Horror Writing 101 – More Gore or Lore and Get Personal
All right, for the last segment of Horror 101 I am going to combine the last two lessons into one. They are, More Gore… or Lore? and Get Personal.
More Gore or Lore is a question you need to ask yourself. What kind of horror are you going for? What is your target audience? Do you care about trends?
In some ways all fiction is cyclical. Some things trend while others fall to the wayside. But Every decade has examples of every type of horror movie that was good, even if they didn’t always do well.
60s you have Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Haunting, Night of the Living Dead and The Birds. (Plus many others of course. I’m not trying to list every popular horror movie from each decade, just showing that movies from every major category, slasher, the devil, ghosts, supernatural creatures, and evil animals, are represented.)
70s you have Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, The Exorcist (and The Omen), Alien (which is done in the style of haunted house movies, as well as The Amityville Horror), Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm, and Jaws.
In the 80s slashers and gore ruled. You had Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th which saw several movies released, Hellraiser, Poltergeist and The Shining, tons of supernatural creature features like Evil Dead, An American Werewolf in London, Re-Animator, more zombie movies each more disgusting than the last, The Howling, The Lost Boys, etc… You also get Stephen King keeping the dangerous animal genre alive practically single handed with Pet Cemetary and Cujo. You also have the beginnings of “true to life” horror with Serpent and the Rainbow and Henry:Portrait of a Serial Killer.
In the 90’s you have Scream and other slasher fair like I know what you did last Summer, the Devil hung on by a thread with movies like The Prophecy. ghosts weren’t all that popular but supernatural bogeymen were, with the likes of Blair Witch and Candyman. Although a few movies like The Frighteners and the remakes of House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting tried. We got Gary Oldman’s fantastic portrayal of Dracula, and Interview with a Vampire. Tons more zombie movies, although they weren’t particularly main stream any more. And while evil animals seemed to be absent we did get giant bugs in Mimic, high school witches run amok in The Craft and The Ghost in the Darkness, which isn’t strictly horror, but does cover evil animals and “true to life” somewhat.
In the 2000s you have a massive selection of movies to choose from. Japanese ghost movies and their American remakes are all over the place. Torture porn gets a poster child in the Saw franchise. Zombies learn to run with 28 Days Later, and be funny with Shaun of the Dead. Found footage horror makes a come back with Paranormal Activity. Vampires and Werewolves stop being horror icons, and instead become teen soap movie fodder. Supernatural slashers like Descent, Jeepers Creepers and Final Destination dot the landscape.
So what can we gleam from this?
Obviously over time the acceptability of what you can show has increases, which created more options. And there are always ways the events, culture and trends of the time influence what people find most scary. You can try to psychoanalyze it all you want. But the fact remains that every genre of horror is present and accounted for in every decade. Sure, some didn’t do all that well, but they were still there. So you don’t have to be trendy.
But what does that have to do with the topic at hand? Well… let’s take a look at movies from those decades considered to be classics.
Is Psycho gory? No, not really. But they were limited then on what they could do. So lets skip ahead a bit.
How about the 70’s? Things certainly got a lot more gory then. But… if you really pay attention there still isn’t a ton of gore. Halloween? Still, it doesn’t show you as much as you might think it does.
Do you have to have tons of gore? Silence of the Lambs doesn’t actually have a lot of gore in it. Most of the movie is talking. But what is being talked about, the performances of those in the movie, these make it scary. It didn’t need a lot of gore. I find Alien, Poltergeist and The Shining scary, none of them have a lot of gore. Sure they do at key moments, but they aren’t drenched in it like… say… Nightmare on Elm Street. Come to think of it, the first one isn’t anywhere near as gory as the sequels. Same for Friday the 13th. And Hellraiser.
I find The Ring and The Grudge scary. Why? Not because of any gore in them. It was the feeling that you had been contaminated by watching them. And unlike western ghost stories, there was no where to run.
Event Horizon gets to me, and in that one the graphic imagery does have something to do with it, but it’s how it’s used that’s effective.
Of course it ultimately comes down to you. Tons of gore just turns my stomach, it doesn’t scare me. Even with Poltergeist, the kitchen/washroom scene I wont watch because it grosses me out. The ghost procession, tree and clown are the parts that put a tingle up my spine.
You run into the escalation problem with horror sequels. Trying to top the gore of the last movie, and forgetting that the gore never really made it scary in the first place. Not by it’s self at any rate.
That’s why it’s easy to find a lot of the horror movies of the 80’s and 90’s funny. They became self parodies.
My vote is to fuck with people’s heads, not just try to overload them with gore. But maybe you see it different.
The last lesson, other than the ones that started out here as posts which are listed above, is to get personal. Which is a simple lesson. If something scares you, use it. If you aren’t willing to get inside your own head and “go there”, then you really have no business trying to scare other people.
Digging into the things that scare you will allow you to put a lot of real emotions into what you are creating. The situations will be more alive, because they will be coming from your actual nightmares and thoughts.
What causes you unease? Sure, there are things that creep most people out, but what really gets to you?
What causes you dread? What thoughts do you fixate on? What do you fear happening?
What things will cause you fright? Or actually have?
What things alarm you?
What causes terror to slip into your nights when you are trying to sleep?
If you REALLY want to do horror. You have to be willing to ask those questions of yourself, and answer them truthfully. Because in a lot of ways horror is about truth. The ugly truths people don’t want to look at. It’s about asking yourself things like, what would I do in this scenario? And being honest enough to put the truth down for anyone to see/read.
Of course it doesn’t have to be obvious. HP Lovecraft was allergic to seafood, so he was afraid of accidentally eating it. This fear of seafood and water dwelling creatures in general manifested many times though his works. He also hated the decay of the anglo things he loved so much, and that showed up all the time. Degeneration, decay, decadence. Rural devolution.
He was xenophobic and racist early on, which he at least partially grew out of.
Point being that you can use any of your biases, hates, pet peeves, fears and/or dislikes as sources of inspiration. Do you hate pop music? Write a story about someone living in a world where everyone listens to pop music and anyone who doesn’t is ostracized, then have him/her discover classical. If you don’t like something, there are always ways to approach that dislike that can be used to create horror. Often it’s as simple as writing about someone who feels the way you do, and putting them in a position where that can get them into trouble or even killed.
A story about possession by a ghost for example. Maybe you don’t believe in ghosts, and have no fear of them. But some people do. So how can you work your own fears into it? Are you afraid of going mad? Losing control of your body? Being forced to do something against your will? Those same fears can be used to write stories about blackmail, losing your mind, getting sick, or even getting possessed by an evil spirit.
Not religious? I’m not, I’m an atheist. So the devil doesn’t scare me. I’ve tried to watch The Omen and found it tedious at best. But I could write a horror story about something totally unrelated, but leave hints through the story that it has something to do with the devil. It’s a bit of an underhanded trick, but it leaves room for people to would find that scary to come to that conclusion.
Point of this is that sometimes you just don’t find something scary and there isn’t much of any work around to anything you do find scary. But if that potential audience is one you would like to aim something at, you can write about something that does scare you, then just leave enough bread crumbs to let them make that connection on their own if they want to see it that way.
It’s a good way to come up with red herrings.