Writing Horror is Scary BusinessPosted: June 20, 2016
For my summer semester, which will complete my additional screenwriting emphasis for my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, it was left up to me to decide what project I would like to work on, either feature film or television series. Since it is my final semester and I’ve already written both, it’s kind of a “whatever you want to do next” scenario. I’ve written a spec television script, for The Odd Couple, created an original television series, Unhappily Ever After, and written the pilot episode for it, as well as written two full features, one action, Across the Border, and one bio-pic, Bonnie. I’ve tried my hand at writing comedy with the television scripts, and I’ve delved into a couple of different genres in film. Now, I want to try my hand at horror. I’ve loved horror films since I was a kid. This summer, I want to write a monster in the house that will keep viewers awake until the wee hours of the morning.
If you’re writing a comedy, you write jokes and hope somebody laughs at them. But, how does one write scary? I think it is as much of a challenge as trying to make people laugh. The movie was pretty lame, but if you’ve read the book, The Blair Witch Project, you know that the story is actually pretty scary. When I read it, it left me with an eerie feeling that brought it back to the forefront of my thoughts for several days after. They had a good story, but they didn’t do it justice on the screen. That’s when I started thinking about how I might write a screenplay that would leave viewers with that same eerie feeling.
Robin Conley, who shares writing tips here, in her “Weekly Writing Memo”, did a three post series on writing horror on her own blog, Author the World. In her first post, The 3 Acts of Horror Stories, she talks about introducing the monster, increasing the threat, and the final face-off. No matter what kind of horror story you are writing, there must be some kind of monster, even if it’s the human kind, or the spectral kind. The bigger and meaner and scarier the monster is, the greater the threat for the characters. I definitely want a monster that will keep the tension ratcheted up and keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
In his book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, Blake Snyder points out that our monsters must be “evil” and the more that is at stake for our characters the scarier the monster must be. He suggests, “This is also why the tiny spiders in Arachnophobia, or the ones that can be dispatched with a baseball bat in Signs or die of the sniffles in War of the Worlds, are so unsatisfying.”1 And, I must admit, he’ got a point. Although I have always had a fear of spiders, in Arachnophobia it’s hard to be too worried about the characters, because this is a monster which can be easily escaped. The characters could get up and leave, or just step on the damn spiders, or buy a can of Raid™, for heaven’s sake.
I will definitely make my monster bigger than a spider. My monster will be of the supernatural, other worldly type, because they leave more to the imagination. Supernatural monsters can appear in many different forms, so you have open possibilities for making them really scary.
In her second post on writing horror, 4 Elements of Horror, Robin talks about how setting, senses, contrast, and imagination are important elements in horror, making your scarier by increasing tension and creating anticipation. It’s easy to see how the setting affects tone and sets expectations. A graveyard is definitely a scarier setting than a botanical garden. Although you could make a botanical garden scary by placing scary stuff within, a graveyard comes scary and you don’t have to anything to create a scary atmosphere and tone.
Blake Synder says, “the more cramped the space – the more isolated our heroes – the better.”2 That’s what the term he coined for this type of movie, Monster in the House, is all about. The characters must be trapped with the monster in some defined space, be it a house, or an island, or an isolated cabin in the woods. In The Shining, it’s a secluded hotel. In Cabin in the Woods, it’s, you guessed it, a cabin in the woods. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s an area surrounding the house and extends to include the whole town. Going back to the example of Arachnophobia, if the characters can just get up and walk away from the monster, there isn’t much of a challenge.
One of the scariest movies to me, when I was young, was Legend of Hill House, and later there was Amityville Horror and Rose Red. To me these were even scarier than the slasher movies, like Halloween or Scream. Since my monster is of the supernatural kind, it seems only natural that my setting would be a haunted house. In haunted house movies, the setting becomes a character, in fact it becomes your antagonist. It’s not easy to battle against a house, or a ghost in a house for that matter.
Robin also mentions using the senses to create tension. Screenwriting is a visual medium, and certainly characters can see things which are scary, but you can also use other senses to your advantage. It’s not hard to see how scary sounds could be worked in to your story, but there are also ways to work in the other senses, and is a good trick if you can pull it off. Obviously, you cannot make the audience smell the scent of freshly dug earth, but you can have a character comment on the odor and, thus clue the viewers into the fact that such a smell is present. Ditto with the sense of touch. If you are clever, there are ways to do this.
This will come in handy for me, because spectral monsters may not always be visible, but their presence can often be detected by a smell or odor that accompanies them. If you’ve ever walked through a room and detected the faint odor of perfume or pipe tobacco for just a moment, and then it was gone, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s as if someone just walked through the room, but when no one did, it’s kind of creepy. Feelings, such as chills or cold spots in a room are also known to often accompany specters.
Robin talks about balancing the horror elements, presentation and the stakes, in her third post, 3 More Elements of Horror. Not only do you need to have all the elements Robin mentions in her posts in a horror story, but you need to present them in a way that will give the audience the urge to hide their eyes, yet be unable to resist peeking through their fingers because even though it’s scary, they need to see what happens.
This is accomplished, I think, by having the right combination of horror elements and lulls in the storm, and by starting out small and building the tension and increasing the stakes in increments. At first, your characters may not take the threat seriously, but as more and more things happen and the severity of each event increases methodically, it forces them to eventually admit that something is amiss. You can even throw in some false alarms in the beginning to make it feel like there’s danger before there really is, but be cautious with this one. You want to build tension, but too many disappointments may cause viewers to lose interest before the real fun begins.
In her first post, Robin talks about having a death in the first act, perhaps as a catalyst to send your hero on his journey into the second act, where his normal life will be turned upside-down. She mentions that you want to do this in screenplays where the monster is of the serial killer kind and the threat needs to be established right up front, but I feel this puts the writer at a disadvantage, because there’s no bigger threat to build up to. Maybe this is an advantage of the supernatural monsters. There are so many little things you can do to build up tension and increase the threat little by little.
Blake Snyder also says that there must be some kind of sin, committed by at least one of the characters, which brings the monster down upon them. In a lot of horror movies, it is greed, a lust for money, which prompts them to go where they don’t belong or awakens the monster. In Friday the 13th, it is sex. The councilors were off doing the wild thing when Jason drowned, and the new councilors’ presence arouse his mother’s anger just by being at the camp. In Witchboard, the characters play around with the Ouija board and summon the monster, and in Nightmare on Elm Street, the kids get to pay for the sins of their parents. I plan to fall back on the good old dependable sins, greed and ambition, for my screenplay.
I don’t think you need a lot of blood and violence for a movie to be scary. I believe that if I play on the primal fears of my viewers, I can make a movie so scary, they’ll be wetting their pants. But I guess I won’t know until I write the darn thing, so I’d better get to work, and we’ll see if I can succeed in my goal to make a good old fashioned scary movie for modern times.
- Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. Synder, Blake. McNaughton & Gunn, Inc. 2007. p. 3
2. Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. Synder, Blake. McNaughton & Gunn, Inc. 2007. p. 3
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