Horror Writing 101 – The Known
All right, we’ve gone into the unknown, and doubt as elements of horror. Now it’s time to tackle the third part of the information control trinity. The known.
Okay. So the unknown is all about what we don’t know at all. What’s in the dark. Why something is happening. Where that sound came from. Who is after us, if anyone actually is.
Doubt is about what we aren’t sure of.
So obviously the known is all about what we are sure of. Doing horror is about getting the dance between them right. Controlling your information. Giving enough away to keep your bait on the hook, but not too much or they will just nibble and never bite. Okay, weird fishing metaphor, I’ve been watching River Monsters a lot lately, so sue me.
Look, it’s all about what kind of fear you want to create. Which goes back to what I talked about in the first post.
Unease, dread, fright, alarm and terror.
To create unease you need to give away next to no information. The idea is to let their imagination fuck with them. That wont happen if you give things away too soon. You just hint at things. Think about times you have creeped yourself out.
Dread may take more info, or not. Dread is all about building up unease, then making them do something they know will probably go badly based on it. All you really have to add to the mix is a focus for their unease, and pressure to confront that focus. Like a spooky old house, foggy grave yard, or a room with no light. You present your target (player, reader, viewer) with something that screams bad idea to them, them make them do it anyway.
Fright is where information is key. Because it’s built around a reveal. Sometimes a physical threat, sometimes not. Like in the shining. When Wendy reads what Jack has been writing that is a fright, but a psychological one. It reveals just how far gone he is. When he stats battering down the doors with the axe, that is a fright of a threatening nature.
The risk is giving away too much, too soon. The killers in most slasher movie series tend to be scary in the first movie or two, then they quickly become self parodies. Why? Because we know too much. We find out who they are, their methods, and the formula for their movies. Would that help if we found ourselves in the middle of one of their movies? Maybe not, but it would give us more of a fighting chance. And that eases fear.
Consider the game Dead Space. The first game is considered about 50/50 horror, sci-fi FPS (first person shooter), the others are considered progressively less scary. Because once you finished the first game you understood the score. Sure, they brought in new baddies and the backstory got more fucked up, but at the visceral level the creep factor was gone through most of the games.
I think optimally you shouldn’t give away more than a single piece if info away per fright, in relation to the thing causing it. If it’s a monster, the first piece of info you give away is that there is one. After that you can ooze red herrings (half truths, misdirection and lies) and facts, slow.
Alarm is a specific piece of information you are giving away. Generally a sensory stimulation. Like a sound or glimpse of something in games. You can convey any of the senses via your characters, but in games and movies you can bypass them and get right to your audience with those two. Again, it depends on what you are trying to do. You can keep the audience in the dark with the character(s), and force them to experience everything along with them. Or you can show them things in relation to the character(s), that the character(s) aren’t aware of. So your audience gets scared for the character, or on their behalf.
Like the window scene in the newer version of The Woman In Black. The character doesn’t see anything, but we do, so we get scared for him.
While in Poltergeist pretty much everything is shown to us while at least one character is experiencing it, so you get the combination of the character’s reaction and your own while watching. I like that method because it tends to get better reactions, and most of the great horror movies use it.
You need to keep in mind that your character’s and the people reading are separate. You can write at two levels. One for the character(s), and one for the reader/player/viewer. A character might be nonchalant about going into a spooky old house, but you can use foreshadowing to get the audience yelling “DON”T GO IN THERE DUMMY!”
Again, it’s all in how you control the information you give them.
Finally we come to terror. Which is basically dread with a face. Or something else specific to focus on. But again, the only info you NEED to give away to create terror is that there is in fact, a real, specific threat. ONE mutilated corpse at the right time in a game, story or movie tells them everything they need to know. Character(s) and audience alike. This person is dead, which means there is something around here that can do the same thing to me. You don’t have to show what that something is right away. In fact, depending on the medium, you may not need to show the threat for most of the story. Alien for example. A game really needs to show the threat sooner, not too soon, but soon enough to set up the game mechanics. Run and hide, head shots with shaky hands, grab and bash…etc.
But there is no reason you can’t drag things out a while. Setting up early in a game that there is a psycho killer in the woods somewhere, then making them go out into the woods to overcome a bunch of mundane problems can give you plenty of all the various types of fear without showing the killer, for certain, once. It’s all in how you present things and control your information.
I think I will wrap up with two other information based fears. The freak out, and Jump Scares.
A jump scare is based around attack one or more senses in order to create a limited flight or fight response. IE, a loud bang makes you jump because you aren’t expecting it and it could be a threat. Effective when used right, annoying as hell when over used. At best you just make your audience immune to them, at worst you get them every time and wear them out. Which tends to lead to games and movies being turned off. People need a rest. Horror is about building and keeping tension, then releasing it. But you do need lulls. You build tension up, let it peak, pull the trigger on a scare, let them calm down, then do it again.
A freak out is based on information that makes no sense, or clashes strongly. Or simply sensory overload, although that can back fire if not done right. Evil Dead 2 is probably the best freak out in horror movies. The first half especially. Wendy’s last mad dash around the hotel in The Shining is also a good freak out. The combination of gore and bizarre images from the hotel’s decadent past are effective.