Scary Done Right

Although I believe Halloween is more than just “scary”, fear is a large part of Halloween, and I think it can be a real challenge to find good scary stories (recognizing that good is a very subjective thing).

Setting the Stage

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One of my favorite horror scenes is from John Carpenter’s The Thing, specifically an early scene where members of the group go to a nearby Norwegian base in search of answers. While exploring that location, they see many strange things. It’s not clear what happened, but whatever it was, there’s no question that it was very bad. And it creates a wonderful sense of anticipation, “Is something like this going to happen to us?”

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Similar techniques are used in the film Event Horizon, and some of the Silent Hill franchise. Characters come across the aftermath of something terrible, and have to wonder “What happened here? And is it going to happen again?”

As a location, the setting itself is passive, static, but that only serves to heighten the fear. Not knowing what actually happened, neither the characters nor the audience can know what might herald another “event”. Anything could be a warning of danger. We start to search the silence and the stillness for any clue that might help us prepare.

The Tension of Waiting

Many scary stories feature some form of “monster”, whether it’s a literal inhuman creature, or one or more people who have ceased to be “human” (in the mental/emotional sense). We live in fear of the monster, waiting for it to appear, or actively trying to find it so that we can destroy it. But the best monsters are the ones that “haunt” their environment. Consider this quote from The Matrix:

“They are everyone, and they are no one.”

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Granted, the film is not a horror story, but that line is the perfect epitome of a potent monster, something that “can be anywhere”, that appears and disappears at will. Consider Alien, the classic science fiction horror about a crew fighting against an unknown creature. Once it’s introduced it becomes the focus of the conflict, and yet it’s rarely seen. It appears briefly, attacks, and then it’s gone again. Most of the scenes feature characters slowly moving through the ship, trying to either find or avoid the creature.

Silent Hill (the original and sequel) are also great examples of this phenomenon. Players wander through a thick fog, watching for some hint of a shape, listening for the sound of static on their radio. Occasionally players may actually encounter an enemy, but the real fear is found in the uncertainty of knowing that “something” is out there, but we don’t know what.

Threat vs Violence

A big part of good suspense/horror is tension (and drawing it out). As long as the monster is not seen, it could be anywhere. As long as the monster doesn’t attack, it could do anything. It’s the uncertainty, the question of “what’s going to happen” or “what is it going to do” are what drive the tension, creating that potent sense of unease.

Granted, audiences need a resolution, an answer to the question, but once it’s resolved the story can only linger so long before a new question must be introduced. Violence itself can be horrifying, but there’s also a simplicity to it. No matter how awful it is, it’s known. The question has been answered. That’s part of the reason why I find I prefer the implied; either in the form of a short sample of the resolution, or the implications of a resolution via the aftermath. Both methods still leave some questions unanswered.

I will also admit, I am not a fan of protracted, graphic violence. I would rather see the shadow of a monster as it tears its victim apart, with a splash of blood on the wall to establish what’s happening. I recognize the need for violence in some stories, but like a thunderclap, the value lies in the sudden and abrupt shift from the idea to the reality. Protracted sessions of active violence usually cease to be suspenseful, and devolve into gratuity. Though I have seen a few instances where the “horror” that “this was once a person” can serve as a new question and answer pairing, if it isn’t too drawn out.

No Lasting Safety, No True Escape

The threat/reality of violence is a great way to reignite the danger, prompting characters to redouble their efforts to either secure a “safe space” or truly “escape” the monster, and once again, I find that the best horror stories cut the characters off on both fronts.

Stories do need safe spaces, a few moments to recover, calm down, but once everyone has caught their breath, the threat inevitably begins “breaking down the door” or otherwise worming its way into the once “safe space”. There is no part of the ship that the Alien cannot reach, no barrier strong enough to keep it out indefinitely.

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Similarly, most of the stories I favor feature a “localized region” that is self-contained. In Alien it’s a spaceship, in Silent Hill it’s the town, but it always has clear borders and limitations. Within that location the characters, and the monsters, can run, fight, hide, but they cannot leave.

The characters have agency, they can choose what to do, but they are limited by the resources available to them, and the nature of their environment. Everything they do is little more than a stalling tactic, buying time in the hope that “something” will change, and grant them an opportunity to achieve a true victory. At the end of the day they wield little control over their own fate, and that powerlessness is at the heart of what’s truly frightening.

3 thoughts on “Scary Done Right

  1. I think suspense and the implication of something terrifying is worse than actually revealing it. Playing on the senses, settings and internal reactions of the protagonist heightens the anticipation of something awful.

    • Agreed. Once it’s actually revealed the potential threat has almost always been reduced. It’s the unknown that we fear most of all 😁.

  2. I agree that a setting you cannot escape from like Alien’s ship adds to the terror. Many times I cannot get into horror because characters are in a location they could easily walk away from but foolishly choose to stay.

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