Good Horror Shouldn’t Linger – A Ramble

A while ago, I ended up thinking about the purpose of the horror genre after doing some research into an interesting-looking computer game (that is way too modern to run on my vintage computer, but which made me curious nonetheless) called “What Remains Of Edith Finch”.

From what I heard, the premise of the game is that you play as a character called Edith Finch who is investigating her abandoned family home in order to uncover information about a family curse that has doomed all of the members of her family to bizarre, untimely and/or horrific deaths.

Intrigued by this macabre premise, I read reviews, looked at some gameplay footage and even read the TV Tropes page for the game. Yet, even without playing it, it had a surprising effect on me. Even though a lot of reviews I read claimed that it wasn’t a horror game, I was filled with a lingering sense of despair, unease and nervousness for at least a couple of days – just from thinking about the game!

Of course, never actually having played the game, my imagination probably made it a lot worse than it actually is. Yet, the themes of the game (eg: the inevitability of death, danger lurking in everyday locations, bereavement etc…) really didn’t have a very good emotional effect on me. It was kind of like how watching the “Final Destination” films tend to make me feel extremely paranoid about everything for a fair while afterwards.

It was then that I remembered why I don’t tend to look at as much stuff in the horror genre as I used to. Or, rather, I only really tend to look at more “light-hearted” things in the horror genre these days. Things like horror-themed comedies, cheesy monster and zombie movies, stylised gothic stuff, silly paranormal thriller TV shows, retro horror games with unrealistic graphics, cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi horror, horror-themed action games etc…

This, of course, made me think about the role of the horror genre. I would argue that the role of the horror genre isn’t to make the audience feel more afraid. Yes, it should scare the audience temporarily sometimes, but the audience needs to be able to “disconnect” from the horror fairly soon afterwards. As soon as something in the horror genre starts adding fear to the audience’s everyday lives (even just for a day or two), then I would argue that it has failed.

So, if the horror genre isn’t supposed to make people’s everyday lives more scary, what’s the point of the horror genre?

Thrills, enjoyably silly melodrama, emotional catharsis, cynical laughter, escapism, retro nostalgia, atmospheric locations, artistic experimentation, something to accompany the heavy metal music you’re listening to, feeling like a badass because you aren’t scared by the silly monster on the screen etc… I could go on for a while.

The point of the horror genre is to allow us to look at “horrible” things in a safe way. To laugh at the things that frighten us, to cheer for the main characters, to feel tough because we don’t faint when we see silly monsters and/or copious amounts of stage blood, to distract us from the very real horrors that greet us every time we watch the news, to make us feel smarter than the characters on the screen etc…

As paradoxical as it sounds, good horror might scare us for a while but it should leave us feeling less afraid afterwards.

Good horror shouldn’t be a razor-sharp sword of Damocles constantly dangling above our heads, it should be a thick iron shield that we can use to protect ourselves against any fears that we encounter in our everyday life.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Implication In The Horror Genre – A Ramble

Well, I hadn’t planned to write about the horror genre but, the night before I wrote this article, I had a disturbing nightmare that made me think about this genre.

Although I won’t describe the nightmare in too much detail (since, amongst other things, I hope to have forgotten the exact details of it by the time this article goes out), it was a dream where nothing disgusting, disturbing or repulsive was directly shown to me. Yet, I still woke up in a very freaked out mood.

This, naturally, made me think about the role of implication in the horror genre. It’s a well-known fact that the audience’s imaginations will always conjure up worse horrors than anything that a writer or film-maker can directly show. But, I thought that I’d look at why this happens and why it sometimes doesn’t.

Simply put, implying a horrific event in a horror movie, novel or comic reduces it to the level of an idea.

If that idea, in and of itself, is especially disturbing, grotesque, unusual and/or horrific, then the implication of it will be too. This is why, for example, a horror movie like “The Human Centipede” can generate controversy, shock and notoriety despite containing very little gory detail. Yet, something like a zombie movie barely raises an eyebrow because.. well.. everyone knows what the “idea” behind a zombie movie is.

By reducing something to an idea, it becomes especially disturbing for the simple reason that ideas demand to be interpreted in unique ways. There’s a reason why, for example, copyright law doesn’t protect ideas. If ideas could be copyrighted, most creative works wouldn’t exist. Two people’s imaginations can do radically different things with the same basic idea.

So, by giving the audience an idea, an author or director forces the audience to interpret it in their own way. It forces the audience to actually think about the subject in question. This also means that the horror lingers for much longer because it’s easier to start thinking about something than it is to stop thinking about something.

The author or director is also important for another reason too. In short, the audience expects horror writers and horror directors to be brave and fearless souls who have the courage to imagine a plethora of disturbing events in order to turn them into something that will shock and scare the audience. So, if even the director or the writer start shying away from directly showing something, then it has to be especially disturbing…

Likewise, the most disturbing scenes in horror movies and/or novels are the ones where you find yourself thinking “Oh my god! Someone actually had to think of that!”. If an idea is horrific or disturbing enough to elicit this kind of reaction, then the audience is going to react in this way regardless of the level of visual or descriptive detail.

The “Saw” films are a great cinematic example of this type of horror, where the characters are frequently placed in impossible “catch-22” situations which always result in death or injury for someone. But, as the final episode of season four of the BBC’s “Sherlock” showed, this type of horror doesn’t have to be gruesome to disturb audiences. The basic idea behind both things is the most disturbing part. For every diabolical contraption or impossible dilemma shown in either these films or that episode of “Sherlock”, someone actually had to come up with that idea.

So, yes, implication is especially disturbing in the horror genre because it relies on ideas. If the idea is disturbing, then it will be disturbing regardless of the level of visual or descriptive detail.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Indoor Exploration In The Horror Genre – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Indoor settings in the horror genre

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about an awesome type of horror fiction, films, games, comics etc… which I don’t think that I’ve written before. I am, of course, talking about horror stories that revolve around exploring large indoor locations.

This article was prompted by a really interesting old horror game from the 1990s called “Realms Of The Haunting” that I’ve been playing recently (expect a full review sometime in the future). This game mostly takes place in a large mansion that is vaguely similar to the location of other classic ’90s horror games like “Alone In The Dark“, “Resident Evil” etc..

In fact, some of the scariest horror movies from the 1990s/early 2000s use a similar theme of indoor exploration. Whether it’s the lost spacecraft in “Event Horizon”, the mysterious setting of the “Cube” films or the abandoned hospital in the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” – large, complex indoor settings can be absolutely perfect for the horror genre.

So, why is indoor exploration so important in the horror genre? The first reason is that, by it’s very nature, it’s a lot more claustrophobic. Having your characters traverse the narrow corridors of an old mansion, an abandoned prison, an underground crypt etc… is significantly more suspenseful than having your characters exploring a large open field where they can see everything for miles around.

Not only that, getting lost in an unfamiliar indoor location is considerably more confusing and scary than getting lost in an unfamiliar outdoor location. If you are outdoors, you can see distant landmarks, you can find other people (and ask directions) more easily etc… However, getting lost in a complex indoor area – with narrow corridors, unmarked doors etc.. can be a lot more confusing.

Another reason why indoor exploration is scarier and more dramatic than outdoor exploration is for the simple reason that indoor settings, by their very nature, have to have been built by someone. If your indoor setting is sufficiently creepy and “evil” enough, then it will be scarier than a similar outdoor setting for the simple reason that -on some subconscious level – your audience will realise that someone actually had to design that evil building. Someone had to design somewhere that was meant to be mysteriously, hostile and terrifying.

In other words, it’s easier to make the setting itself an adversary (or perhaps even a monster) in stories, comics etc… set in indoor locations than it is for stories that mostly take place either outdoors or in a mixture of indoor and outdoor settings. Yes, outdoor settings can be turned into an adversary, but indoor settings have more “personality” (and therefore are creepier).

In addition to this, you can use a lot of additional visual storytelling in indoor settings than you can in many outdoor settings. Since most indoor locations have originally been designed to be lived in, worked in etc… when your characters end up exploring abandoned versions of these locations, they will be able to see subtle traces of the people who have gone before them. This can be used to great effect when adding subtle horror to your story.

For example, if you show a room with a few small scratches on the inside of a door, then this could imply that someone or something has been locked in that room before. If you show a few faded dark stains on a pale carpet, then this could show that someone has suffered an injury there. There are lots of really subtle ways that you can use the design of indoor settings to make your comic, story etc… scarier.

Finally, people often expect outdoor areas to be large and expansive. However, many indoor areas are somewhat smaller – so, a gigantic indoor setting will have a certain level of novelty value to it. In other words, it’ll be at least mildly fascinating. This creates a fascinating tension between the audience’s curiosity and the fear that they’re feeling because of the scarier parts of your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

When Should The Audience Start Feeling Frightened?- A Ramble

2016 Artwork Pacing In Horror Stories

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Was The Horror Genre So Moralistic? – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Moralising in the horror genre

With Halloween drawing ever closer, I thought that I’d take a quick look at the horror genre again and how it has changed over time. I’ll also be talking about how moral rules are used to make horror fiction, comics, movies etc… both more and less frightening.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve become fascinated by old 1940s-50s American horror comics yet again after rediscovering this interesting archive site.

One ironic thing about this genre of comics is that, during the mid-1950s, they were pretty much banned (on both sides of the pond) because of fears that they would “corrupt the youth” or some similar nonsense. The monster-sized irony here is that they’re probably some of the most moralistic comics ever made.

These comics have a ridiculously strict moral code. Not only are literally all crimes always punished by death (or worse!), but even the slightest character flaw (eg: anger, greed, lust etc…) can quickly lead to horrific, and wildly disproportionate, consequences. In order to survive a 1950s American horror comic, you need to be a perfect paragon of virtue.

A similar trend can also be noticed in American slasher movies from the 1980s and 1990s too. Although I haven’t really seen that many of these films, it’s a well-known trope of the genre that the characters who survive these films usually tend to be the celibate, teetotal characters.

So, why did the horror genre used to include a lot of stern moralising?

The first reason probably has to do with it’s inspirations. Fear has been used by religions, politicians and other groups to get people to obey their rules for centuries. When these rules are sensible ones (eg: rules against murder, theft etc..) then this makes sense. But, often, the exact same scare tactics will be used for sillier or more illogical rules. Since these scare tactics were taken a lot more seriously in the old days, it’s likely that they had a strong influence on the horror genre.

The other reason is because one of the best ways to make people nervous is to set an unrealistically high moral standard and then to judge everyone against it. There probably isn’t a single person on the planet who hasn’t felt anger, jealousy, pleasure etc.. at some point in their lives. So, by telling stories about how these parts of human nature (which have all been experienced by your readers) lead to horrific consequences is a great way to frighten the audience.

Of course, these days, the horror genre is a lot less moralistic. There are a number of good practical reasons for this.

The most obvious dramatic reason is that too much morality makes horror stories, comics, movies etc… ridiculously predictable. After all, if a character doesn’t meet up to the moral standards established by the story, then the reader instantly knows that the character’s chances of survival are precisely zero. As such, too much moralising can remove all suspense and drama from a horror story.

The other reason is that perfect paragons of virtue aren’t usually very interesting or dramatic characters. Not only are paragons of virtue extremely predictable (if you know what rules they are following), but characters often tend to be at their most interesting when they display realistic character flaws. If the main characters are interesting and realistic people (as opposed to robotic paragons of virtue), then the audience is going to care more about what happens to them.

Plus, morality can be used in much more creative ways in modern horror stories, movies etc.. One way to do this is to make the story’s moral standards somewhat different to widely-accepted moral standards. A good example of this can be found in the “Final Destination” film series, where cheating or escaping death is framed as an immoral act that is always punished by unseen forces. By framing basic human instinct as immoral, these films are incredibly unsettling and unpredictable.

Sometimes, the disproportionate moral rules of old can be used as a source of horror in and of themselves. If a story’s moral rules are shown to be arbitrary and antiquated, then the fact that they can still affect characters in the modern day is certainly a disturbing one.

Likewise, a complete lack of moral rules can either be played for laughs, or used as an additional source of horror.

So, yes, morality is a surprisingly important part of the horror genre. It can be used in a variety of different ways to make a horror story, comic etc…more or less scary.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

What A Nightmare Taught Me About Plot Twists In The Horror Genre- A Ramble

2016 Artwork Nightmares and horror fiction article sketch

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote an article about writing (and storytelling in general). It’s also been a while since I wrote about the horror genre too. Even so, I’m going to have to start this article by talking about my dreams for a while.

As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later – although I should warn you that, since this is an article about both nightmares and the horror genre, it may contain some disturbing descriptions. But, I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

The night before I wrote this article, I had a nightmare (which was probably caused by the fact I was watching “Supernatural” at the time). It wasn’t really your garden variety anxiety dream, it was an actual nightmare – with creatures and everything. Well, one mythological creature of some kind, a monster hunter and everyone else.

The interesting thing about this dream was that it wasn’t actually seriously scary until the very end. Yes, this dream actually had a creepy plot twist.

The twist was, of course, that I (unknowingly) turned out to be the ancient creature that the monster hunter had been following. I haven’t even seen “The Twilight Zone” and even I know that this twist is taken directly from that show.

In retrospect, this melodramatic plot twist should have been obvious – given that the monster hunter shot me within two minutes of the dream starting ( at the time, I just assumed that he was aiming at someone else and had missed). Not only that, when I actually saw the bullet wound later in the dream – it was surprisingly small, almost painless and totally bloodless.

Then again, this wasn’t really that shocking for the simple reason that, in most other nightmares that I’ve had, any horrific injuries that I sustain are almost always totally bloodless and only mildly painful at most. It always seems perfectly normal at the time for some reason.

No, the really creepy part of the dream was the sudden change in the emotional reactions of everyone around me towards me when it was revealed that I wasn’t as human as I thought I was.

Although I overheard the monster hunter talking about the creature earlier in the dream (and mentioning that it can be harmed with milk), it wasn’t until after I’d seen my injuries in the mirror that the monster hunter suddenly appeared behind me and poured a glass of milk over my head.

Although the milk produced a theatrical cloud of smoke and some loud hissing sounds, it wasn’t particularly painful or frightening. It was everyone else’s shocked and/or hostile reactions that startled me into waking up quickly.

So, why am I talking about a nightmare that I had? What does any of this have to do with storytelling?

Well, it has to do with how plot twists are handled in the horror genre. As anyone will tell you, all good plot twists should be foreshadowed earlier in the story. To make a plot twist truly shocking, the reader needs to see a couple of subtle clues about it earlier in the story that theoretically give them a chance to work out the twist before it is revealed.

In the horror genre, readers expect a lot of strange and horrific things to happen. They expect tragedy, unusual characters and bizarre events. As such, there’s a lot more room for horror writers to hide clues about upcoming plot twists than there is in many other genres.

For example, I mentioned that all of the injuries in my nightmares tend to be totally bloodless. Most of the time, this just feels like an “ordinary” part of the dream – except for the one time that it was actually a clue that I was actually some kind of ancient creature. If this dream had been anything other than a nightmare, the fact that a gunshot hadn’t really hurt me much would have been a huge clue that something wasn’t right.

Another thing to remember about plot twists in the horror genre is that at least half of the shock value comes from the way that the characters react to these plot twists.

Yes, even if the twist itself is extremely shocking, it’s often only truly horrifying when the characters actually react to it. Regardless of whether they react with abject horror or with cold indifference, character reactions are an extremely important part of any plot twist.

Again, the truly frightening part of my nightmare wasn’t the fact that I was some kind of immortal ancient creature (since this, in itself, would be kind of cool). It was the fact that the people around me suddenly saw me as some kind of monster that had to be killed in the most horrific way possible. That was the true horror of the nightmare!

So, remember to foreshadow your plot twists carefully and – more importantly – remember that your characters’ reactions can make the difference between a scary plot twist and a silly plot twist.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Reasons Why The Horror Genre Contains So Much Dark Comedy

2015 Artwork Horror and Dark Comedy article sketch

For a genre that is supposed to frighten people – the horror genre can often be, well, hilariously funny.

Whether it’s a cheesy zombie movie, whether it’s something from a Clive Barker novel, whether it’s Freddy Krueger, whether it’s the sarcastic dialogue in a TV show like “Supernatural” (yes, I’m still watching it) or whether it’s one of Ellis’ Keith stories from “Left 4 Dead 2”– horror and dark comedy are often firmly intertwined with each other.

At first glance, this might seem like a strange thing. After all, the horror genre is supposed to be dark and depressing, it’s supposed to fill you with feelings of bleakness and terror. It’s supposed to be a serious and dramatic genre.

And, yet, many things in the horror genre also include a lot of dark humour – why is this?

Well, I can think of at least four reasons….

1) The obvious reason: When we watch a movie, play a computer game or read a novel – we want to be entertained. We want something that makes life more interesting for us for a couple of hours. We want to be frightened, but we don’t want to be miserable.

So, adding dark comedy to a horror story is a way to make sure that, although your story might frighten your audience, it won’t make them feel depressed. It’ll give them at least a short break from the horrifyingly bleak events of your story.

Plus, this also applies to writers too. Although it’s been a long time since I last wrote any proper horror fiction, I’d often find that I was either too frightened or too miserable to write any more after spending a while writing “serious” horror fiction. So, adding some comedy can be a way to keep writing when your own story starts to scare or depress you.

2) Similarities: Structurally speaking, the horror and comedy genres are a lot more similar than you might think. Both genres rely on clever pacing, expert timing, exaggerations, detailed narration, clever dialogue and absurdly strange situations in order to elicit an emotional response in the audience. In comedies, this response is laughter. In horror stories, this response is terror.

In other words, many of the techniques that you can use to make people laugh are very similar to the techniques you can use to terrify people. So, if you’re using these techniques anyway, then it isn’t too difficult to use them in a different way every once in a while.

3) Scottish showers: Back in 2009, I was lucky enough to see a re-creation of a 19th century/ early 20th century grand guignol performance (at the Abertoir festival).

In case you haven’t heard of it before, grand guignol plays were basically the theatrical equivalent of horror movies. Anyway, they would often use a very clever technique called “The Scottish Shower” in order to make their plays more frightening.

Basically, a grand guignol performance would consist of several short plays (the one I saw had three) and these plays would alternate between horror and comedy. If I remember rightly, the first play was about an evil doctor who experiments on his patients, the second play was a bawdy comedy about men with stiff… legs and the third play was about a vengeful wronged lover.

Switching between horror and comedy on a regular basis meant that the horror plays were even more frightening by comparison. So, dark comedy can add emotional contrast to your story – which will also make the frightening parts of your story seem even more frightening.

4) You: If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you either are a horror writer, have been a horror writer or want to be a horror writer. In other words, you probably possess the kind of morbidly inventive and unremittingly cynical imagination that you need in order to write good horror fiction.

The fact is that working in the horror genre requires a lot more imagination than most people think. After all, you’ve got to come up with ways to shock, disturb and frighten even the most jaded fans of the genre. In fact, you probably are one of those jaded fans.

And, well, the kind of highly inventive creative thought that goes into writing good horror fiction isn’t too different from the kind of highly inventive creative thought that goes into writing good comedy.

This is about the best way I can describe it, but the state of mind you need to be in to write good horror is very similar to the state of mind you need to be in to write good comedy.

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Anyway, I hope this was interesting 🙂