13th October 2008
Most of what I will say here will also be applicable to horror in movies, but more on this more specifically later on. So, what is the core of horror? I would imagine it is fear. And what is fear? I would imagine it is tension.
Tension is what you want to have in a horror story. I’ll give you an example of what not to do. In a horror story involving the supernatural, you usually have one supernatural entity, or capacity. Perhaps some demon from Hell was summoned accidentally, or someone with bad intentions obtains special powers. That’s one thing, and tension happens between our regular realistic world and this new element. That’s a different type of tension than strictly the fear-tension, but it’s related. Now, if you’re Stephen King and you want to screw that tension up, here’s what you do: you introduce other such entities or capacities that should be unique. Suppose we have a story in which a demon from Hell is summoned, then a group of people team up to fight it. So far, so good. But then, being King, you decide that your group of heroes suddenly have telepathic powers, and, since you suck, you don’t root that special capacity to the same origin the demon has, thus making two specific supernatural entities/capacities and stretching the tension between your realistic world and something wholly other beyond its strength. The tension breaks, and you got nothing left.
Another better example is this: suppose one of the band dies in a fight with the demon from Hell. Now, out of the blue, that character is resurrected out of some group capacity the team has. That would be a third special capacity thing within our realistic world thing, and that too would kill the tension. Why? Because if a character that dies can be revived, then what could not happen? At this point, you expect anything and everything, which means you are no longer under tension, because your story is limitless. Whatever problem our main characters face, you know the author can pull out any insane trick out of his sleeves and solve it. Thus, you don’t feel tension, and you don’t much care about the plot either because anything can happen, at any point.
This is why I recommend you stick to one very specific entity or capacity that would be endowed with the “wholly other” and such numinous qualities. That is, if your setting is “our” world, our realistic world, our usual reality. If your setting is fantastic and all, you will yourself decide what is usual and what isn’t, but it won’t be obvious to readers before you delineate it yourself.
It’s easier to create tension in a written story than in a movie, because in a story, you give out the information exactly how you want, and you can have such scenes as having your character face the creature (or any numinous entity) and yet not give out what the creature looks like. In a movie, they would show you the character from the point of view of the monster or something along those lines. The point is, it’s easier not to show in a narrative than it is in a movie. An image speaks a thousand words, they say, and in the case of horror, it’s not always an asset.
To create tension, you have to have limits. These limits are what will give a sense of reality to your story, even if there are insane creatures in it. If you have children, you know that babies find limits comforting and reassuring because where they come from, the womb, all was limits, and once out of there, their insecure limbs can waver to every direction and not find any. (And I don’t have children.) This is why it is recommended to wrap your new born baby in a blanket that somehow recreates what the baby is used to. Similarly, some animals feel more secure in the darkness of a blanket than otherwise, when captured. True story.
How do you create limits? You make it clear what is possible and what isn’t, and you stick to it. Once the rules are established, you don’t fuck it all up with some new super power coming out of nowhere, because that will change all the rules, and it will in essence destroy the tension of your story because the reader will have to rearrange everything, and the reader will also know that you may again destroy that structure in later pages, because if you did it once, you can do it twice. There’s no guarantee, and that too will be the hallmark of a bad story.
This is a fault I find in Stephen King and Philip K. Dick, even though I never read an actual novel by King. I did see many of the films, and I know the basic plots, which is all I need now. (And please keep in mind I’m not attacking King, I’m only using what I know of his work to illustrate my point, so if you’re a fan and you hate me for dissing your hero, please forgive me and recommend a book of his for me to read; we can be friends.) For instance, if you have seen this most impressive movie Blade Runner (1982), and you then read the Dick novel it’s based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? well you know what I mean. In the novel, there’s a whole series of such “capacities” that don’t appear in the movie, thankfully, because that’s too much. If there’s an android theme in your movie, you will not want to add some mystico-religious pseudo paranormal virtual reality experience. Have one big theme and explore it to the full, that is much better than a gazillion half-assed themes. For Dick, it’s never enough to have drugs that make you live in a virtual reality, and have a man back from the limits of our universe, you also have to have people with special brain gifts such as divining the future and other medium-like abilities. Too much causes your tension to break.
A perfect example of this is Alien and Aliens. Respectively by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. In the first movie, you have one alien in one spaceship. In the second movie, you have thousands of aliens over an entire planet. Don’t get me wrong, both are good movies; they just are different. Cameron went for an action movie, and it worked great. Scott was going for something else, and he understood what I mean by having limits: one single numinous entity, one single location which you can’t escape. That’s how you create tension: you give clear and indestructible limits (and you do NOT destroy them later in the story!).
I am reminded of a horror thought I had when I was a child, by which I mean, when I was a child, I had a traumatic imaginary life. I’d be terrified of nightmares, and when I had them, they were the stuff of Hell. This one thought I had was about being chased around my house by some evil old man, looking somewhat like a zombie. I don’t recall exactly what this person looked like, but the focus of my thought was about speed. And the strange thing was that it seemed scarier if the evil person was slower. Why? I think it might be because if the evil entity is slower, it gives you more opportunity to escape, thus creating more tension because it becomes your responsibility to effectively flee, or fail to flee. A faster creature would get to you in an instant, and there wouldn’t be much tension in that, and on top of that, there wouldn’t be much time to feel this tension. Thus, a weaker creature is not necessarily less scary. Think of zombies! The slowness of zombies is usually counter-parted by their number. If you had just one slow zombie, it’d make for a pretty ridiculous story, but when you have hundreds, it works. If those hordes of zombies were extra fast and efficient, you’d have your characters killed in about twelve seconds. Not recommended, unless your characters have some weapons or situation that counter-balances that. It’s all about balance and tension.
Imagine another example: you’re in a huge hotel that’s entirely empty except for you... and a psychopathic killer, somewhere. Now that’s tension. To screw this up, let’s add 200 psychopathic killers to this hotel. You get the idea right away. You should be in a far worse situation, yet it’s not as scary. The fact is that, as Andy Warhol pointed out and demonstrated, repetition lessens whatever is being repeated. Instead of one numinous killer, you got 200 non-scary killers, and they become one abstract mass which itself might be scary, but in a very different way. You lose focus by having so many bees in your hive.
To conclude, remember to create and maintain tension by imposing limits on your characters and story. There must not be some silly deux ex machina trick to save your characters, they must pull themselves out of it. With a clearly limited character or situation, you create suspense and tension, because you know what can and what cannot be done, and should you be surprised, it should only be because of the ingenuity of the author, not by his giving his characters out of the blue new special powers.
I hope this was interesting to you.