by Greg Ruth
Horror has a lot to teach us narratively that can be used to tell different kinds of stories- you don't have to tell scary ones. Ignoring the lazy tendency towards shock or gore narratives, which wile technically horror, don't rate in my book as to what is worth talking about. Jumping out of the closet to spook your little brother if fun and can be cute, but it's hardly rocket science. What we're here to dive into is the construction and observation of horror narratives. To earn legitimate frights, to build tension and create mood, whether you're doing in film, tv, comics, prose or a single image, requires alot of thought and planning and elegance when you're doing it right. What we can learn from horror, what is needed to make it work are tools used in every other kind of story, even romantic comedies. Comedy and Horror are so related to each other, so identical in their construction as to quite nearly be the same thing. Horror just uses these tools in a more precise and specifically sharp manner, so in developing an observational eye for these tricks, tools and aspects we can make any kind of story better and more effective. So let's look into some simple tips for going there.
Fright is not the same as Horror.
|Page from EDENTOWN|
Tone, Mood and Place.The countermeasure to the classic jump scare is basically the slow build. It's an old trick from P.T. Barnum: condition your audience towards the mood you wish them to feel, then triggering that mood becomes easier. Make them come to you. A great example of this in film is Kubrick's THE SHINING, in comics... it could be Jamie Delano's HELLBLAZER, or even Daniel Clowes' EIGHTBALL. All basically start you on a path towards a place, so that even mundane or normal threats inside that place are magnified by the place you're in. A couple of twins in a hall is quirky and potentially cute. A couple of twins in a hallway in The SHining is terrifying because of Kubrick's use of sound, music and slow mood and world building. By the time you get to the girls, you're already conditioned to not find them cute. Those old Hellblazers were supremely disturbing in a classical EC Comics kind of way both because Dealno's expert writing and John Ridgeway's terrifying drawings. They weren't orgy of blood and guts, they were just creepy. Clowes does this well and perhaps better than anyone else in terms of mood and place. I'd say he is the most David Lynchian of any modern day comics creators in this way. The angles, the settings and characters are stiff and off putting, like mannequins in your bedroom. He doesn't need to try and shock you with classic horror crutches like gore or close up screaming faces, because what he does in terms of the use of mood and pacing more than does the trick. Suddenly normal events like a kiss, or making eggs, or walking down an alley in THAT world, takes on a whole new tone and feel. The mood he creates informs the action, and take a lot of the burden off the action to convey the situation. It's essentially bringing a whole string section into your narrative symphony where one may have been lacking before. It helps you make better music and makes using these tricks a choice rather than a default due to ignorance, lack or practice or absence of ability.
One important aspect to is to remind yourself as the storyteller to think about the place you're in, the size scale and scope. Are there dead end hallways, small cramped cupboards? Long darkly lit corridors or weirdly constructed bedrooms? Think about how the place you're in can be made to contribute to the overall arc of your story. Is being trapped in small damp cabin better than in a large darkly mansion? Depends on what you're doing. One notion I return to often is to remember to ascribe character to your place. make the house or town or spaceship or whatever a character unto itself. In Twin Peaks, it's the woods, in 2001, it's the HAL 9000 computer, in The Shining, it's the Overlook Hotel, etc... Thinking of places in the same way one thinks of character opens up a tremendous fount of potential and can add a whole new layer to your spooky narrative onion.
Character, Character, Character.
|Graphite portrait of Bryan Fullers's Hannibal|
For horror especially, a genre which demands an emotional response to threats, making the characters investment worthy is the whole game. Otherwise it's just snuff porn, or a bad visual cue for an even worse drinking game. The more your characters ring true, and connect with their readers, the more you'll be invested in what happens to them. The harder it will be when something bad happens, and the greater the tension if something is about to happen. We're living in a time of catchy and often brilliantly clever plot narratives, but less so in terms of character. Worse still we're in a cycle of retreading old horror films so that even going into the remake means for most of us, we already know the whole film and are really just watching a new rendition of an old song. Comforting, but comfort is not the idea when it comes to horror. This is why when you see a spectacularly drawn or filmed narrative, you find yourself usually feeling a bit empty after. Your brain just got fed, but your tummy's still rumbly. A good and well crafted character will feed the heart and body and mind. Think of it like a girlfriend or boyfriend. It doesn't matter where you take them for a date, not really, because the point is spending time with them. You don't care where you are or where you're going because you got what you want right there in his/her presence. So, when writing a story, especially a spooky one, make your characters like your girlfriend/ boyfriend. Then when you put them in jeopardy, you've really got something. Anything less is just... less.
|Interior page from SUDDEN GRAVITY|
The First Rule of the Doctor? The Doctor Lies
|#11 from The 52 Weeks Project series: 13 Doctors|
The Familiar is What's Scary
Less is More
|From THE BABADOOK|
A thing that talks to you from the unlit closet is a thing you listen to more than if it's sitting across the table from you at breakfast. The secret truth behind good horror comes from an understanding of our flight/fight response as perceivers. We are trying, as storytellers, to tickle a very particular and basal part of our minds when we spook our audience. This is why so much horror declines into gore or shock as they are inarguably fast and efficient ways to trigger our lizard brains into leaping off the rock... or our of our seats. The trick we want to achieve though is to do that but keep the lizard on the rock. You want to tease out that part of our minds but not chase us away with it. Remember, the more you show, the less there is to imagine and horror lives and dies in the imagination. The job of a storyteller is then to provide enough space to trigger the audience's minds to fill in the rest with their own terrors. Anything less than that falls flat or turns to schlock.
|Graphite drawing, Vamp from EVERY DAY ORIGINAL|
Here's the thing that is most often misunderstood about what horror does and doesn't. Fear is not a cause, but a response. Being afraid to be afraid actually creates a more fearful existence. Engaging with it, wrestling with it and coming out from under it makes us stronger. We're a species designed for this exact arc, our survival was literally based upon this notion. It's negative side effects are clear and entirely evident, but unfortunately we have allowed these negatives aspects to occupy all the conversation around how we approach fearful things, and blotted out any of the benefits. We live in a safer world than our fore bearers, and overall this is a very good thing of course, but for our stories it has made us weaker in terms of what we gain from their spooky lessons. This is again not to say that scary things are for everyone. While I am a big fan of horror and scary stories for kids as is laid out in my previous article, forcing scary things on someone not inclined to enjoy it, is terrorizing. When it comes to your own kids, you have to read the room. But don't be afraid to be afraid from time to time. Remember no matter how scary a movie or a book may be, it's ability to scare ends at the movie theater doors or the end of the novel. It's up to you whether you want to take that disturbance further, and you'll be better equipped in other areas of your life by learning this skill in the relative safety of narratives than in say real life. The point is overall, to have fun. To delight in the additive things in life rather than live in fear of them. Whether you're an audience of stories or a creator of them, your experience in making and enjoying all stories is only enhanced by some of the basic rules and tricks found in horror. To learn a rule and decide to ignore it is a stronger act than to ignore a rule or tool because you aren't familiar with it. Making art, telling stories demands the breaking of boundaries and of testing yourself. Find the limits, push them, go too far and race back in. There's monsters at the edge of the map, but there's also adventure there too.