As regular readers of this site probably know, I’ve been fascinated by old American horror comics from the 1940s/50s recently (especially after rediscovering this awesome archive site yet again). Anyway, after reading them for a while, I noticed something strange, I actually felt mildly scared.
This caught me by surprise, since they’re about the least frightening “serious” things that you can find in the horror genre. They’re hilariously melodramatic and they often have a brilliantly dark sense of humour and, yet, after reading them for a while I actually felt mildly creeped out by them. I think that this was because after reading them for a while, I got used to the melodrama, vintage settings, dreadful dialogue and cheesy storylines.
Since the comics no longer seemed quite as amusingly unusual, I “suspended my disbelief” and began to take the stories mildly more seriously. Suddenly, they actually started being at least slightly frightening. Yes, each individual comic isn’t particularly creepy but once you read several of them in one sitting, the level of creepiness gradually starts to build up.
This, of course, made me think about pacing in the horror genre. Different types of horror stories, films, games, comics etc… take different approaches when it comes to the subject of “when should the audience start feeling frightened ?“.
One approach is to begin the story with a creepy scene of some kind. This is a technique that was favoured by splatterpunk writers in the 1970s-90s and it often turns up in horror movies and/or TV shows. The goal of this technique is to instantly grab the audience’s attention with something gruesome or creepy, so that they’ll want to watch more.
The problem with this technique is that, by scaring the audience within the first few minutes, you lose a lot of suspense. The audience knows what kinds of things will happen in the rest of the story, so later scenes are less shocking as a result.
Another problem with placing a scary scene at the beginning of a story is that the audience haven’t had time to learn about the characters and/or story. Since the audience don’t know much about the characters, they won’t care about them quite as much. So, even if a character suffers an unspeakably horrific fate within the first few minutes, it won’t have much of an emotional impact for the simple reason that the audience doesn’t know this character very well.
Another approach to scaring the audience is, of course, to gradually build up suspense over a long period of time before seriously scaring the audience. This type of horror is generally a lot scarier, for the simple reasons that the audience know the characters better (and care about them more) and because of the constant dread of knowing that something horrible is going to happen, but not knowing exactly when.
The problem with this technique is that you also have to make sure that all of the “build up” to the scary parts of the story is interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention. In other words, you have to put a lot more effort into things like creating intriguing mysteries, creating compelling characters etc… There’s also the risk that the audience might lose interest before anything frightening happens.
A good hybrid between these two approaches would probably be to start your horror story with something mysterious, shocking and/or creepy to set the mood. Then, once you’ve grabbed the audience’s attention, ease off on the horror for a while and start to gradually build up suspense. This approach combines the best of both worlds and it’s a good way to keep your horror story unpredictable.
Of course, there are many other ways to handle the scary parts of your horror story or horror comic, but “when should the audience start feeling frightened?” should be one of the most important questions that you ask yourself.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂