One of the interesting things I’ve noticed since I got back into watching films again (and rediscovered the joys of horror movies recently) is how differently horror movies can sometimes handle scenes of gruesome and gory horror when compared to horror novels.
Although each medium obviously has it’s own set of techniques that are designed to make the most of the format’s strengths, horror films can still offer a few interesting lessons about how to make your story’s gruesome moments actually scary.
1) Less is more: This one is fairly well-known, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. One of the classic features of some types of horror fiction – especially horror novels from the 1980s (such as Shaun Huton’s “Erebus” or “Breeding Ground“) – is ludicrously “over the top” gruesome descriptions. After all, unlike films, horror novels don’t have to pass a censor before publication. So, they can devote entire pages to lavish descriptions of death, injury, decay etc… However, whilst this technique can be used to create a grim atmosphere and/or to gross out inexperienced horror readers, it isn’t exactly scary.
Horror “works” best when it takes place in the reader’s imagination. So, what you don’t describe can often be more effective than what you do describe. Whilst a detailed gruesome description of a horrific event might briefly shock the reader – a slightly less gruesome scene that implies these horrific events will linger in your reader’s imagination for much longer. And, because your reader’s imagination has to provide the descriptions, then they will instantly be more disturbing than anything you could actually write. Remember, most horror novel readers are already fans of the horror genre.
I recently saw an absolutely great example of this technique in a scary 1990s sci-fi horror film called “Event Horizon“. Whilst the film certainly splashes a lot of stage blood around, the grimmest and most horrifying moments are often left to the viewer’s imagination – and are all the more disturbing for it. It is a film that will show you something really gruesome, whilst also leaving the extremely gruesome elements of what is happening to your imagination through clever editing, camera angles etc…. This instantly makes the special effects much more “realistic” than they would be if the film-makers showed you literally every detail.
So, whilst there is a tradition of extended passages of ultra-gruesome descriptions in horror fiction, don’t be afraid to leave the most horrific details to your reader’s imagination sometimes. This can make the difference between a cartoonishly “over the top” moment and a genuinely scary scene of horror.
2) Plot matters more than descriptions: If you actually want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then they need to be something that would still be scary even if they were completely bloodless.
In other words, you need to pay attention to the concept and situation surrounding your story’s gruesome events rather than the results of those events. If the situation is inherently disturbing or has an extremely dark sense of humour and/or a shocking level of cruel inventiveness to it, then it will be frightening even if it doesn’t include that much in the way of gruesome descriptions.
A great cinematic example of this is probably Dario Argento’s “Suspiria“. Despite this film’s fearsome reputation, there’s relatively little stage blood on screen. Most of the film’s gruesome moments also use fairly low-budget and/or unrealistic effects. Yet, not only will these scenes make you grimace in horror but they will probably also haunt you for a while after you’ve finished watching.
Why? Because the horror comes from the events rather than the stage blood. This is a film where characters die in drawn-out, bizarre and often extremely painful ways. These things are what horrifies the viewer. Even without a single drop of stage blood, these scenes would still be incredibly difficult to watch.
Another good example of this technique is the French horror film “Martyrs” (2008) – a film that I have watched once and will probably never watch again. It’s that shocking and horrific! Yet, whilst it certainly includes it’s fair share of gruesome special effects, they aren’t what makes the film so horribly traumatic to watch. It is the film’s brutal, nihilistic, cruel and just generally grim plot that makes it such a gruelling experience. Like with “Suspiria”, it would be just as difficult to watch even without the gruesome special effects.
So, if you want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then you need to think carefully about what is happening. If the horror in your story comes from the plot itself, then your story will be frightening. But, if the horror comes from the gruesome descriptions, then your story will be less frightening.
3) Realism and fantasy: Following on from this point, scenes of gruesome horror are generally more frightening and disturbing if the audience thinks that they could theoretically happen in real life. This is why a very gory comedy horror movie like “Cockneys Vs. Zombies” (2012) is hilariously funny to watch, but a much less gruesome movie like “Suspiria” is genuinely shocking and disturbing.
In “Cockneys Vs. Zombies”, the main antagonists are literally zombies. Zombies don’t exist. On the other hand, although “Suspiria” includes some paranormal events, most of the film’s more shocking and grotesque scenes are very much “realistic” examples of human evil and cruelty.
This isn’t to say that you can’t include fantastical elements if you want your story to be scary, but they have to be “realistic” in some way or another. For example, whilst the gruesome events of “Event Horizon” are set in deep space and in the future, the film is still scary because it takes a very understated and “realistic” attitude to how everything is presented. The spaceships are grimy and utilitarian places rather than unrealistically utopian “Star Trek”-like spaceships. The characters all have fairly realistic personalities, flaws and emotions.
Even when horrific stuff starts happening, most of the more “fantastical” elements are deliberately left vague or unreliable in some way. Although the film’s sci-fi setting means that it will take longer before you start to suspend your disbelief and feel fear, it is still able to scare you because it takes a very “realistic” approach to it’s story. So, if you want to make a gruesome story scary, you need to make sure that your reader feels that the events of your story could theoretically happen somewhere or someplace.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂