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On Writing: Horror

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Postby Mercury » Wed Jul 31, 2002 6:45 am

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Edited By Mercury on 06 Aug. 2002 at 13:00
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Postby Mercury » Wed Jul 31, 2002 7:12 am

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Edited By Mercury on 06 Aug. 2002 at 13:00
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Postby Mercury » Wed Jul 31, 2002 7:22 am

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Edited By Mercury on 06 Aug. 2002 at 13:01
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Postby En Kerklaar » Thu Aug 01, 2002 5:10 pm

Does anyone actually feel fear when they watch a horror movie or play a horror game or read such a book?


Yes, actually. I do. I think this may be in part due to the fact that I'm just naturally a very empathetic reader/viewer/player, but also in part because I tend to shy away from the kinds of stereotypes you mentioned. Instead I prefer movies, books or games that I find interesting personally, and that I haven't seen done in that particular way before. I don't watch a lot of slashers or "traditional" horror films. Nor do I read a lot of horror fiction. But I have read some truly terrifying books and watched some truly terrifying movies in my time, so I guess as far as I'm concerned at least, some of them are doing something right.

I think one of the scariest things for me is what Cannibal and DuoDave were talking about. Having your expectations challenged. You expect that when you pick up a pen and use it to write something, the pen will write out what you initially set out to write. But what if it doesn't? What if the pen writes out something else entirely? You're doing the moving, going through the motions to write, say, "Pick up kids at 3:00.", making all those little strokes the way you would to write those letters. But instead you've somehow ended up with, "Don't kill me. I hear a train coming." You're confused. You try again to write, "Pick up kids at 3:00.". You get the same thing: "Don't kill me. I hear a train coming." You try again and again, and soon the entire page of notepaper is filled with lines of "Don't kill me. I hear a train coming." So finally, you get smart. You start to write, "Don't kill me. I hear a train coming.".... and wind up with, "Pick up kids at 3:00."

Presented well, that could make for a scene in a novel or short story that would, if not scare me outright, definitely unsettle me. Again for me, it all comes down to the presentation. Not necesarily coming up with the scariest thing you can think of, but rather presenting what you do think of in such a way that even if it doesn't have the desired effect of fright upon an individual, it at least leaves an imprint on their mind.

A good horror writer will be unforgettable first. Scary second.

EDIT: Damn emoticons. Instead of 3:00, I wound up with 3happyface0. Oh well.

Also, I wanted to add: Mercury, your idea of inducing a phobia in the reader is interesting. I might have to try that particular device some time in my own writing. You've got a good idea there. A little setup goes a long way.

Further edit: See, I think that's the point we should all be stressing. Don't just listen to one person. Listen to a lot of people. Then do what you want while keeping those things under consideration. Many people have brought up some very valid points during this discussion, not all in agreement with each other. That's okay. That's the nature of constructive discussion.



Edited By En Kerklaar on 01 Aug. 2002 at 18:15
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Postby Mercury » Fri Aug 02, 2002 4:58 am

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Edited By Mercury on 06 Aug. 2002 at 13:00
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Postby Mut » Fri Aug 02, 2002 6:04 pm

I just got done reading the entire thread, and OW! My eyes hurt ...

So who to agree with here? Well, in a sense, I actually think that everyone makes good points, but I believe that for something to truly be scary, it must generate an unsettling feeling in the reader (or viewer, as the case may be). A knot in the stomache. A subconscious tightening of the muscles. A dread of what is to come next. It must create suspense.

What I am really sick of nowadays is the fact that all new horror movies use what I call "cheap shots". These would include:

- Jump scenes
- Subliminal imagery
- Excessive gore

Let me explain my reasoning behind these.

Jump Scenes are very common in modern horror. These could either be a quick flash of motion, such as a cat jumping out of a dark space, or a loud noise, in contrast to the quiet that dominated a moment ago. Every time they watch it, the viewer will "jump" in their seat. It's not because they're scared, it's just a natural reaction.

Subliminal Imagery is another nasty trick. This is when the movie flashes a series of very fast shots, usually depicting scenes of a disturbing nature. Your eye doesn't quite register you've seen it, but your mind does. One of the most notorious abusers of this is the movie Event Horizon.

Excessive Gore. Come on, does anyone really find this scary anymore? Viewers today are so jaded by such films as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street that the gore just doesn't work in large amounts. Compare these two examples:

Movie 1 uses blood and gore all throughout, routinely disemboweling and decapitating the victims.

Movie 2 first establishes a somewhat normal environment, then slowly builds the tension to peak level, finally using one or two scenes of gore to shock the viewer.

In the first case, there would be little or no reaction from most audiences, as they've "seen it all before". In the second case, however, the established security and slow unraveling thereof, leading to a violent and shocking finale, should be sufficient to warrant at least some fright from most viewers, whether they acknowledge it or not.

To be truly frightening, you must evoke a sense of unease, a sense of dread. Anything less is just shock value.
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Postby En Kerklaar » Fri Aug 02, 2002 6:26 pm

You make some very good points, Mut, and I think I agree with almost all of them. I agree that jump scenes and excessive gore are overused attempts to snatch that all-important "scare factor" in the movies these days, and as for subliminal imagery, I actually find that a very underused and effective way to unsettle the viewer... although I haven't seen Event Horizon, so. But as a different example: the subliminal imagery used in Fight Club, which I found unique and even a bit unsettling, although it's not the same as what you're talking about.

It's all a moot point anyway; in written form, subliminal imagery most likely can't be used very effectively (although I may have to expiriment sometime; the idea intriques me), and jump scenes take on less of a cheap shot nature and more of an "Oh, Jesus!" shock value nature, usually, but not always, combined with excessive gore. Still, I believe it is a technique that can be used effectively, if approached in interesting ways and combined with interesting prose.

Excessive gore, though, is getting passe. You're right in saying that the inherent shock value of violence comes out much better when you haven't been lead to expect it.

All in all, this thread covers a very interesting subject, and constitutes one of the most interesting forum discussions I've taken part of in a long time. I think I may write my article for the newsletter on this topic, which may possibly into you by today, Woodfish, if you're reading this.
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Postby ds490 » Fri Aug 02, 2002 9:12 pm

One of the most notorious abusers of this is the movie Event Horizon.

I think that, although used a lot, subliminal scenes worked well in Event Horizon. They provided much of the primary feel of the movie (that and Sam Niel skinned alive).

In my opinion, there are many different ways to make a horror movie/game/story/whatever really scary (I apologize if any of this has already been said; I haven't read this entire topic).

First, if the threat is a monster or killer, they shouldn't be shown much, if at all. Follow the main characters (who are usually being hunted) throughout the entire plot. Only show the stalker when it interacts with the main characters. The first Alien movie was quite good at this. It was the scariest in the series because you saw only fleeting shots of the Alien.

Violence and gore should be treated as the stalker is: show them very little. It's suprisingly effective.
Jump scenes are pointless, although they're good fro keeping someone on the edge of their seat.

The Sixth Sense has no stalker. The enemy/conflict is inside the boy. I find this type of scenario can be very effective if the emotions of the characters are expressed well enough.

Physical harm and pain aren't nearly as scary as emotional agony. Making the player/viewer feel the character(s) feelings is the best way to scare them.
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Postby Mercury » Sat Aug 03, 2002 6:12 am

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Edited By Mercury on 06 Aug. 2002 at 12:59
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Postby Mut » Sat Aug 03, 2002 7:54 am

Hmmm. Combine toilets and horror stories ...

Attack of the Toilet Monster From Hell

Girl and Boy are sitting on the couch.

Girl: It's so great the fact that your parents aren't home.

Boy: Yeah, I know. We've got the house all to ourselves.

Girl: So, you wanna get ... closer?

Boy: Uhhh ... just a minute. I gotta go to the bathroom first.

Boy enters the bathroom.

Boy: Hey, what the ...?

Boy screams.

Girl: What's wrong? What happened?

Girl gets up, goes into bathroom, screams. The toilet has ripped itself free of the wall, and is sliding across the floor towards her. Boy's bloody arm is poking out from under the lid.

Girl: Aaaaaahhhhh!

Girl runs through the house. The toilet keeps scooting along the floor at a speed fit to rival a crippled turtle with a bad back.

Girl: Help! Somebody please help!

Girl exits the front door and ducks into some bushes. She sits there for a second to catch her breath. Where did the toilet go? Surprise! It's right behind her!

Girl: Heeeeeelp!

Girl puts her hands over her face for protection. Toilet eats Girl. Toilet then roars, which sounds suspiciously like a "flush".

To be continued ...
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Postby T. Mulkerrins » Fri Aug 16, 2002 10:47 pm

MileOut wrote:Horror isn't about "being scary": it's about entertainment and frightening in equal measures. It's about understanding ourselves and our fears. It's about art.

Personally, I think it's about getting your rocks off to violent imagery. :0
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Postby theleaf » Sun Aug 18, 2002 10:45 pm

I have on my hard-drive something which Mercury once said which was I think, good enough to be posted back up here:

Here is a short, random list of ideas for inducing a phobia:

- logic and explanations: talk about why the thing is so undesirable

- mystery: do not provide any explanations but present events and let the reader use his own imagination to scare himself

- exaggeration and hysteria: with complete disregard for reason blow something way out of proportion; this often works for anything religious people are against i.e. witchcraft because this is the technique religions use to induce phobias in their followers and thus you have most of the work done for you

- show reactions: the reader is not scared, but the characters scream and run; why are they screaming? This suggests in an unsubtle way there is something scary

- lie: when a character lies about something, it begs the question why did they lie?

- Insanity and death: lunatics and the dead never talk (or make much sense); what did they see before they died or went out of their minds?

- Hit close to home: bring the fear into the world of the reader; a movie about Ebola coming into North America summons the fear to us; way before we experience actual fear we first need to think it has to do with us

- contrast: pick the opposite of the phobia you want and portray that

So like what I am saying is horror is about the set up. It has to be a really good set up though, or you are just playing roulette with whatever phobias the reader may or may not have.

Examples:

Trying to induce a phobia about lettuce. Not doing a very good job, but trying.

Logic: Lettuce is full of pesticides.

Mystery: The lettuce may or may not have been used as a bed for a tractor full of dead pigs.

Hysteria: There have been unconfirmed rumours of people dying after eating lettuce.

Reactions: Your neighbour Andy feeds lettuce to the dog across the street that barks really loudly.

Lie: Your wife never writes lettuce on the weekly shopping list, but buys it anyway, hiding it at the back of the crisper.

Insanity: Lettuce is part of a government conspiracy to change the way we think.

Home: (No need, lettuce is already close to home.)

Contrast: Lettuce tasted different when you were young.


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