Who’s doing some serious horror movie watching this year? We are in my house. I can’t even list all of the movies we’re watching. We love them.
Well, we love them for the most part. There are a lot of things that I don’t love about the horror genre. Actually, let me be clear. There are a lot of things that I loved just fine the first two or three times I saw them. Now that we’re on about the nineteenth time, they’re played out.
I write horror, and I know I’ve fallen into these pits myself. There are so many horror stories, and so few plots. I’m endeavoring to write better, more unique horror stories. I hope you can avoid them, too.
The screaming dead blond. It was quite unique when the master Hitchcock slaughtered Janet Leich in the first twenty minutes of Psycho. By the time Scream came around, Drew Barrymore’s death was no shocker. Also not surprising, the scrappy brunette character who manages to use her wits to win is done and dead. As a brunette I love it, but it’s still done!
Let’s have some real people in horror books. I know it sucks, because we’re just going to kill them. Probably brutally. But an honest character is always a better choice.
I’ll be right back, Is someone there? And other stupid character traits.
It used to be that horror movies relied on a strict set of morality clauses. We can see that in the three rules of surviving a horror movie from Scream.
Don’t have sex
Don’t drink or do drugs
Don’t say ‘I’ll be right back’.
Bad people almost always died, while the good people generally survived. Recently, there’s been a growing trend of characters acting stupid. Walking into the dark yelling, “Is someone there?” Wandering around in the woods in bathing suits. Locking themselves into creepy ass houses that are probably haunted. Or at least structurally unsound and dangerous. Just saying, a demonic spirit is one thing, but falling through a floor and landing in a basement is no joke.
Can’t we see smart people? Genre savvy characters, who die anyway?
Think about it, that’s so much scarier! No one’s freaked out by some dumb blond running into a freak with a chainsaw. We all think that we’d never be that person, and we’re probably right. But what about a smart person. Someone who snaps some pics with their smart phones, locks the damn door, keeps with the group, and keeps a firearm nearby. How much shorter would some of these slasher movies be if the main characters were packing?
This is why I loved the first Nightmare of Elm Street movie. There was no escaping Freddy! He haunts the dreams of the children who killed him. Even better, they were right to kill him, he was a child murderer. These people were in the right, morally speaking, and their children still suffered. (By the way, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is my favorite horror movie. The actors, including Robert Englund, being haunted by Freddy? Wes Craven’s my hero.)
The dark creature in the creepy house, creepy forest, creepy dark place. Did I mention it was creepy?
Let me tell you about my favorite haunted house book. It’s called The House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons. It’s about a couple who lives next to a brand new house, beautifully built. No one’s died there, it’s not born on cursed land. It’s just evil. It just wants to destroy people who live there, physically and emotionally. It’s a dark, horrifying story.
It’s not set in a place where the floor creeks. No mass murders have happened here. There’s not blood on the wall. There’s no rotting bodies under the floorboards. Sometimes horrible things just happen, and that’s so much scarier.
Anyone can write a good horror story in a haunted woods, creepy supper camp or terrifying train. Write a story that terrifies people set in a brightly lit shopping mall on a random sunny Saturday. Write a story that makes people afraid to finish the book that takes place in a prep-school. A well taken care of prep school.
Predictable beginnings, middles and endings
Let me outline the vast majority of horror movies and books.
A terrible origin story, either how the monster was born or how the place became haunted. Lots of blood, lots of screaming. Lots of gore.
Now we meet our MC. Poor smuck, down on her luck. High school student, broke gal or guy. Someone who’s life is kind of shitty.
Let’s throw them in with a group of people who are all kind of bad. Drug addicts, wrecks. Maybe one or two who are actually responsible for the whole nightmare to come.
Now we’ll see people drop off, one by one. In increasingly gruesome ways. Until we are left with just one or two people who rely highly on Deus Ex Machina to survive. Suddenly their shitty life doesn’t sound so bad.
But the creature isn’t really dead, bwahahahaha!
Can we shake this up a little? Really, do literally anything else!
Look, I don’t know how to write a successful horror novel. I write short horror stories that I feel are pretty creepy. Even the king, Stephen King, doesn’t know how to write endings until he gets to them. So I can’t tell you how to write a great horror novel.
But I can tell you that if you want to write a bland, overcooked novel, with all of the flavor and pleasure of an overcooked steak, then write a novel just like all of the other horror stories.
I don’t think Stephen King knows how to write endings particularly well anyway, lol. They often seem to be anticlimactic – which in a way reflects just how good he can be at writing the whole build up, plot and characters throughout the novel. It’s like with IT. That story really creeps me out because it’s about young people in a town, a group of losers who all befriend each other and who seem to be the only ones who are truly aware of the evil that lurks in their town. It’s that not being believed…the inability to explain to adults or the blissfully unaware what’s going on…the being driven mad by something you just can’t prove or truly convince authority figures of. You can’t rely on the detection and protection of those who are supposed to keep you safe. That combined with a force of evil that manages to tap into your own personal fears, is truly terrifying.
But the ending?? Having to come face to face with some pathetically tangible creature that is physically beatable? Total let down. I have no idea how else one is supposed to write a better ending for the book, because the essential premise is that of a source of evil that has existed probably for ever; it’s about the limitless, infinite capacity for horror, torture and menace. The culmination of the story however takes that previously intangible, incomprehensible horror and makes it finite, manageable and easier to comprehend in its entirety. It becomes less scary precisely because of its physical limitations as a finite being. It just doesn’t work as an ending for me, despite the rest of the story being really creepy. And this happens quite often with Stephen King. I’m not trying to diss the master of horror here, because some of his stories are fantastic. But he almost seems bent on setting the bar too high with the creation of the plot/characters/pace/setting/vibes; the endings just can’t live up to the promise of the stories.
But I think that’s the thing with horror. For an ending to be truly horrific, it needs to be ramped up, worse than what you’ve read about in the rest of the book…and if I’m honest, not actually being truly defeated or resolved tends to keep the creepiness levels up where they should be. Happy endings that tie everything up with a full resolution destroy the ability of the story to have any more hold over the reader. I think keeping an ending a bit ambiguous or mired in failure is actually a much better strategy. But that’s easy for me to say…lol.
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