every arc starts out light and energetic, with the early segments devoted to the games payed by the main characters. Then the rest of the arc is a steady descent into horrific events that contrast so heavily with the earlier scenes that it’s outright shocking. And when the next arc starts with the light and fluffy bits again, it’s every bit as jarring. You don’t have to make the tone changes as heavy as those were, but they’re a perfect example of how to use this approach.

Tied into the last point is pacing, which is the rate at which events happen and the general speed of the story. Horror, in general, has a very slow pace, with moments of high tension typically being the slowest, because that allows suspense to build. I suppose it’s possible to make a fast paced horror, but I’ve never seen one work, because that sacrifices the tense atmosphere that horror usually relies on. Maybe someone will eventually find a way to make fast-paced Horror work, but I’ve heard of no such thing so far, and I would generally advise against trying to be the first in this regard, because it’s a massive additional challenge on the creator’s part, and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be the one to figure it out. I know I told you earlier that to make a good Horror, you need to do new things, but even with that said, I must relay the classic gambler’s aphorism: “there’s some bets you just don’t take”. In my view, this is undoubtedly one of them, but who knows, maybe I’m mistaken. Regardless, back to the slower pacing. There is no steadfast rule for pacing, it really is on a case by case basis. And, like the rest of a good Horror, pacing is a delicate balance. Too fast, and you can jeopardize the atmosphere and potentially sacrifice development. Too slow, and it gets boring quickly. As a quick side note, never start a story with vast expanses of nothing happening. Many bad Horror stories do this, and it results in them being terribly boring. More on this in a moment. Getting this pace correct requires a distinct understanding of this topic as a whole, and isn’t something I can teach any rules for. As a result, we must move on.

Before we move on, I’d like to touch on something really fast. I’ve mentioned suspense several times, and explained how it permits even slower paced scenes, so I would like to include one of the core rules of the genre, which is the core technique of creating suspense. To paraphrase the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, suspense works like this: “Suppose people are sitting at a table, talking, when suddenly, a bomb goes off from under the table. The audience is surprised, but before that, they’ve seen a completely ordinary scene, of no special consequence, However, if you tell them that there’s a bomb under the table, and it’ll explode in 5 minutes, the previously innocuous scene becomes tense and exciting, because of the anticipation of the promised event.” (Note that I heavily paraphrased the original quote so that it’s easier to understand, Hitchcock was a very verbose man.) This sort of rule applies not just to situations where the audience is forewarned of the danger and/or outcome, but to ones of reasonable intuition as well. So, in a situation where the audience more or less knows the outcome, for instance, character X is about to be murdered, then the same principle of suspense applies to the buildup to said outcome. Crafting a sequence like this properly requires great care and attention to detail, and therefore must be treated as such. Now, moving on.

Another important aspect of Horror is the setting, as each type of setting has a different sort of effect on the atmosphere. Whether it’s a small town with a dark secret like Innsmouth or Silent Hill, a lonely house in the middle of nowhere like the House of Usher, or any number of other setting types, the overall feel of the story changes, sometimes significantly. In general, a lot of Horror tends to take place in less populated areas, because a sense pf isolation can, and tends to, make an audience nervous. People tend to feel far more nervous when the possibility of “strength in numbers” isn’t on the table. Plus, it minimizes outside influences, making the main characters being unable to get help or stop themselves from dying much easier to justify. That’s not to say Horror can’t take place  in heavily populated areas, several do, but you ought to re-format it in order to work better in that context. For example (purely example), a monster that no number of humans can fight, such as Sadako from The Ring. That’s just how I personally do it, it’s not concrete advice, merely a small extension of my style. At any rate, the setting is integral to Horror, far more so than most other genres. Take great care in designing it, your entire story has to mesh seamlessly with it.

Alright, we’ve got bits on the tone, pacing, and setting, let’s talk about classic story elements, starting with the characters. In a sense, Horror has 2 eras, let’s call them Paleo-Horror (PH) and Neo-Horror (NH). In PH, characters didn’t matter all that much and it was far more about the atmosphere. That style persists to this day, primarily in short stories, but it was the norm in the old era of Horror, most notably with Edgar Allan Poe. NH, conversely, tends to focus on the plot and characters more while still maintaining classic Horror sensibilities. As close as I can tell, this approach started in some 19th century novels, most notably Frankenstein and Dracula. Characters like Victor Frankenstein and Abraham Van Helsing are far more developed than what was standard at the time, and the style their respective novels cultivated is more popular nowadays, with novels like Higurashi and Saya No Uta utilizing it very well. If you’re writing a short story, take the PH approach,. Set up your basics, get the plot going, finish quickly. You can and should keep things simple, you’re on a time limit after all. If you’re writing a novel, it makes much more sense to take the NH approach, as it ultimately results in a much stronger narrative. Just because you’re writing in a particular genre is no excuse for a sloppy narrative, unless it’s particularly short like a one-shot story. As such, NH is still bound to the core rules of narrative, such as the importance pf characters, which needs to be kept in mind. As such, NH tends to have an approach with moments of levity, as a way to strongly establish characters before the nightmarish events begin. This isn’t necessary, but frequently done. The other way is to strengthen the characters through adversity, giving them development through how they handle the situation. Having a strong character cast is especially useful in Horror, because an emotionally invested audience is more engaged, and therefore more likely to be affected by the events that go on in the story.

Much like character writing, the plots of Horror tend to vary wildly between the two eras. PH tends to have minimalist plots, where the focus is directly on the events unfolding and with little work done on backstory and development. NH tends to go much more like a traditional story, with explanations for most things, backstory, development, and plenty of the typical elements. A Horror story is still a story, so treating it like a story creates a deeper and more engaging narrative, which can only benefit the story overall. Again, a lot of the usual rules apply, no info dumps, minimize contrivances, keep the plot moving, etc. So, you essentially need to balance a core narrative with the additional atmospheric demands of Horror. See what I mean when I say Horror is a master’s genre? If you want to write a good NH, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Let’s talk about genre blending. Truth be told, a Horror story that does just Horror and nothing else is a bit of a rarity nowadays. Even legendary Horror authors from back in the day like Poe would often touch on genre blending in their stories. Horror is a somewhat versatile genre, and can be combined fluidly with many others. Easily the most common is Mystery. Because Horror is often based on fear of the unknown, it meshes well with mystery elements, which are from the genre of the unknown. Note how I said “mystery elements”, and that’s because proper mysteries (which is to say, mysteries which follow Knox’s Ten Commandments and Van Dine’s Twenty Rules) often don’t leave room for the points of Horror to manifest. As such, a common middle ground is a Horror/Mystery hybrid that follows some rules of both but discounts others. If you do this, then deciding which rules are which is your job. Next up is Tragedy. Horror has latched on to Tragedy from the beginning, as both seem like natural extensions of each other. Horrifying events happening to characters the audience cares about often create tragic overtones, and it doesn’t take much to turn a sad occurrence into a scary one, just a little exaggeration in the right places. As a result, many famous Horror authors have mixed Tragedy into their stories, from Poe to Shelley, for additional story possibilities. Unlike Mystery, Tragedy can mesh with Horror fully without sacrificing the core sensibilities of either genre, The catch is that Tragedy is even harder to write than Horror, so proceed with caution. Next is a particularly bizarre combination: the Horror Comedy. On the surface, this seems like a mix that just can’t work, and honestly, I’m inclined to agree.  That’s not to say I hate Horror Comedies, I’m a huge fan of Tucker & Dale vs Evil, but I wouldn’t call them Horror, they’re comedies that take the piss out of Horror. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but talking about them would fit better in the Beginner’s Guide to Comedy (assuming I ever do such a thing). Those three are the big genres to mix, but Horror has many sub-genres. Allow me to explain some of them.

First is Ghosts. Ghosts are debatably the most popular kind of antagonist in Horror, the reason for which is completely lost on me. I mean, I understand why it’s done, ghosts represent death, which people are inherent;y uncomfortable around, and they can be given any number of supernatural abilities which make them outmatch any humans they deal with. Plus, half this country believes in ghosts, I know a few such people myself. But still, ghosts are such a cliché that it takes truly inspired works like The Ring to really be memorable. For the most part, most ghost stories suffer from the same stupid clichés (especially those in the wake of Paranormal Activity) that make them just dull and annoying rather than scary. Next is Sci-Fi Horror, with such notable examples as Alien in its ranks. This is a lot like Tragedy/Horror in that it requires thorough understanding of both genres before it can be properly executed. Alien was lucky enough to have HR Giger making the sets and effects, it’s unlikely that you’ll have such a privilege. Next up is a classic: Slashers. I’ll touch on these more later in the month, but generally they’re led by the antagonist themselves, in that the slasher tends to be the most developed character and gets the most screen time. Most of the time, the protagonists are either stereotypes or just flat in general due to lack of screen time. I don’t appreciate this at all, but it seems to be the industry standard. Next up is good old-fashioned Zombies. If ghosts are the most popular antagonist in Horror, then zombies are the up and coming challenger trying to claim that crown for themselves. In other words, zombies are fucking everywhere. Just like ghosts, I’m not strictly sure why. I somewhat understand them, they’re a sort of murderous horde that virtually everyone is incapable of standing up to, but once again, they’re cliché as all bleeding hell, and therefore more boring than they are scary. Whether they’re the slow Romero sort of zombies or the faster type to gain some popularity in recent years, they’re all over the god damn place, and it’s unlikely that anything new with them can be done. Next up is easily the most implicitly disturbing: Psychological. Now, this disambiguation is honestly somewhat vague. Psychological Horror is essentially Horror created in such a way as to unnerve the audience by messing with their minds, often through tricks like hallucinations, unreliable narrators, mind games, and other tools of madness. Notable examples include Silent Hill, Higurashi, and others of the like. What makes Psychological Horror so endlessly scary is that it directly plays off the audience’s mind, and is therefore nearly infinite in potential. There is arguably nothing more terrifying to a human than the creeping threat of madness, and therefore Psychological Horror has the most potential of any sub-genre. However, just like every good part of Horror, this requires mastery of craft and an understanding of madness and how it affects the human consciousness, (this last one is exclusive to Psychological Horror, and not Horror in general) and therefore is, of course, incredibly difficult. If you’re so dense as to have ignored this and everything I’ve tried to teach you so far, including the very first sentence, then I shall spell it out: HORROR IS REALLY FUCKING HARD, AND TRYING TO WRITE IT IS A COLOSSAL CHALLENGE. The reason I constantly bring this up is because many hack writers and other “creative” staff assume that it’s easy, and no matter how unjustly popular their creations become, they’ll never be make anything good because they don’t put any effort into their work, so you just get dull and cliché stories regurgitated ad infinitum. And I’m sure you all know what I’m going to talk about next: JUMP SCARES. An unbelievable number of critics, pundits, analysts, and others of the like have denounced jump scares as lazy and cheap attempts at shocking an audience. In general… they have a point. Jump scares are often used in horribly cheap and lazy ways, which gives them the reputation. However, there are examples of fantastic jump scares in virtually every icon of horror with a visual element, by it the Pyramid Heads in Silent Hill 2, the “THAT’S A LIE!” moment from Higurashi, or half the shit in The Conjuring. As such, it can only be concluded that jump scares aren’t inherently bad, they’re just used wrong. And the sad part? It fucking works. No matter how trashy, Horror movies always seem to make absurd profits, gaining mass popularity through cheap jump scares. And they’re not good, but they’re still popular, because I guess they’re still popular because the general public is oblivious and indifferent to what makes really good horror, so they’re content to just sit around with a line of jump scares and never expect anything better. And I think I know why. Because true Horror is inherently niche. Mass audiences don’t like to be scared. A jump scare without all the atmospheric work isn’t scary, it’s startling. When people are startled, but not necessarily scared, you’ll often see them laugh afterwards, because that little adrenaline rush is pleasing to them. But when you really scare them, they don’t necessarily like it that much, because they’re on edge, frightened, and uncomfortable. Now on the surface, something where audiences are more comfortable seems like a good thing, but Horror is the genre of fear, fear isn’t comfortable, in fact it’s the exact opposite. So it seems to be another case of trying to market a niche product to the mainstream and fucking it up in the process. Such is mass appeal, I guess.

Those are the basics, and if you’re the sort of maniac who wants the challenge of writing a Horror story, then a few of these may show up in your own work. At the very least, keep these in mind, they should help you avoid the stupid mistakes that most hacks make. But then again, if you’re skilled enough to make Horror properly, odds are you aren’t the type to read my writing anyway. Which means I spent 2 weeks writing all this up for nothing. Joy.


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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