Times are scary. And when times are scary, horror movies hit it big at the box office.
In this video we’ll discuss how to write a horror story for a screenplay or novel, we’ll use examples from great horror stories from the past and present, and give you TEN TIPS to get you started….
1. TRIGGER yourself, Trigger THE AUDIENCE
The horror movie is the opposite of a trigger warning, we come to get triggered. The Horror needs to know how to push the buttons of the audience. The easiest way to understand how to do this is to ask yourself what triggers you?
For example: Creepy little kids and religion do it for me, the perversion of innocence gets to me on a cellular level… So nothing scares me more than the Exorcist…
The worst moment of the film isn’t even horror, it’s watching Regan be out through a million medical tests. Watching a child undergo medical procedures brings up every parent’s worst nightmare….
It sounds mean, mining the real anxieties of real life, but that is the job.
Stephen King witnessed a girl from his town get mercilessly bullied by other kids. The memory of this bothered him enough to emerge years later as Carrie–the book that launched his career. I don’t like anyone touching my neck. A psychic told me because I was hung in a past life. Is that true? I don’t know, not sure I believe him. But watching a knife cross a throat always gets me.
Ask yourself, what bothers you? The chances are if it bothers you, there is an audience out there that shares the same trigger.
2. Give us people we LOVE, and put them through hell…
Stephen King said the art of writing horror is to give us characters we love and put them in harm’s way, watch them squirm their way out. So the first is to give us people we love. How do you do that? We need to make the characters sympathetic, but give them a moment in the story early on where they either do something good (SAVE THE CAT) or are the underdog.
In THE BLACK PHONE, we meet our hero and see he is being viciously bullied. This makes him the underdog and makes us feel for him…. When he’s rescued by a fellow student who beats the bully up for him, we really love this kid. This is called the SAVE THE CAT Trick. The character has done something good which makes us love them, so when the next scene they are taken, the horror is all the more effective.
The MOVIE THE STRANGERS has a genius take on this trick. A couple comes home from a friend’s wedding to a cabin in the woods. The whole place is decked out for romance, flower petals, and champagne, but the couple are disconnected… Then we realize that he has proposed to her, and she said no, and now they are stuck in this romantic cabin for the weekend.
This is such a great and specific and painful moment. We can imagine what it would feel like to be both of them, awkwardly trapped together with their relationship on the edge. There’s not much time to bond us to them, as this movie needs to get to the horror as soon as possible, so the movie uses this trick as a shorthand to bond us before it takes them to hell.
3. Use the UNCANNY VALLEY
The uncanny valley is a phenomenon that when something looks too human but not quite right it causes a sense of revulsion… Like those creepy kids from The Polar Express movie…. Ugg. Nightmare fuel.
The best monsters aren’t necessarily bizarre creations with many multiple limbs–they might be human, but just off….
Like watch this scream from THE THING. Sure a human head with spiderlegs is scary but that scream is one of the worst things in the movie…Or watch the way Samara in the Ring walks… There’s something wrong about it? Isn’t there? It’s an old trick from Nosefaratu. They filmed her walking backwards and reversed the footage in post
Or in the invasion of the Body Snatchers. This end scream has haunted me my entire life….
4. Write about a TABOO.
In the book, The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carrol talks about horror as a way for a taboo idea to be expressed. Horror can be a way to tackle ideas that would otherwise be too radical for people to face, but by labeling it Horror, we acknowledge it is something we do not want to face…
And then we kill it with a sledgehammer…
By looking at the taboo, we can find a source for the story. Like in the Babadook where a mother begins to fear there is something wrong with her child…. Something every parent secretly thinks about but would not utter aloud. What if you can’t deal with them? What if you can’t handle it?
Or in Get Out, which deals with the subtle undercurrent of racism in America, but did this without sounding the usual alarm bells that would make everyone up in arms… Horror allows us to tell stories about subjects that make people uncomfortable…
Search for the taboos in society today. What can you turn into a horror?
5. Take from REALITY…. (almost)
Horror loves to lie about being based on a true story…. The Texas Chainsaw, Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs all take inspiration from the real-life story of Ed Gein.
Although none of them tell his story. Ed Gein worked in a cemetery, and one day lost it and murdered his mother and her friend. The police found him with a room full of furniture made of body parts he’d exhumed from the cemetery and found he’d sowed himself a woman’s suit
Texas Chainsaw blatantly tells us this is true when Dan from Night Court says in his opening voiceover–but its’ a trick. The real story is nothing like Texas Chainsaw. The idea that it could be true makes the horror more potent.
The Conjuring similarly pretends to be based on the truth but is 90 percent bullshit.
Dallas Myers AKA, by the pen name Jack Ketchum wrote his book The Girl Next Door based on the true story of Silvia Likens, a young girl who was taken in by a family tasked with babysitting her for the summer, the woman kept her in a basement, tortured her, even got some of the neighborhood kids in on it.
Unlike The Conjuring, The Girl Next Door does not exaggerate the horror much. The real-life story is as disturbing as any movie.
The idea that this is true sends shivers up the audience’s spine. By finding something that is based on truth, even if you are going to exaggerate–like I’m pretty sure the real Warrens aren’t superheroes and Annabelle didn’t look like this, she looked like this. But the suggestion that something really happened will unsettle your audience even if they know it’s bullshit…
And good news for horror creators–the world is constantly producing new horrors for us to be inspired by
6. Use SUSPENSE.
Many horror writers make the mistake of going for the quick scare, but the real art of horror is creating that feeling of dread, and extending it and extending it..
Hitchcock lays out his rules for suspense in an interview….
Imagine two men, talking about baseball. A BOMB goes off.
What if instead, we tell the audience there is a bomb under the table…
We pose a question, and then extend the release of that tension, refusing to lessen it until the audience is worked into a frenzy.
Suspense is what turns the horror film into an amusement ride that the audience’s back again and again…
Hitchcock’s method was…
1. Introduce a TENSION by giving the audience knowledge our hero doesn’t have….
2. Extend that tension. Extend. Extend. Extend.
3. And then in the end, you must give an answer that is unexpected….
The greatness of playing with the idea of suspense is you don’t need a lot of scenes to fill the story, you just need a few good ones, and then you milk those for all you can..
7. Know the GENRE
Horror movie fans are one of the most rabid fan-bases around, they consume everything horror, searching out the newest and most original.
These fans know the genre. They know the tropes, and they expect their films to deliver on the genre and get off on the filmmakers playing with or subverting the conventions…
In DALE & TUCKER vs EVIL, a group of teenagers stumbles upon two southern men who appear to be Texas Chainsaw Massacre types but are really two nice guys that just happen to be blue collar with heavy accents…
As the teenagers run from them they one by one suffer horrific accidents….
The movie works because it plays with and subverts the audience’s understanding of the genre….
As in You’re Next… It tells the familiar story of a family stuck in an old dark house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by masked psychos….
But this time, a girl invited to the party is a trained survivalist and fighter…. Horror creators don’t have to reinvent the genre, we want new slashers, new haunted houses, new takes on zombies & werewolves and vampires….
Storytellers can play with the genre knowing the horror fan is always searching for that new twist on an old tale…
8. Make it a tragedy….
Horror often follows the arc of tragedy. We need only look at the mother of all horror, Frankenstein, to see this.
Dr. Frankenstein has committed an act against the gods by creating life, and he pays for it with everything he loves. This pattern in tragedy is often repeated the horror may be the result of sin committed by the hero.
In Sinister, Ethan Hawke’s Ellison Oswalt moves his family into a haunted house. But little does his wife know, Ellison moved into the house knowing it had been the scene of a horrific crime so he could research it for his book. His transgression will cause him to lose everything.
In the Haunting of Hill House, Our main character Eleanor enters a haunted house as an experiment, but it is a way of escaping the trap of her real life. It is a way of not facing the truth. But Hill House is the wrong place for a tragic hero. And the house refuses to let go of Eleanor…
Tragedy works well in horror because the end, the most unsettling thing of all is letting the monster win…..
9. Be based.
Horror is transgressive at its heart. You can’t make horror that offends no one. This is why a good percentage of the population refuses to go near a horror movie… They don’t like their blood pressure to rise.
The term elevated horror is a terrible term. I hate it.- first of all horror BEGAN elevated…. Watch Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the works of Val Lewton and you’ll see they’ve been doing this kind of art-horror from the very beginning…
But elevated does not mean of a “higher mind”… This is base art. Horror lives and dies in the gutter and anyone who tries to make a horror movie that doesn’t dare offend will make something toothless and unmemorable.
The most elevated horror I’ve seen in the past decade is Julia Decarnou’s RAW. It is a legitimate cinematic masterpiece and one of the best-directed films I’ve ever seen. But it is far from elevated. It lives in the gutter.
There’s a scene where a woman trims her sister’s pubic hair, resulting in the loss of a finger. A scene where a girl vomits strings of human hair. A scene where a girl bites a man’s lip off.
This is base, nasty stuff, even when it is considered art.
10. Don’t explain…
Horror works best when there is no explanation, we don’t want to know the inner workings of the creature from the Thing…. It just is.
Don’t tell me it comes from planet Zorblog. Don’t tell me its plans. Trying to make it all make sense ruins the mystery for the audience… We don’t know how the Thing is or what it wants from us. The rules are unclear and that is okay. Think how much more frightening this is than the aliens from Independence Day. Or think about how much scarier the Xenomorphs are in Alien than they are when you find out what they are in Prometheus.
In the book, WIRED FOR STORY Lisa Kron tells us that The human brain needs to make sense of things. It needs to create order, to fit things into categories… This is why we tell stories.. But in horror, we deny the brain what it wants… We are reminded us the unsettling truth that there are things that do not add up, things that cannot be explained, even by science.
In the end, the picture that shows Jack Torrance has been at Overlook for decades makes no sense and it doesn’t need to. That is what is so disturbing about it.