Thursday, February 27, 2014

What Makes A Good Horror Story? (According to me!)

"What is Horror?" joins that long list of subjective questions that include "What is art?", "What is pornography?" and the ever-elusive "What's that blue thing doing here?" Everyone has their idea of what constitutes horror, and by extension what makes for a good horror story. This is mine.

What you're about to read is a collection of things I wish every author/creator of every horror story or movie would keep in mind. Yes, it's very biased, very subjective, and very opinionated, but I come by it honestly. My credentials, submitted for your approval.

And the Groovie Ghoulies. You can NOT forget
the Groovie Ghoulies!
I love reading and watching horror stories. For literature, I usually rely on the Holy Trinity (Poe, Lovecraft, King), with occasional forays into stuff by Peter Straub, Joe Hill, and Dean Koontz. For television, I was raised on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, and eventually Night Gallery, Tales From The Darkside, and Monsters. Oh, and let's not forget The Night Stalker. Being a DC fanboy, my teen years' superhero and war comic reading was supplemented heavily by DC's humongous horror line, including House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, Secrets of Sinister House, Tales of the Unexpected, Ghosts, Weird War Tales, Weird Western, Doorway to Nightmare, Black Magic. And as for movies, way too many to mention. Add to this my tendency to put on makeup and scare people at haunted attractions in October (for fun and profit), my enjoyment of exploring extremely old cemeteries, my forays into horror-based role playing games, and a few turns at writing some niche-market horror, and that gives a good picture of most of my so-called pedigree. In other words, I've shambled around the block a few times.

As far as my ideal horror elements, you'll notice that some of the concepts overlap. Bear with me on that one. Also, although I use "horror story" to include just about anything, it's aimed primarily at movies, and less so with novels, short stories, tv programs, or video shorts. Episodic tv and video shorts have less time to address all of the things I blather about. It's hard to criticize a five minute horror flick for lack of character development, you know?

OK, ready? Here we go..

There's A Difference Between Screaming And Puking
To me, the first and foremost thing about a horror story is that it has to be frightening. This doesn't necessarily mean getting grossed out or repulsed. There are lot of gore fans out there, and sure there are times when it's called for in the story, but really, I'd rather prefer getting the living daylights scared out of me than face the prospect of blowing digested popcorn onto the back of the neck of the person sitting in front of me (unless, of course, the victim is using a cell phone, in which case all bets are off).

Booga booga!
Frighten me. Shake me up. Make me jump. Show me something terrifying. Make me go home and wonder what lurks in the shadows of my room, or what is causing the motion-sensing light in our backyard to suddenly kick on in the dead of night for no apparent reason. When I go running and the shadows lengthen, what's that thing rustling in the woods surrounding the bike path I run on?

And what do I find terrifying? Good question...

Horror Versus Horrible
Let's face it; the whole concept of horror is contradictory to the idea of "nice". Horror by its very nature is meant to create feelings of fear and uncertainty, for entertainment's sake. It involves stories where ultimately, someone meets a bad end, sometimes justly, many times unfairly. I get that. It's not a genre for the hard-core Pollyanna types. It's an adrenaline rush or thrill ride that you should eventually be able put down and/or walk away from, though echoes of it may linger long afterward, making you suspicious of shadows, as mentioned earlier.

But that being said, I feel there's a difference between a story about some cursed item or things erupting out of a crypt, and a story about some pervert that kidnaps and rapes women, then kills and eats them. The first example is horror; the second is just plain horrible; it's nasty disgusting sadism.

The idea of some hulking killer wearing a mask and wielding a chainsaw and/or big knife has stronger ties to reality, because if you read the news with any degree of consistency, you'll inevitably trip over a story about some brutal killer, or cruel SOB that stalks his victims and does very cruel, very real things to them. No thanks.

Some will argue that cruelty is simply another form of horror. "Torture is horrible!" they say. "Rape is horrible! These are horrible, scary things! Stalkers are creepy and horrifying! Brutal murders, chainsaws, or sawing off your leg to escape a trap is horrible! It's scary! And those things could possibly happen!"

Yes, that's true. But to me, horror needs to reside at least partly in the realm of the unreal. There needs to be that "line", that barrier, between reality and fantasy. If I want real-life horror and brutality, I'll check out the news. I don't want reminders that there are real-life monsters running around, committing all sort of atrocities on innocent people.

Although the term "torture porn" gets sometimes overused, in my opinion, it nevertheless sums up for me movies like "Hostel", or "Last House on the Left". Maybe you can call them suspense movies, or thrillers, but I don't know. Does torture and sadism possess the capacity of thrilling some people? I guess it does, but in my opinion there just seems to be something inherently wrong on some level about that idea.

From "Escape Route", the third story in the Night Gallery
pilot movie. This picture STILL! FREAKS! ME! OUT!
I remember, as a kid, one movie that scared the absolute Hell out of me was the pilot to Night Gallery. Well, two out of three vignettes did, anyway...the blind Joan Crawford segment was weak (sorry, Mr. Spielberg). But in any event, there was one bit about this lazy, no-good nephew type (played with scenery-chewing aplomb by Roddy McDowall), who managed to engineer the death of his rich uncle. But he gets his comeuppance in the end, and it's heralded by a large painting of the cemetery outside of the manor house, a painting that keeps changing to show a grave in the cemetery opening up and a body (his uncle) climbing out and coming up to the door. Every time the nephew looks away and then looks at the picture again, it changes, showing a sequence that implies that the dead uncle is in fact heading towards the house. Then there's a knock at the door. We never get to see good old Roddy get his reward; it's left up to the imagination. But the point is pictures don't spontaneously change in real life! Holy crap, that was just freaky and unsettling. Things that are not supposed to happen in real life but happen anyway, whether it's a changing portrait, a kid's doll whose recorded voice threatens a cruel step-father, or a Zuni fetish figure that comes to life and relentlessly hunts down a woman in her apartment, it's all the same; it's damned scary!

I want to be scared, not repulsed.

I Like My Horror Up Close And Personal
To me, the more intimate the setting, the more effective the horror. A horror story that focuses on an individual, a couple, a family, or a circle of friends, has more of a chance to make an emotional impact than something that involves, say, the whole damn planet. Horror to me is best when the locale is limited; a house, a building, a neighborhood, maybe. But when you start getting bigger and bigger, the impact of the horror is diluted. It's sort of in line with the quote from sadistic genocidal dictator Josef Stalin, who said "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic".

This comes through particularly strong in movies that feature some kind of global apocalypse or end of the world scenario. I mean, has anyone who's ever written a horror story that involves something nasty that affects the entire Earth ever stepped back and taken a good look at how bloody huge this planet is, and how many billions of people live here? The bigger the threat, the more diluted the impact. Call it the law of diminishing returns, or the law of decreased marginal utility.

It's the whole question of scope that, for me anyway, turned horror fan-boy darling "Cabin in the Woods" from something that I started out loving, to a movie that, when the credits rolled, I wanted to stand up, flash the one-fingered salute with both hands at the screen and say "F**k you, movie! F**k you gently with a chainsaw!"

And that's also why World War Z, in my mind, is not a horror movie. It's a science fiction movie about a world-wide epidemic, and has diddly and squat to do with the original source material. Oh, wait. The title. The title is the same. Sorry about that.

The video on the left by Drew Deywalt is a classic example of up close and personal horror. And wow, is it ever effective! In my opinion, it accomplishes in less than three minutes what many so-called horror movies try to do with 90-plus minutes of time! Since it's a short, it doesn't need character development or explanations. It's just a terrifying little story.

End The Damned Thing!
Many horror movies suffer from the exact same problem: the ending! Okay, you start out with an otherwise normal situation, then something horrific happens, things go straight to Hell, then...what? To me, it's one of the biggest weaknesses of the entire horror genre: most horror writers don't know how to end the story. It also speaks to me of the writers' lack of confidence in the material's impact that they have to make absolutely sure to tack on some stupid "the heroes are they're not! Dun dun dunnnn! What a twist!" ending in the last 10 seconds.

Which means that yes, I also can't stand the "abrupt ending" tactic. The movie's chugging along, the climax hits, then suddenly...boom. Movie over. And usually the movie ends at a point that leaves too many unanswered questions. It's not that I want every mystery solved, every question answered, it's just that I want to leave a movie (or close a book for the last time), and go "Brrr. Wow!", not "Huh??".

And on a related note...

The Unknown Is Cool, But There Are Limits
Here's Cthulhu, otherwise known as the "Latest concept
being overused on social media today".  I place him here
because I want to be part of the popular crowd.
The unknown breeds ignorance. Ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds some awesome screams and scares. There's a fine line here that needs to be tread. On one hand, a generous helping of mystery brings out feelings of dread...what the heck is out there? What does it want? But on the other hand, when writers just start pulling things out of their asses and throwing them at us (okay, that's a bad mental picture, sorry), you're left there, hands apart in a pleading gesture, asking "What the Hell is this? Why's that happening? What did I just see? Where's my mom?" And it's not enough for the writer to say "It's the unknown! Wooooooooo! Scary!", as they wiggle their fingers in a dramatic gesture and open their eyes extra wide.

Don't Show So Damned Much
I'm am convinced that the average imagination can do a much better of crafting an effective mental picture than any outside agency, even a gifted author, can ever do. Sex seems more erotic, humorous gags more hilarious, and terror far more horrifying, when you don't see everything, but instead you're given just enough clues on what's going on to let your imagination fill in the rest. This way, the reader or viewer goes from a passive role to actually assuming a sort of subordinate partnership with the author, and that's a nice feeling.

The More Realistic The World Is, The More Impact The Horror Has
In my opinion, one of the reasons Stephen King's stories are so effective as a whole is that the people he writes about talk and act like real people, and the horrors are lurking in what is otherwise the mundane world that follows the usual rules and laws of physics that we live with in real life.

When you present a setting that conveys "normal and mundane", you establish a setting that people can relate to, and it makes it easy for them to immerse themselves into the story. Then you bring in the element of horror, and it stands out in sharper contrast, creating more of a shock. I can't tell you how many times I've complained to someone about things that would happen in a horror movie that are unrealistic, only to be told "Dude, it's a horror movie. Reality has nothing to do with it! It's all unrealistic!"

Sorry, but I call "BS!!" to that. It's like the Game Master in a table-top role-playing game session who, when the players corner him or her on a bungled rules interpretation or a nonsensical situation, shrugs and says "Well, it's magic!" (extra demerits if they waggle their fingers or raise their eyebrows dramatically). Nope. That's a cop-out. Construct a setting grounded in reality, and the fantastic element will seem all the more disconcerting and amazing when it manifests itself.

And while we're on the subject of rules and laws...

Follow Your Own Bloody Rules!
And whatever you do, do NOT blink!
Man, talk about something that's genuinely terrifying...
Let's say for example that in the course of a movie's story it's been established that in order for the heroes to absolutely, definitely banish the evil demon BeeEffDee, they need to stick a Popsicle stick in their left ear, put a disposable diaper on their head, eat a five-dollar foot-long sub from Subway that was purchased in the last 24 hours, and recite the Lord's Prayer in Pig Latin. So they follow the rules exactly and the demon is banished, but the last few minutes of the movie...dun dun DUNNNN!!!!!!...the demon's in fact not gone at all! Oooooo, scary! What a twist!

No, I'm sorry. If you create an internal logic, a set of laws, then you follow them. Now, if you want to say that the sub was in fact bought 25 hours ago, not 24, then that's okay, especially if you give the audience even the slightest chance to spot the error although the hero doesn't. For instance, perhaps it's been established that the story is occurring during Daylight Savings Time, and the protagonist forgot to take that into account! Ooooo! What a twist! Daylight Savings Time claims another victim! Aw, tough luck, sparky!

You can't establish the rules, then toss in something at random and call it a day. It's sort of like the mystery writer who establishes a cast of murder suspects then, at the denouement, the murder is revealed as...Cousin Clyde, whose existence up until now wasn't even remotely hinted at! No, sorry, mystery writer; you didn't outsmart the audience. You're not clever; you're a cheating tool who can't write a mystery if your life depended on it. Go write some pony fanfic or something.

Give Me Someone To Root For
While I can derive a certain guilty, visceral satisfaction in seeing arrogant, self-absorbed sluts and bullying, douche-bag jocks get their comeuppance, it tends to get old after a while. I want someone I can root for; someone a little likable. They don't have to be goody-goody perfect, but at least make them someone sympathetic, not just pathetic. In order for horror to have an impact, you have to care about the people who are going through the ordeal, even if it's just one solitary person. Don't just set up bowling pins clad in one-dimensional caricature costumes and knock them down; give me a person or persons that I can identify with; it puts me even more into the story, and thus the terror strikes closer to home.

A story where the protagonist wins, whether the victory comes at a cost or not, is cool. Stories with a happy ending and horrifying elements are not mutually exclusive. A story where the protagonist loses, well, that can be good too, especially if there's an element of suspense and uncertainty as to the outcome.

Lay Off The Kids And Animals
Leave us out of your gross horror movie, human!
OK, this one's a blatant personal bias, I admit. But ever since I became a dad yea those many years ago, and also became a Cat Person about a decade ago, I have a strong aversion to seeing bad things happen to kids, babies, and animals, pets in particular. In my brain, I see children and pets/small animals as being among the most helpless targets out there, and even worse, they all lack the proper awareness to comprehend just why they're suffering and dying. No. I don't like it. It tap-dances into the territory of "unnecessary cruelty". In fact, if you've read this far, you can tell for yourself how the whole "kids and animals" thing stems from several of the previous points.

And again, the real news is filled with heart-wrenching stories of child abuse and animal cruelty. No. I don't need to see this sort of thing portrayed on screen or in the pages of a book. Give me escapism, and scare the Hell out of me for good measure. The destruction of innocence is not spooky; it's sad and depressing.

Humor And Sex
Laughing and boinking are two really awesome pastimes (though probably not simultaneously), obviously. Though far be it for me to decry their inclusion in a horror story, any opinions I've formulated on the topic comes from seeing both elements just so horribly, horribly overused.

No one begrudges the use of a little comic relief, especially to serve as a tension-breaking link between really scary scenes. Hell, even Macbeth has humor, thinking here of the scene involving the drunken door-keeper.

"AAAAH! I said "Macbeth"! Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends!"

Here's a hint..
(The Really Cool People will know where that came from)

Humor can be a vital part of a horror story, provided its used at the right time. Look at stuff like Tales From The Crypt, with its gallows humor, for instance. It's particularly cool when the humor is woven into some twist, some irony, or some fitting punishment. Laughs and scares have a long tradition of working hand in hand, and when comedy is used sparingly, it can be a nice little breather from the unending parade of horror that we so willingly subject ourselves to.

As for sex, well, that's a hard one (that's what SHE said!). Like humor, sexuality is one of those things that has strong ties with horror. You can't just pretend it doesn't exist (remember the whole thing about creating a realistic setting?). But the question becomes, does the sexual situation in question really belong? Does it really have anything to do with the story, or is it just thrown in for the sake of grabbing attention? I mean, how many times do we have to see that two people (particularly teens) having sex mean that the conductor is about to punch two more one-way tickets on the Grim Reaper Special?

Sometimes, sex can actually be a central part of the movie, say, for instance, David Cronenberg's "They Came From Within", also known as "Shivers". Of course, that one ventures into "pretty damned disturbing" territory at times.

Speaking of sex, have you ever noticed the disproportionate number of women who are ravished by assorted creepies (invisible entities, heads in baskets, trees, giant worms, humanoids from the deep, household appliances, sentient dummies, et al) as compared to men exposed (so to speak) to the same treatment? And usually, on those rare occasions when an evil entity does get busy with a guy, it's usually some hot succubus or Countess Boobula the Vampire?* Just saying.

And now, some final quick points:

No More Found Footage Movies

Same Goes For Remakes
Stop. I'm begging you here. This means YOU, Rob Zombie!

Fast Zombies Suck
Seriously. They do.

Vampires Don't Sparkle

Moveies That Work/Don't Work For Me
What works for me:
The Changeling (w/George C Scott)
Dead Silence (AAAAAH! DUMMIES!)
Event Horizon (vastly underrated)
Night Gallery (the pilot movie)
The Conjuring
The Exorcist/The Exorcist III
The Woman In Black (the original, not the remake)
The Fog (the original, not the crapfest remake)

::SNORT!::  ::GIGGLE!::
And here's some that do NOT work for me:
House of 1,000 Corpses
Blair Witch Project
The Saw franchise as a whole (though the first one was ok)
Exorcist II
Hostel (and all of its ilk)
Just about every remake

Speaking of Endings....
Does this rambling make me a horror snob? Yes, probably it does. I will sit here and tell people that it's just my opinion and that it's neither better or worse than anyone else's, while quietly convinced that my way is in fact superior. You know, just like most everyone else does when it comes to opinions.

So there you have it: to me, horror means something frightening, something outside the realm of reality, sending me on a nice little dark-filled voyage away from the mundane, then bringing me back again into the light when the time is right. Is that really so difficult a thing?

I'm interested in what others consider scary. What do you define as horror, and what movies are on your good/bad list? By all means, let me know!

* Countess Boobula will soon be a major motion picture, once either my Kickstarter gets approved, or HBO catches wind of the idea.


  1. Well, John, as a horror writer, I like this list.
    I like it quite a bit.
    I don't always ADHERE to it, but we're on a few of the same pages, you and I.
    Perhaps I'll send you a little something. See what you think.

  2. Great Article . . . I agree with your philosophy and movies. I always thought the same about the female nudity until I tried to submit a film of my own. Straight from the distributors mouth . . . "We need to see some boobs and something major happen in the first 10 minutes." So I guess that answers that.

    1. Thanks, Ken!
      And yeah, sad isn't it? I mean, I am totally in support of the idea of gorgeous women; so much so that I married one! But it seems a shame that more often than not, a good horror movie can't be accepted on its own merits rather than by tossing in some very much out of the place sex and/or nudity.

  3. So much to chew on in this post on a subject dear to my heart. Your lovely bride was the one who mailed her copy of Woman in Black all the way to Alaska so I could share in that scare. My love for horror movies and literature is pretty broad - sometimes I'm in it for the camp factor or the comfort of a well-worn formula - but as far as things that actually scare me ... It's always about characters first. That's why I find Stephen King so effective (real people!) and torture porn (sacks of meat!) so ineffective. Here are a few movies I find genuinely scary (while not duplicating your own list, which I agree with ... except for Dead Silence which I'd exchange for Magic):

    Devil's Backbone
    Session 9
    Rosemary's Baby
    Nightwatch (1997)
    I Walked with a Zombie
    Deep Blue Sea
    The Innocents
    Ghost Ship
    Dawn of the Dead (both)

    A scary book recently discovered: The Ritual by Adam Nevill.

    Look forward to hearing other suggestions from your peoples!

    1. Oooh, you got some nice ones there! :)

      Thanks for the book recommendation; I'm always on the lookout for new (good) horror reading.