Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 2
NUMBER TWO: Vulnerability
The protagonist, or whoever it is the audience happens to identify themselves with, must be vulnerable in same way, shape or form. If they are not vulnerable, any sense of fear is lost. By being vulnerable, the audience can connect to their own sense of inherent squishiness and mortality. Those teenagers Jason is chopping up like Yule logs could easily be you, the audience, were the circumstances different.
You ever watch one of those daredevil guys do some insane stunt, like jump his bike over a hundred flaming buses filled with rabid wolverines or something? The second he goes off the ramp, you probably get at least a little nervous about him crashing (and let's be honest, the dark little part of you that you ignore and pretend doesn't exist in polite society is secretly wringing its hands in the hopes that he will crash, but that's a discussion for later). It's because you know that guy is just as human, and mortal as you, and you naturally empathize a little with the risk.
Horror tries to do the same basic thing: it wants you to put yourself on the screen, the page, or whatever, and feel the terror the characters feel. Good horror does that by making its characters helpless in the face of some greater threat, and exposing them to it somehow. They can run, but they can't hide. Bad horror never makes that connection, either by making the characters to strong/fearless/prepared, making the bad guy too weak or stupid, or never really making it seem like anything is at risk.
I'm going to mix things up and use example from two different mediums: CUBE which is a Canadian psychological horror/thriller film, and The Demonata, a series of books by Darren Shan.
The plot for CUBE goes like this: several people wake up in surreal, empty square rooms of varying colors with no memory how they got there and no idea what they're doing there. They soon discover, rather gruesomely, that some rooms contain lethal and exotic traps, while others are safe. They have no food, water, or anything but their own clothes, and time is running out for them.
In CUBE the characters are vulnerable in a lot of ways: first, they're human, so they get cut up, burned, melted, stabbed, and diced just like the rest of us. Second, they don't know what the hell is going on. Their ignorance and confusion (a confusion the audience shares 100%) makes them just as vulnerable as their lack or steel-reinforced body armor. Third, they distrust each other, right from the start. Even among their group, there is the potential for harm to be done from within. Even the so-called "Safe-Rooms" present the threat of wasted time, and dying of thirst, or starvation, or whatever. They are vulnerable from the opening second of that film until the credits roll.
CUBE isn't a perfect movie, but it is a good example of vulnerability in horror, especially done on multiple levels. Vulnerability can be mental and physical, and the fact that the audience remains as perpetually confused right along with the characters makes empathy with them that much easier.
Now let's (regrettably) look at The Demonata. The overarching plot of the series revolves around the absurdly named Grubbs Grady, who has his family butchered in front of him by demons, then goes to live with a mysterious uncle who teaches him about the demons and other things as well. Among the many things Grubbs learns is how to use magic. This is not a clever magic system with rules, and patterns to it, like in Harry Potter, or any of another number of books with well-constructed and unique magical systems. this is Deus ex Machina magic. Nothing else.
During a fight with two demons, Grubbs gets a hand (or arm or leg or something like that) cut off, then uses magic to reattach it to himself within seconds. He laments that "it still hurt though." Later, he is being chased by hungry demons while trying to save a bunch of people, and turns his legs into swords and impales one of the demons, then summons a magic force field out of thin air that totally blocks the demons, but lets the people pass through unharmed.
This is not only lazy writing, it isn't scary or tense at all. I've heard some people argue that Demonata is really just dark action or something, but it's touted by the man himself as "The latest series from the Master of Horror!"(By the way, Stephen King and Clive Barker are both still alive. So right now, he's just the master of the incorrect label) so I don't want to hear that this isn't supposed to be horror. It is, it's just awful.
When your main character can warp reality to his whim nothing is scary anymore. I know he's just gonna pull some mumbo jumbo out of his ass and be okay. and if he does get hurt, he'll just use magic later. Another example of this is done before Grubbs even knows he has powers. After finding his family dead and the demons in his house, Grubbs runs for the back door, knowing he won't have time to open it before the demons fall on him and eat his gizzards. So he just follows some random insinct he has and dives for the too-small doggy door, only to have it expand on its own, and he goes literally flying through it, and into the sky beyond before crashing in a bush.
Lazy, lazy, lazy writing. The buildup and shock of finding his dead family, the tension of being chased by a pair of demonic murderers through his own familiar, memory-laden home is knocked down like a stack of child's blocks because ol' Darren decided vulnerability wasn't important.
Please note that this doesn't mean your character having powers is bad. It can still be good and be horror, and have a magically-gifted protagonist, but they still need to be vulnerable. Another film example: Poltergeist. The little girl is a powerful psychic, but her power serves as a beacon for ghostly creatures that want to take her, rather than anything good. If you're going to add a character with power, first of all ask yourself "Why?", then ask if this is serving to make them more vulnerable somehow.
Maybe the protagonist is wounded and has the ability to regenerate, but must drain energy from one of his friends who are helping him, thus weakening the group and making them easier targets for the bad guy. Or a girl who can fling magic around like nobody's business, but whenever she uses it, it's like she's sending up a flare for the faceless soul-eaters that are hunting her. What's the other side of the power coin that's going to keep us in the horror genre and not just turn this into a bloody action story?
Well, that's all I got. See you next time for Part 3: Isolation.