Horror Writing 101- Doubt
In the last segment we talked about The Unknown as an element of Horror. In this segment we will go into doubt.
Now, doubt is just as important as the unknown, and so is the known but that’s the next segment. Not knowing something alone doesn’t really get you anywhere, you have to create worry over what isn’t known. You do that by introducing doubts.
For example. I suffer from social anxieties, especially when trying to ask a girl out. Let’s say I will meet the perfect girl for me tomorrow. I don’t know this is going to happen, so I have no reason to have anxiety. It’s a possibility, just like a monster trying to kill me is a possibility. But they aren’t probabilities.
But if I meet the girl and want to ask her out, that is when my brain goes into over drive and starts filling me with doubts. What if she rejects me? What if she doesn’t? What if we go out and things go horrible? What if it goes really well? That could lead to any number of things that could go wrong later? Could we end up in bed? That could end up being horrible?
Yes, that is what it’s like inside my head. A whole vista of variables to deal with, so I panic.
The key to this is doubt. Which is a product of thinking and caring. People who don’t doubt, either aren’t thinking or just don’t care. That’s why confident people are usually stupid and/or ass holes. People like me are smart, and feel strongly. The worst combination. I have strong emotions and the capacity to think about all the possibilities, and there are always so many more bad ones than good. If I want to ask a girl out, I care about the outcome and can imagine all the ways things can go wrong. So I have doubts, and that turns into an anxiety attack.
Which presents the three things you must do in order to create doubts in your horror fiction. You must make your audience doubt, and think about it. In fact, the more you can get them to dwell on those doubts, the better. You also need to make them care. If they don’t care about what is happening, they probably wont get scared.
Getting spooked usually doesn’t happen all at once, it creeps up on you. Thus, getting creeped out. A classic scenario, you are sitting alone at night watching something on tv. Maybe it’s a long movie that you started when the sun was still out, but now it’s set and the house is dark. It goes off, and you realize you are sitting in the dark alone. Subconsciously you have been aware of this for a while, but your focus was on the movie. Then it went off and you are now aware of your surroundings again.
What do you do? Most likely you get up and go turn on some lights. Certainly there are perfectly reasonable reasons for doing so. But there in the back of you head is the part of your brain that wants to be able to see it’s environment. It doesn’t trust the dark and wants you to make it go away. It doubts your safety because it has no assurance of it.
Now, add something to bring that to the forefront, the movie you were watching was kinda creepy for example, and you are actually experiencing unease already. There is no immediate reason to be spooked, there is nothing specific to be spooked over, nor is there any particular focus for your unease. The movie put you into a state of heightened awareness, you were already creeped out from watching that to a degree, and suddenly you find yourself alone in the dark. That nagging doubt from the back of your head, as to your safety there in the dark… has moved front and center.
Logic says there is no reason to be afraid, but the movie has triggered things in your head that give you doubt. The more of an imagination you have, the worse those doubts, and therefore fears, become. You desire the expulsion of these doubts, so you turn on a light… and poof, nothing to be afraid of.
Horror is when you take away the lights, and/or have something there when they come on. You remove either the relief or have something there to be afraid of in other words.
You’ve just been watching a scary movie when a storm pops up suddenly, the power goes out, and not only are you alone in the dark and creeped out, there is a new factor that can add even more tension for some people (the storm), and you can’t get relief because the power is out. So you go in search of a flashlight. Which gives your mind more time to fuck with you.
Which is the final factor in using doubt effectively, time. Much like comedy, horror is about timing. Over time unease will grow, till it reaches a point when the fact that nothing has happened, asserts that logically nothing it going to happen. Of course there is no perfect sweet spot because everyone is different. One person may have a very active imagination and be able to scare them self endlessly, while another might take very little time to normalize.
That’s why some people find The Shining to be very scary, and others think it’s very boring. It spends a lot of time in between scares building tension, doubt and preying upon them. For some it is near intolerable, and when the movie does pull the trigger on a scare, it’s heightened by all that built up tension. Other people just don’t hold onto tension for long, and thus the long wait is simply boring for them.
Either by lack of intelligence, or logical dominance, they just don’t hang onto doubt very long. Unless you keep doing things to keep them alive.
And implication of threat works just as well as realization for most people, to a point. As I said in the last segment, if you never present something to actually be frightened of, most people will eventually, some faster than others, conclude that there isn’t anything to be scared of at all. Some will remain scared, or at least tense, till they feel certain they are safe. Others will decide they are safe regardless, until something proves otherwise.
So the trick is figuring out what an effective point to pull the trigger on something is. Which may be never. You don’t have to try and cater to everyone, in fact trying to do that is a good way to fail. A ghost story that never has any ghosts, but plenty of things to cause unease, dread, and alarm will be very effective horror for some people. You don’t have to present any actual scary thing to create terror, their imagination will do it for you, and they will terrorize themselves.
Likewise, sometimes you don’t want to hang around trying to creep people out, when the story is about something they certainly should be scared of.
But if you want a formula for horror, here it is. Using The Shining as an example. Which any student of the horror genre should have watched already.
Present a scenario that creates unease. Jack’s interview at the hotel. He is given creepy information, but there is no reason to actively be frightened yet. It then progresses with the revelations of his drinking and previous fits of rage. As an audience we have been given two pieces of information here, the family is going to be in a perfect cabin fever situation and one member of that family is not as stable as he would like everyone to think. Conclusion, things could go very badly. We have no concrete evidence it will, but we are uneasy because it could happen.
Next, give people a scare. Danny in the bathroom. Now we know Danny is psychic, and the hotel is haunted. We have a concrete reason to not want them to go to the hotel. But they are, so we have expectations of things going badly.
This is furthered by Danny’s talk with the chef. Now we know there is a room that even an experienced psychic is terrified of. I will discuss this more in the segment about characters, suffice to say his fear makes us even more uneasy and creates more dread. Because we are humans, and humans are curious creatures. Especially kids. We know at some point Danny will probably go into that room despite the warning. We don’t want him to, but he does anyway. Dread.
Keep in mind that other than the brief scare in the bathroom with Danny, not much has happened that is specific or immediate. And not much happens through the movie. Because it’s all about building up dread.
Just enough happens to let the dread peak, then fall away somewhat. But it never goes away, and things just keep getting worse through the movie. Till finally at the end it fires all rounds and we get the long freak out. Danny sees the girls, but they just show him how they died, which is kinda scary, but not dangerous. Then he encounters the woman in the room, and that is very freaky and he is hurt by her. He is also forced to deal with this alone because his mother doesn’t have the gift.
Meanwhile, his father is slowly coming unhinged because he has the gift, but it was repressed till the hotel got to work on him. His addiction gives it an in to fuck with his head. But it only hints at his growing madness till Wendy reads what he has spent weeks writing. The same thing over, and over and over again. So we now have a clear and present danger to Wendy and Danny, Jack. The ghosts take a back seat for a while as the family battle it out, then right at the end all hell breaks loose and we are barraged with freaky shit.
That is the formula. Create unease. Have a bit of a scare to set up that bad things can happen. Put your characters into scenarios where they have to do things they don’t want to do, and/or the audience doesn’t want them to do, to create dread.
Build the tension as long as you deem fit, pull the trigger on a scare, but only one at a time to keep the tension going and building as each new element makes things worse and creates more danger. Then at the end let loose with everything you’ve got.
Watch the movie again, and take note at how it uses doubt. We know early on that the hotel is haunted, and that Jack isn’t stable, but we don’t know if either are dangerous. The chef, Dick I believe his name is, tells us, via Danny, flat out that the hotel is dangerous, but only if you let it get in your head.
We know a guy killed his wife and children in the hotel, and the girls show us, again via Danny, this. But there is no danger. It isn’t new information since we were told about this at the beginning of the movie. It’s just being presented in a new way that takes it from background, uneasy, information, to immediate scary information.
But is it dangerous? We don’t know. There is doubt.
Then Jack starts acting up and we have doubts about his sanity. But we are distracted by the woman in the room, which is plenty scary, but only dangerous if you go in her room. So again, we don’t know what will happen next. We aren’t sure what’s going on with Jack, Danny is messed up, and the vicarious POV shifts to Wendy. Then she finds the “book” and doubt is replaced with understanding, Jack is loony tunes.
It takes a long time to get to that point, and for a lot of people that revelation is the scariest part of the movie. We have had to deal with our doubts about Jack for a long time, and now we know for a fact that they were justified, and in fact things are probably worse than we feared.
But even then it doesn’t let loose. It implies that we can relax. Which just makes us know that we can’t. Not until Jack attacks them in the room with the ax does it really, and fully unleash.
The mini series version is just as good in it’s own way.