Horror Autopsy

The realms of the unreal provide playgrounds to terrorize and entertain, to delight and distract us from the madness of the real world.

Today, we’re going to pull out the still beating heart of horror and get an approximate sense of what makes it tick. The phrasing, approximate sense, is precisely chosen. Horror pulls upon atavistic elements of humanity: things in the reptilian part of our brain designed for survival, danger signs sliding along the surface of the subconscious causing the hairs on the back of your neck to bristle, your eyes to dart about nervously, and goosebumps to rise upon the back of your arms. Or not.

We all have our personal wells of terror to draw upon.

Fears of childhood made manifest. Psychic scars that may mend, but our mind holds as dear lessons every bit as valuable and essential as your hand learning the stovetop is hot or sharp things bring blood.

The trick is taking these terrors, these fears, and transforming them into a narrative construct, be it story or scenario.

Story in this sense is any linear path for the end user, while scenario indicates an interactive narrative where the outcome is most commonly uncertain (and, yes, scenarios can be stories, but stories are not scenarios, at least, not yet). The closest term we presently have for stories featuring interactivity is “interactive story”. As I write this, I’d say promoting the usage of scenario could help separate a traditional story from the latter.  (Yes, this sounds horribly technical and dispassionate and is an important ramble for another day).

This discussion collapses both story and scenario largely into one, highlighting as needs dictate.

Both forms function largely the same with the exceptions noted previously.

At the barest level, you need:

  • one or more protagonists.
  • an objective.
  • an obstacle.
  • conflict.
  • an antagonist.

This list looks pretty much like all  things (movies, video games, comics, novels, and what not) because, underneath their masks, romantic comedies, tragedies, mysteries, and horror share common elements, basic building blocks used to construct a thing. Using these things are enough to get started.

Throwing these elements together, you can get…

Stan Wells (protagonist) who goes to Ebon Eaves to find out about the disappearance of Meredith Ross (objective). The townsfolk are clannish and close-mouthed (obstacle) and the Mayor (antagonist) wants to drive Wells out of town (conflict).

This doesn’t sound particularly scary, though, does it?

You need to add atmosphere and embellish and flesh out the characters. Round them out by providing a sketch of detail. You rarely need more than a little quirk or distinguishing feature for supporting cast, while you want to expand out the antagonist much more. The mechanic who slurs slightly when he talks evokes all sorts of questions, as does Mrs. Wills, the librarian, who reeks of cheap perfume.

Invite all the senses to play. Get them involved. The better you’re able to draw the readers or players into the tableau, the more intense the experience.

You want to provide a glimmer of hope (whether it is false or otherwise).

You’re not creating a treatise on nihilism. You’re likely wanting to create an entertaining diversion, an opportunity for heroes to be heroes. There are various approaches to horror, be they Lovecraftian or otherwise, and even those facing Mythos monstrosities are largely about Man vs Nature (The Uncaring Universe, as personified by eldritch elements) faced with the obstacle of intellectual curiosity. Even in those stories, you hope the protagonist escapes if nothing else. And even knowing he’s walking to his doom, you are certain the journey is worthwhile.  Then there is splatter and more graphic horror that is drafted largely like action sequences interjected into a morality play which fall outside the purview of this discussion.

We want to have our cake and eat it too. For modern audiences, we want our heroes to overcome and survive. Even in horror stories. There are worse things than death after all.

And you want a mystery with all the wonderful layers of an onion. You want questions to arise, to prompt the protagonist(s) to move ever onward. Better yet, you want to make the stakes personal.

Stan Wells is the absent godfather of Meredith Ross, the daughter of his best friend, Joshua Heath who died in a car crash last year. Wells didn’t return because of a falling out he had with Joshua’s wife, Amanda, who committed suicide after Stan left. Meredith was left to the state, and the state placed her in Open Arms Orphanage where she’d stayed for three months before disappearing. Wells, who still got the town newspaper, saw the small article beneath the fold about Meredith’s disappearance, and talked his editor into footing the bill for him to pursue the story. This grants Wells motivation far beyond merely getting a story. Our man, Stan, motivated by guilt must open more wounds.

Put in a ticking clock.

Stan learns that Meredith isn’t the first girl to go missing. One’s been going missing around this time each year for the past five years, starting the year after he left town, and their bodies are found drained of blood and nailed to the Winston Oak in the middle of Rookwood the last day of the month of the disappearance. This gives Stan a week to try to find Meredith before she turns up as the next victim.

What about the monsters?

Monsters are not merely monstrous or otherworldly, though they most often are in horror. Grounding things fully in the real, man can be the real monster, and nary a supernatural element is required to tell a scary tale. Uncertainty is great for keeping the audience off balance and answering questions with generosity whilst creating more questions is the name of the game. Use monsters sparingly and teasingly to ratchet up tension.

Don’t Delay the Inevitable

People rarely claim a horror (whatever) is too short. Often, the contrary. It’s hard to maintain a continual level of darkness for extended periods. (It’s not impossible. As you master your craft, you can introduce denouements and play with rising and falling action to keep the roller coaster ride going.) Once the jig is up, the jig is up, and the story shifts from mystery to pursuit (by the antagonist or protagonist) or off on some other tangent.

Horror is strongest in the darkness and when still veiled in mystery.

Provide resolution to the main plot thread.

This could be the showdown with a cult. This could be evil winning. Horror stories should provide more questions than answers, yet to make them rewarding, they should provide an emotional payoff to the reader. Rather than being killed, an anonymous phone call reveals Meredith is asleep at the train station. How dark is the town? Who called? Why was she returned? Was she chosen for a higher purpose or did someone simply want Wells to quit poking around? Does a short-term victory result in even greater ramifications down the road? What if Meredith (and the other children) are sacrificed to placate an ancient horror and to keep the spells binding it strong? What if it doesn’t feed?

Tough choices should be everywhere.

Too much death can desensitize your audience. Use it with discretion. Some of the greatest terror is conjured up in the mind’s eye. Have things happen offscreen and out of sight. Leave breadcrumbs to point the way.

Don’t tidy everything up.

The world is messy. Some loose ends provide verisimilitude. Grounding things as much as possible lowers the audience’s defenses and make them more willing to suspend belief when you reveal there is no cult, no conspiracy, there is the ghost of a jilted lover, mad with rage, tied to the town, who wants Wells to suffer.  Does he survive? Does he sacrifice himself to save Meredith and free the town?

As sketched out, this could be either a story or a scenario. The audience could be reader or player. As I wrap this up, I think I’d call it something like “ALL FOR YOU”.   If making this a scenario for more than one player, I’d likely elect one character to be the godparent and the rest with ties to either the godparent or the deceased Heaths for greatest emotional impact.

There are multiple ways to evoke horror. Don’t be lazy.

Use the core elements of storytelling to build a strong foundation and then carefully overlay the foundation with weird, bizarre, and dangerous, using all the tools at your disposal. Think of what the real monster of your story is, it could be a vampire, serial killer, or a mad mayor.   Be wary of drifting from horror to action/adventure. There is a fine line. Hannibal is horror. Supernatural is not.




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