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Monday, January 10, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 6

So here on the last part of Genre Talk's first outing, we're going to wrap it all up by talking about...


1) Horror is not Gore

When people I talk to start to talk about horror, one of the first things they mention is that it needs a lot of blood and guts.  No. Wrong!  Bad writer.  Bad, bad writer.  Go sit in the corner and think about what you said.  If gore = horror, then movies like Saving Private Ryan, and Braveheart count as horror.  They obviously don't, so let's just put that ridiculous notion aside.

Blood and gore can be used to make the audience realize their own mortality and vulnerability.  Seeing somebody's insides is not a common occurrence in a person's life, and being suddenly exposed to a young, vibrant teenager getting their stomach ripped out by a monster can be horrifying, but there's more to it than the gore.  It's the sudden realization that this young person, who like most teenagers probably thought he would live forever, is having his existence cut short.  It's the supernatural strength of the killer making you realize your own powerlessness.  It's the fact that this guy dying in front of you was a person, and now he's just meat, and it could happen to you.

If you just have gore, and blood, then you might as well have the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Blood and gore isn't scary, but the reasoning behind its appearance on the page, or on screen, can be.

I've very rarely ever been disturbed or grossed out by blood and guts since I got past the age of 12.  I will watch the goriest, flesh-ripping scenes in Hellraiser while eating a pizza with extra tomato sauce.  However, I'd like to describe an entirely bloodless scene from an anime that I had difficulty watching at the age of 25 to describe effective violence.

The anime is Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (Which translates roughly to When the Cicadas Cry) features a scene where one of the characters has pissed off some yakuza types, and has to make amends by hurting herself.  This is done by inserting a small, lever like device under the fingernails of one hand, and having her hit the end of the lever with her other hand, ripping her own fingernails off.  If you actually want to watch it, you may do so HERE. There is no blood.  You don't even really see the nails coming off.  You see the girl screaming as she brings her fist down on the lever, and hear a sickening crack! and see her facial expression.  That one scene was way more disturbing and effective than a hundred Freddy Kruegers disembowling a hundred dreaming teenagers.

This is part of the reason The Demonata isn't scary (Yes I'm picking on Darren Shan again).  Shan relies entirely on blood and guts and mutilation to instill fear.  That's his crutch.  He leans on gore through the entirety of his books, to the point of it being almost comical.  There's so much of it, it loses meaning.  There is nothing left to your imagination.  Darren spells every single thing out on the page for you.  Maybe he's trying to be edgy, who knows.  really, it just comes across like a seven-year-old saying bad words in an attempt to shock me with how mature he is.

So: blood and guts =/= horror.  Get that in your head.

2) Horror is not saying "Boo!"

"Boo" moments are when everything is quiet and then something pops out at you.  You jump and if you're on a date maybe you grab onto your partner for security or to cop a feel or something.  The moment passes and things go back to normal, tension gone.  This isn't horror.

Good horror lingers like a bad smell.  It sticks with you long after the credits have rolled or the last page has turned.  When you are alone at night, it's what makes you turn away from those shadows in the corner, or think twice about leaving the safety of your bed to go to the bathroom.  It does not rely on a single jump-in-your-seat moment.  That's cheap, and any idiot can do that. 

3) Horror is not The Monster

First of all, I'm using the term "monster" to refer to the primary antagonist in a work of horror.  It doesn't have to be a literal monster.  It could be a guy with a knife, or a sentient fog bank, or a disease, or whatever.

Now, I know this might sound a little weird but hang with me.  If a writer focuses everything, every ounce of fear, suspense, and all that on the antagonist (Monster), then they're limiting themselves.  The fear is only coming from one direction, and that makes it predictable, which makes it less scary.  The monster can (and definitely SHOULD) be part of the ongoing terror, but he shouldn't be the end all and be all.

In Stephen King's (There he is again!) The Shining, a lot of the fear comes from the demonic hotel.  It also comes from the husband, Jack, who is slowly losing his mind.  It also comes from Danny, the little boy, who is displaying increasingly disturbing and nightmarish psychic powers.  And it also comes from the weather outside, which is dark, and cold, and just as lethal as anything inside the hotel.  That way, if you're not being scared by the hotel, you're probably getting scared by Jack, or if not him, Danny, or if not him, then by the encroaching storm acting as a trap.  There's always something going on.

But if you focus all the fear on one source, then when that source is defeated, or escaped from, or whatever, the fear is gone.  Like I mentioned above, good horror stories stick around.  They cling to you long, long after you've put them away.  If you're making your story all about the monster, you're making a monster book/film/comic/whatever i.e. King Kong, Godzilla, etc, not a horror/book/film/comic/whatever.

4. Horror is not Static

What scares me does not necessarily scare you.  What scares you may not scare me.  What terrified people fifty years ago is sometimes laughable by today's standards.  What scares people changes.  I tried to hit on the most basic, universal things that frighten people, but not even those apply to everybody.

If horror were the same thing, all the time, it would be knowable, predictable, and unsurprising.  But it changes, and needs to keep changing in order to stay fresh and continue to scare people.  That's The Unknown.  If you're seeing a trend in horror, buck it, shake it off, and do something different.

And now, time for some...


These are works I enjoy immensely.  I'm not going to list ALL of them (we'd never leave), but I will list some.  I'm going to pass on mentioning works I've already mentioned for the most part, since I've talked about them before and don't need to again.


1: The Thing
2: In the Mouth of Madness
3: Ringu
4: Alien
5: [REC]


1: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
2: Books of Blood by Clive Barker
3: At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
4: Phantoms by Dean Koontz
5: The Mist by Stephen King


1: Silent Hill 2
2: Amnesia the Dark Descent
3: System Shock 2
4: Fatal Frame 2
5: Condemned: Criminal Origins


1: 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
2: The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu
3: Uzumaki by Junji Ito
4: A Small Killing by Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate
5:The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti and various artists

And as a bonus, if you want some horror music to listen to while you write, I suggest the following:


1: Silent Hill 2 OST by Akira Yamaoka
2: Miasma & The Carousel of Headless Horses
3: Godspeed you Black Emperor
4: Hellraiser OST by Christopher Young
5: Hanging Gardens by The Necks (this bears special attention because while it isn't as openly creepy as the others, I do find it kind of surreal and moody.  It's also one song over an hour long, so you'll likely have to buy it if you want to hear it)

And that's it for now!  Hopefully you got something out of my first Genre Talk.  If you have something you'd like to see me inexpertly tackle in the future, post here or something.   

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