HORROR STORYTELLING PART II: THE REVENGE
In the first article we talked about the idea of starting with a base foundation of relatable human experience, and only then introducing the horror element. So then of course the question becomes: What should that horror element be?
Just like the story that surrounds it, the horror element should be drawn from universal human experience. Even if it’s expressed within a supernatural or folklore-ish manner, the thing or idea we use to scare the audience carries the best punch when it is in some way relatable.
Creature feature. A creature feature is any story in which our horror element is an animal or monster is going around and attacking/eating people. JAWS is a creature feature; ALIEN is a creature feature; SNAKES ON A PLANE is a creature feature.
Creature features draw their power on the atavistic memory we share as a species, from when humanity was much lower on the food chain. We used to quake in the very real fear that the dark concealed lions, tigers, and bears (and wolves and sharks and fantastical monsters our ancestors’ imaginations created). Creature features remind us of those days, and the fact that an apartment and a vente latte doesn’t protect us from being eaten.
Ghost stories touch on a fear of the dead, and a fear of the past. Ghost stories draw on the idea that the sins or atrocities of the past are never forgotten, they never go away. It doesn’t even matter that we might have had nothing to do with these events; we just have to be where they were committed, a la THE GRUDGE.
Family. On the surface, THE EXORCIST is about a fear of evil spirits. But it’s also about the fear of having a sick child. I would posit that the spinal tap sequence is as grueling and horrifying as the demonic business we see in that film. Ultimately, it’s just another scene in which a mother helplessly stands by and hopes that this team of “doctors” can cure her daughter.
Ourselves. Any story that touches on transformation or other body horror draws on the fear that we cannot put faith in the one thing in this world we truly own: our own minds and bodies. In EVIL DEAD II, Ash’s hand gets possessed; he whimpers a plea to the Candarian Demons: “Give me back my hand!” In AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, David realizes that he is a danger to everyone around him, and there is no cure but death.
Each other. Almost every zombie movie is keyed off a fear of the people around us. Note how in many of the classics the zombie outbreak causes society as a whole to fall apart, a la DAWN OF THE DEAD. It’s a “body horror” story of civilization.
The unknown. To quote H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”