Horror is transgressive art. It seeks to show the darker side of human nature in all its ugliness. Using the medium of film, we explore themes that are considered off-limits to other genres. Our explorations of the dark underbelly of life can give the audience a cathartic experience as well as us, the writers.
People pay money to get scared. From the haunted house tour to the horror movie, the experience of being scared is what we're in the business of selling. We can write some of the most gruesome, terrifying scenes and audience-goers will plop down their hard-earned money to see it in living color on the big screen. That's one of the many things I love about horror.
Horror movies provide a safe outlet for people to experience being frightened. Much like the thrill seekers who climb mountains or ride fast roller coasters, the horror movie audience wants to be scared. As screenwriters, we can't let them down.
What exactly is fear then? If you're reading this, then you've experienced it at least once in your life. From a physiological standpoint, fear is the body's reaction to threats, whether real or imagined, most typically as part of the "fight or flight" mechanism we all have. Adrenaline is dumped into the bloodstream, the heart beats faster, pupils dilate, and the senses are heightened.
Fear is a natural reaction to something that scares us; it's an emotion that drives us to stay alive in horrific situations. But that's only what happens physically. The real center of fear is in the mind, which is where we as horror screenwriters will concentrate our efforts.
Fear has a significant attachment to emotion. This attachment can make an ordinary, sedate person perform irrational and often mentally unsound actions. Let's look at some of the more common causes of fear here to better understand how we can apply them in our scripts.
All fears can trace their lineage to a common source: the great unknown. Not having a clear understanding of something can be a great fear inducer. In Event Horizon (1997), throughout the movie the only concrete answer the expert Dr. Weir could give to explain the phenomenon of the ship seeming alive is "I don't know." Those three magic words can send chills down a moviegoer's spine; they're right there with the characters, seeing everything and knowing just as much (or little) as they do. It wasn't until the last moments of the film that the whole truth was revealed about where the ship's crew went and what was really going on.
Now let's look at a real-life example: the AIDS epidemic.
During the early 1980s, the level of scientific knowledge of HIV was not what it is today. Because of this, rumors circulated in public that you could catch HIV through a simple handshake or any other casual contact with an infected individual. As our understanding of the virus grew, the government pushed for more public education about how one can and cannot catch HIV in order to dispel the misinformation.
Unfortunately, many of those rumors ended up causing irrational, fear-induced violence against those infected, or even suspected, of having, HIV. The lack of understanding, coupled with public anxiety and unrest over this deadly killer, led many to overreact in their everyday lives.
This fear of the unknown had a great influence on director David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly (1986). The general public at the time was still worried about the AIDS epidemic, and Cronenberg reshaped the story into one of a man transforming under the influence of an unknown disease. Seth Brundle at one point says, "I seem to be afflicted by a disease with a purpose, wouldn't you say?"
Although Cronenberg denied that the film was an allegory about AIDS, the concept of the disease at the time and the film's being linked to HIV/AIDS was foremost in many moviegoers' minds and helped drive ticket sales.
This was in contrast to the original film's focus on science gone awry. The result was a timely film that not only played on public fear, but also took audiences on a "safe" journey through Seth Brundle's long and painful transformation into a hideous monster from this disease.
The Shadow Self
Whether or not we'd like to admit it, there is a darker side to our psyches. The pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to this darker side as our "Shadow Self." This was thought to be where our more malevolent thoughts came from, bubbled up to the surface, and became manifest in our actions.
The idea of man as his own worst enemy and a monster under the surface comes from this idea of the Shadow Self. Psycho's Norman Bates is a classic example from film, while many real-life serial killers embody this notion of evil and malice lurking just beneath the thin veneer of a charismatic smile. Indeed, I've see many examples of the Shadow Self as a thematic element in my scripts after writing them.
Don't be afraid about something dark and ugly slithering to the surface of your consciousness and making itself known: That's often where some good ideas come from for a horror story. Jung said that it isn't a bad thing for someone to have a Shadow Self, but not acknowledging its existence can hurt you. Rather, embrace it and realize it is just another part of you.
Getting a Handle on Fear
To get a better handle on horror you should know your own fears and why you have them. Chances are good that if you have them and can expound upon them in a story, you will also find many others who share those fears.
Try writing down what scares you. It may not be something you use in a story, but it will help you understand what it is about you, the writer and the person, that gives you a unique psychology. Let me tell you a little story about one of my own fears.
The movie Alien scared the living hell out of me when I was a kid. And given its box office take, not just me but countless others. There was something very unsettling, disgusting, and frightening about it at all stages. This thing that resembled a hand gripping around your face and a tail coiled around your neck that puts you in a coma, then slides a tube down your throat, a violation reminiscent of rape, lets you breathe but also to deposit an egg inside of your chest.
You wake up and feel okay, but a bit out of it with a sore throat. A few hours later, you start convulsing and thrashing about as your chest explodes outward, leaving you for dead as the newly-born creature slides out. It used you as nothing more than an incubator while it grew, then hatched out by tearing through your chest. And don't get me started on the full-grown adult with its razor-sharp tongue breaking through your skull to incapacitate you so it can grow more of its brood.
Later on in my life, after doing some research for my own horror story, I discovered that there were real-life counterparts in nature to this creature that were the inspiration for it: the braconid wasp and the human botfly.
Out of the two, it was the botfly that most sent my skin crawling. The botfly's eggs are carried by a host mosquito in the tropical regions of the world and detach when they come in contact with warm human skin. Body heat also causes the tiny botfly larva to hatch and begin burrowing into the skin, leaving only a small puncture hole at the surface for breathing. As they feed off the host body, they grow to about the size of an adult human thumb, with spikes lining their segments to prevent them from being pulled out. I read dozens of medical journal reports of botfly larvae being found in unsuspecting victims' backs, arms, breasts, even their scalps all the way down to their brains, wriggling around. And this was real!
Based on my own reaction, I had a hunch other people would have a similar one and just had to incorporate the little beasties into a story. I also took a small leap and imagined a whole nest of them infesting a person rather than just one larva. And you know what? People read it, and were entertained and horrified in equal parts. After explaining to them that botflies were, in fact, a real insect, their terror went even deeper. This was not just something I had cooked up my brain; this was something they could encounter for themselves if they weren't careful.
Can you see what I'm getting at? By knowing what scared me, I was able to connect with my audience at more visceral level and relay my own horror and fear of something, while at the same time entertaining people.
So how do we take what we know now about fear and introduce it into our story? Through tension and suspense. As horror screenwriters we have it a little tougher than those who write drama or action; we have to establish the tension as early as possible and carry the suspense as far as possible in the story. It requires a little more work, but it's worth it.
Where do we get our ideas? This is one of those things that nobody can really help you with as a writer. Ideas can come from anywhere at any time. I generally get my ideas from observing the world. Keeping your eyes and ears open will give you plenty of information to start putting a good story idea together.
Sometimes a story comes to us fully formed. Those are extremely rare occasions, so don't hope to just sit back and let them come to you. You'll have to find your story idea and put it through its paces to see if it's workable or not. Sorry to dash your hopes, but for most of us it simply doesn't happen that way.