Horror: Getting it right

Unless I’m specifically looking for trash I rarely watch horror films, not because they scare me but rather because they don’t. There are a few good ones out there that break the tired and over-indulged mould, or have superb stories/acting that overcome the lack of genuine induced fear, or excel within other genres (such as suspense or drama), but in general, for me personally, a horror film fails if it doesn’t scare you. I often compare this situation to watching a comedy that isn’t funny. Have you ever watched a (so called) comedy that produced little more than a couple of titters? Imagine if 90% of comedies were like that; I would personally dub the genre broken but for some unknown reason horror remains relatively popular. A scaly creature jumping out of a closet and causing you to jump is not fear, it’s a natural reaction to a cheap trick. Fear is something that slowly creeps in and deeply unnerves you, not something that slaps you in the face and has you laughing about it 3 seconds later.

Now perhaps I’m being a little harsh here as the incessant barrage of teen slasher flicks from the 80’s and 90’s has all but dried up, and in its place a new form of horror has risen. The mockumentary, the implied, the ‘less-is-more’, these have added something fresh to the mixing pot. Though often lambasted (thankfully I was lucky enough to see it with the original (better) ending), the first Paranormal Activity film had me lying awake in bed and flinching at every noise. The Blair Witch Project really seemed to spearhead this type of fear (though for me it didn’t quite hit the mark as literally nothing paranormal was actually captured on film) and I really believe that this is the right way to go. The hugely popular Slenderman was born on the internet and completely encapsulates this, though aside from a few amateur web series (which are actually more frightening than their Hollywood contemporaries) and a couple of indie games has yet to truly flourish within the entertainment industry. Clearly fear is something that transcends budget and special effects, but what actually is fear? And how can I as a writer make somebody sitting at home draw the curtains and flip the lights on using words alone? I intend to ask this question of the people that I know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if every answer is different.

But to try and focus this stream of consciousness somewhat, why do I care? Well, in my last post I talked about how ‘The Authority of Stars’ will work as a series, and one of the points that I raised was the way in which each novel tells a completely different story whilst at the same time being one ninth of a greater whole. ‘Regarding Mikhail’ is a psychological thriller come military SF action, whereas ‘Lioness’ is a more fantasy-esque war-torn action/adventure and ‘The Theseus Paradox’ will be more of a classic SF novel with aspects of drama, romance, adventure, and thriller. My current project ‘Unchained Chaos’ on the other hand will predominantly be a horror novel, and I am absolutely determined to create something worthy of the genre. What can I tell you about it without giving too much away… the answer is ‘very little’ at the moment, but needless to say I will be steering well clear of serial killers jumping out of closets.

So what do I think fear is… I’m not 100% certain, but I actually think that’s part of the answer rather than part of the problem. At any time I could die of an undiagnosed heart condition, be struck down on my way to work by a lorry, or fall down a set of steps and snap my neck. Am I scared of death? Hell yes I’m scared of death. I don’t want to die. As an atheist I don’t believe anything will happen to me other than I’ll cease to be aware, a lot like how I was before birth, but that in itself is incomprehensible to me. Humans are scared of unpredictability; the unknown; things that reside outside of their control but could well be a threat to their way of life. I could well be mown down by a truck on my way to work tomorrow morning, but am I scared of trucks? No. I understand how trucks work, I understand the rules that their drivers have to abide by, I have a good idea of how quickly they can move and what noises they make as they accelerate, and as a result I can take steps to make sure that I’m not mown down. Trucks are predictable. Similarly steps are predictable. I know to be careful when descending a flight of 80 slippery stone slabs, that’s common sense. Even something like an undiagnosed heart condition has signs that I can look out for and steps that I can take to alleviate stress on said organ. I’m more scared of the vast and empty unknown reaches of space than I am of trucks and steps, even though I’m much more likely to be killed by the latter. We are currently hurtling through space at about 67,000 mph but we feel no movement. Despite being on the outside of the Earth we’re not tossed off into space because of gravity, a force that at the moment nobody understands on a quantum level. These laws are constant and unchanging; I don’t think for one second that gravity will stop working and we’ll all fly off into space, but not knowing how, even in layman’s terms worries me.

However…

…pursuing the unknown and taking a ‘less-is-more’ approach, even done perfectly isn’t going to be enough to captivate an audience. I gave a friend of mine the opening chapter of ‘Unchained Chaos’ for a bit of feedback, and though he appeared to enjoy what was going on he simply didn’t care on the level that I wanted him to. When something terrifying happens to you specifically you feel the fear, of course you do, you’re the direct recipient, but when somebody else is telling you the story there’s a barrier, a disconnect that’s nigh impossible to get around. Is it a safe assumption to make that the less you care about the person telling the story the less you can relate to their fear? I have to create characters that the audience will feel a deep connection with, characters that are both believable and relatable. It is difficult to create a sense of genuine legitimacy in a Sci-Fi universe as far as the setting and the technology and the realms of possibilities go, but people are unchanging. The psychology of humankind is the same in the Authority as it is here on present day Earth, and I will be exploiting that one thread of similarity as much as I can. There will be an isolating vulnerability, there will be characters of all ages and states of health, there will be panic and confusion, there will be feeble people incapable of adapting to the challenge and there will be unlikely heroes whose love for their families will help them combat those same primal instincts. Unlike my previous novels that have spanned continents and even entire star systems, this story will all take place in one tiny colony. The journey will be psychological and sociological rather than physical.

And I’m determined that it will work. I’m determined to create a genuinely nail-biting page turner that doesn’t rely on clichés and cheap shock tactics to provoke a reaction. It’ll be my biggest writing challenge so far I’m sure of it, but I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty.

Final question for whoever has read this far; what is fear to you? Answers on a postcard please.

One thought on “Horror: Getting it right

  1. Isabel C. Delcourt-Couto

    To me fear is a reaction your brain has when you recieve a stimuli that causes a chemical reaction that make you feel that you are not in control of a situation outcome. Lossing yourself in this state will cause you to think that you might get hurt by this. When we are born we have no fears only the instinct of survival. We scream, we eat, we poop & sleep. Fear is a learned behavior you develop as you grow & mature. Again, like many of us, I have my share of fears & things that create anxiaty that makes me fear. I am not afraid of dying, it is a part of being alive. What I’m afraid of is the journey to get there, because I’m not in control of the situation. For me fear is not being in control of the outcome of a situation.

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