Horror Writing 101 – Realism
This part is about realism.
The last segment was about wrongness. Well in order to see what’s wrong, you first have to know what should be right. Which means making things real for the audience. Realism.
A lot of people probably think that realism isn’t all that important to horror. After all, it’s about scaring people, not being accurate to what is or isn’t possible. Which is true to a degree. When I say realism, I mean coming up with an internal logic and sticking to it in one sense. But I do mean being true to life. People know and understand life. We live in it every day. The key either way, is making sure the characters involved treat it as their normal, everyday life.
Alien is scary because we can all relate to the fear of being trapped in a confined space with a dangerous animal/monster. The setting and creature may not be real, but the base fears at play are. And the actors did a very good job at making the environment feel natural. It was just their way of living, nothing special. They are a believable group of hard working, cargo carriers. On a space ship or not, it’s realistic. So we quickly come to accept the more fantastic sci fi elements, which lets us get into the horror elements easier.
Poltergeist is scary because we can all relate to the fear of having something that freaky happening in our homes. The taking of something so familiar as where we live, and fucking it up like that is the source of the fear. Again, the actors did a fantastic job setting up that they are a believable, realistic family in the suburbs somewhere. Easy to understand. We then go through the journey with them into the unknown and horrible.
The Thing exploits isolation, infection, paranoia and transformation. They are isolated away from help, and even the weather can kill them. Something is infecting people and taking them over/taking their place. There is no way to know who The Thing is. And familiar things are transformed in hideous ways. People really do go on expeditions to the antarctic. They could find some horrific alien parasite there. It’s not likely, but it could happen. The actors present us with a believable group of antarctic explorers, who find something terrible, and events unfold.
Realism contrasted with wrongness in each movie.
In two of these movies the people involved could not just leave. In the third, they could but that would mean abandoning their child, which they wouldn’t do.
Part of the realism comes from making it believable that the people would stay, and the reason they have to stay makes sense. A lot of horror movies make the mistake of forgetting to make sense. Which is why a lot of them become cult classics as black humor. The actions of the characters are so stupid, and the events so contrived it’s impossible to take it seriously enough to get scared.
Another mistake that’s become very common is taking things too seriously. Going the opposite direction. People come in a wide variety of personalities, so having everyone be deadly serious in a story, movie or game is also unbelievable. The same applies to the tone. Horror movies rarely start horrible. They start with a baseline to establish what is normal/real for the setting, then things get horrible.
This applies to non-horror as well. Setting aside all the other issues I have with shows like walking dead, game of thrones, breaking bad, etc, the monotone seriousness of the characters is farcical. You can tell the writer really has no clue how to write realistic characters. Which is why the only people who really like those shows are pessimistic, cynical asshats that think everyone should be like them.
Realism is all the elements that should be believable. The further away from realism you go, the harder it is to scare people. Which really does apply to all genres as well. Scaring people is just how you are engaging them. The more believable you make things, the more engaging it becomes. Unfortunately what you consider realism may not feel that way to everyone. The popularity of cynical soap operas and the way their fans think they are realistic, as opposed to how they are actually farcically asinine, proves that.