Three Reasons Why Things In The Horror Genre Can Be Scarier Than You Remember

Shortly before I originally wrote this article, I had a rather surprising experience. My second-hand copy of the PC port of “Silent Hill 3” had finally arrived in the post and I was eager to re-live some nostalgic memories of playing the game on my old (and sadly no longer functional) Playstation 2 when I was a teenager.

Plus, when I found and played a demo of the PC version of “Silent Hill 3” a couple of years ago, I’d felt nothing but wonderful nostalgia. So, I was expecting a lot more of this from the full version of the game. But, after I’d finished the introductory segment from the demo…

…The game was about ten times scarier than I remembered! I’d always thought of “Silent Hill 3” as the least scariest of the classic “Silent Hill” games, yet I could feel adrenaline coursing through my veins and an icy shard of fear in my chest. Nervously, I found myself torn between the urge to explore more of the game’s nightmarish world and the urge to just find a monster-free area and hide there because I did not expect to feel actual fear whilst playing “Silent Hill 3”.

This is a screenshot from “Silent Hill 3” (2003). A game that is scarier than you might remember it being!

This naturally made me wonder about time, nostalgia, memory and the horror genre – since this experience just didn’t make any logical sense. I’d played the whole game before when I was younger. Surely, if I was going to be scared by it, it would have happened back then. Yet, my only memories of the game were nostalgic ones of how cool I thought it was and how it was associated with rose-tinted memories of my youth.

1) Perspective and maturity: One reason things in the horror genre can be scarier when you revisit them at an older age for the simple reason that you’re more likely to actually think about them deeply. You’ll have had more life experience and be at least marginally more mature, and this will influence how you think about horror games, movies, novels etc..

I mean, when I played “Silent Hill 3” at about the age of sixteen, I probably just thought “Cool! It’s a gruesome horror game with monsters. AND it isn’t as utterly terrifying as ‘Silent Hill 2’ 🙂 “.

But, when playing the shopping centre-based parts of the game a while before writing this article, I actually found myself thinking more deeply about the events of the game and wondering what actually being in a situation like that would be like. I started thinking about it less like a “game” and more like a story.

Likewise, I also started to wonder about the parts of the game’s nightmarish “world” that aren’t shown to the player. What lurked behind the myriad locked doors that are everywhere? How did that mysterious bloodstain end up in this room I’m hiding in? Why are there monsters lurking in the shopping centre, and how creepy would it be to go shopping and suddenly find that the shopping centre was abandoned?

So, gaining the capacity to think about things more deeply can be one reason why things in the horror genre can be scarier than you remember.

2) Practice: Another reason why things in the horror genre can be scarier when you are older is because your tastes tend to widen with age. I mean, when I was a teenager, I was absolutely fascinated by the horror genre. I used to love reading splatterpunk novels, watching late night horror movies etc…. It was a genre that was rebellious, emotionally cathartic and considerably more “cool” than anything else.

But, as time has gone on, I’ve found other genres that interest me. And, as a result, I’ve got somewhat “out of practice” with the horror genre.

So, a relative lack of exposure to “serious” things in the horror genre over the past few years can also explain why things in the horror genre can be scarier than you remember.

3) Fan culture: If you haven’t directly experienced a particular work in the horror genre for a long time, then you can sometimes end up remembering the affectionate fan culture that surrounds it than the actual film/game/story etc… itself.

It’s easy to get dazzled by nostalgic references on the internet and adoring odes to games/films/novels etc.. from fans on the internet.

Because fan culture often tends to include a lot of humour and a lot of focus on the more stylised elements of something (eg: Freddy Krueger’s glove, the crackly voice from the “Saw” films, the mask from the “Scream” films etc..) , then it can be easy to mistake this for the actual work in question. Since fan culture exists to celebrate things, then it is going to focus on instantly-recognisable things that provoke feelings of warm affection.

So, fan culture isn’t going to reflect that moment in a horror game when you’re walking down another gloomy corridor and can hear something lurking nearby. Fan culture isn’t going to focus on that really bleak moment in a horror movie when a character realises that all hope is lost etc….

So, yes, confusing fan culture with the actual work in question can be another reason why something in the horror genre might be a lot scarier than you remember.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Good Settings In The Horror Genre

Well, I thought that I’d talk about storytelling, settings and the horror genre today. This is mostly because I happened to re-watch an absolutely amazing horror movie recently, where a large proportion of the film’s scares come from the location that the film is set in. This reminded me of how important settings and locations can be in the horror genre.

So, I thought that I’d offer some basic tips for coming up with good settings for your horror novel, comic etc….

1) Isolation: I’ll start with the really obvious one. One easy way to make the settings in a horror story even scarier is to ensure that the main characters are cut off from the world, and therefore have to rely on their own wits to survive.

When setting horror stories in the present day, it’s also usually obligatory to point out that the setting in question has no mobile phone reception (in fact, this has been done in horror movies for almost two decades. See the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” for an older example).

By setting your horror story somewhere isolated, you not only increase the level of danger that the characters face but you also give your story an instant sense of direction and suspense too, since the characters have to find a way to either summon help or escape the location in question.

And, yes, the horror genre is one of the few genres where running away from danger is actually realistically presented as a sensible and heroic thing to do.

2) Symbolism and/or history: The best and most memorable settings in the horror genre are not only eerily mysterious (so that the characters, and audience, don’t know what to expect) but they will often reflect a deeper symbolic and/or historical horror in some way or another.

For example, the classic horror videogame “Silent Hill 2” (major plot SPOILERS ahead!) is set in an abandoned, fog-covered town that is filled with monsters. Every now and then, an air raid siren will sound and then the town will transform itself into a much creepier version of itself – with rusty walls, gloomier lighting and even creepier monsters. These monsters include things like a giant executioner-like character called “Pyramid Head” and creepy undead nurses.

In addition to this, there are lots of other creepy, but meaningful, details scattered throughout the town – such as an abandoned shop that contains creepy graffiti on the inside of the papered-up windows (which changes, depending on when you read it) or a mannequin that is dressed like the main character’s late wife.

All of these details might initially seem like they are just there to scare the audience, but they hold a deeper meaning for the game’s main character – they are all symbolic reflections of his own feelings of guilt about ending the life of his terminally-ill wife. For example, the undead nurses symbolise (amongst other things) hospitals and illness, Pyramid Head’s executioner-like appearance symbolises the main character’s judgment of himself, the evil version of the world represents the main character’s tormented psyche etc…

But, even if the setting of a horror story isn’t a direct reflection of the main characters, it is still important to include some kind of deeper horror too. Going back to the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”, a lot of the film’s horror comes from the fact that the film takes place in a derelict mental hospital that was run by a cruel doctor during the 1930s.

So, the additional horrors inherent in this setting include things like torture, outdated attitudes, psychological suffering etc…. Which are reflected in many of the locations within the hospital (eg: rooms containing scary-looking medical equipment that has been left to rust etc..).

The easiest way to add a deeper horror to the settings in a horror story is simply to give the location in question a creepy history. However, this alone isn’t enough. The design, style and notable features of the location must also be some kind of symbolic reflection (the more subtle, the better) of this horrifying history.

3) Unreliable locations: Another way to come up with terrifying locations for horror stories is simply to make the location itself a creepily unpredictable thing. If the main characters don’t know what to expect, or cannot even trust reality itself – then this will make the audience feel even more nervous.

The classic horror movie example of this is in “A Nightmare On Elm Street“, where almost all of the film’s horrific events take place within the main characters’ dreams. Not only does this setting give the horror a sense of chilling inevitability (since no-one can stay awake forever), but the focus on dream-like settings also means that the audience never quite knows what to expect. After all, literally anything can happen in a dream….

Likewise, a good comics-based example of this is Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland”. This is an extremely disturbing (and grisly) horror comic that is based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (and is even creepier than a classic computer game with a vaguely similar premise called “American McGee’s Alice).

Since the main character in “Return To Wonderland” is plonked into an evil version of a familiar fictional location (Wonderland) – this comic’s setting also plays on the reader’s expectations too. Because the readers think that they know what to expect, they soon discover that can’t even trust their own memories of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when horrific things start happening. So, the story is a lot less predictable, and a lot scarier, as a result.

So, the less predictable a location is, the creepier it will be. If the main characters cannot even trust the world around them, then your story or comic will be a lot scarier.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “Blank” By C.A.Brown

Note: This will be the last short story in the series. Stay tuned for a series retrospective tomorrow evening 🙂

The snow outside the window looked as pristine as the computer screen sitting in front of Phoebe. She let out a deep sigh and reached for the crumpled tube of biscuits on the edge of the desk. There were only three left. No, forget that, there were only two left.

Phoebe sighed again. She had to write something. Her publisher had said as much in their e-mail. But, putting words on the screen seemed almost as sacrilegious as leaving a trail of dark footsteps across the perfectly iced ground outside the window.

A smile crossed her face. Hadn’t there been an art gallery somewhere that had shown off canvases that were just covered with white paint? Hadn’t people paid millions for them?

Phoebe remembered a comedy book that one of her uncles had bought during the 1990s. It had been titled “Everything Politicians Know About Real People” and it consisted of two hundred empty pages.

For a second, she wondered whether she could get away with changing the title and adding a few extra pages. But, she remembered that her uncle’s old book had already been re-badged as a four hundred page tome called “Good Pop Music 2010-18: A Definitive Guide” that she’d seen on the internet a few nights ago.

Phoebe opened up her document folder and looked at the titles of her previous books. “Beneath Dark Spires”,”Post-Mortem” and “Spectral Signs“‘. She ate another biscuit. Why was this kind of horror fiction so popular these days? She ate the final biscuit. When did horror become so… sophisticated?

Of course, she knew that horror fiction had always been like this. Whether it was that copy of “Dracula” she’d never got round to finishing, or those hilariously formal Dennis Wheatley books that she’d found in a charity shop when she was a teenager, the natural state of horror fiction was one of sophistication. The horror fiction that she really loved had been an anomaly, a mutation, an aberration.

There wasn’t much history to go on, of course. But, when she was growing up, she would always see these books on market stalls, in charity shops and in the kind of second-hand bookshops where you can still smell the dust. They would have midnight black covers with wonderfully realistic paintings of skeletons, zombies and creatures. They read like music. Great crashing crescendos of blood and guts, counterpointed with gentle bucolic descriptions and functional dialogue between functional characters.

It took Phoebe a surprisingly long time to work out that if lots of these crumpled, dog-eared paperbacks were being sold second-hand, they must have been new once. Sure enough, on the internet, she had seen mention of a “horror boom” during the 1980s and 1990s. Apparently, lots of shiny new copies of these books used to festoon newsagents, motorway service station book racks and other quality literary venues.

It just wasn’t fair, dammit! By the time Phoebe had read enough of these books to want to write a horror novel of her own, the only new horror novels were sophisticated ghost stories, clinical police procedurals, gothic vampire stories and Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King. Well, at least some things remained the same.

So, with a heavy heart, she had written a tragic vampiric tale of lost love and eternal mourning. Then she’d written a clinical police procedural. Then a sophisticated ghost story. Everyone loved them. She’d even got good reviews from the critics in the broadsheet papers. She still felt guilty about that. Good horror, she thought, should disgust and appall pompous critics.

And now, with the three popular commercial genres used up, she found herself staring at a blank computer screen. Her eyes drifted to the perfect snow outside once again.

Then, without even thinking about it, her fingers flew across the keyboard “Crimson splashed the unholy altar. Gary’s agonised screams tore the sepulchral air. Above the splashing and screaming, the robed men kept chanting. Like an amateur production of Julius Caesar, they raised their dripping daggers in unison..

She stopped. She blinked. It was the best thing she’d written in three years. She kept writing. A smile crossed her face. She finished the prologue in less than an hour. Her computer pinged at her. Another e-mail from her publisher. With a heavy sigh, she started the first chapter: “In the pristine laboratory at New Scotland Yard, D.I. Stevenson carefully examined the body for forensic evidence..

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 🙂

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 🙂