The 8 Basic Building Blocks of Most Horror
As a horror hound, I like to turn my analytical mind to the genre (why, indeed, waste a perfectly good astro-philoso-physics degree?). How does a horror story work and why should a horror story work? As in, why should I pay ten dollars for this jerk over here in a clown mask to scare me? This is a complex question and by no means has an easy answer: why do we like being scared, why do certain things scare us, how important is music to the horror experience, is over-the-top horror scarier or less scary, and why does sexual energy so often show up in horror? How proper is horror? That's a big one, isn't it? Perhaps the most famous quote on horror is H.P. Lovecraft's "THE OLDEST and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form." (from "Supernatural Horror in Literature") Namely, we have long been terrified of what we do not understand, and therefore we should use that emotion just as readily as others: love, hate, jealousy, passion.
Once we establish a decent "why" on horror, though, we still lack something of a "what" or a "how". Ghost stories, zombie novels, slasher flicks: are these the same thing or not? I sat down a couple of days ago and thought about this, and have been pondering it. What are the building blocks of horror? The initial form of the question was to try and seek out the current archetypal tales (the self-experimentation of Dr. Jekyll, the abandoned creation of Dr. Frankenstein), something I will save as a follow-up to this. I wanted to start with a much more basic examination of what makes up horror itself.
The most basic building block of horror is to combine elements of an evil, will call it The Monster, a legend that describes the evil and gives the rules, and a degree of isolation; and then have these elements either visit or be visted by the normal (which is, of course, The Victim). The evil most often consumes normalcy in some way, feeds off it is destruction, and in most horror stories escalates. A lot now have some ironic twist thrown in, but really, the escalation and the twist are additionals for the most part (just very, very common additionals).
The Monster: the central aspect of every horror novel is "The Monster". In most old horror, this was synonymous with "The Evil" but it is no longer quite the case. It can be a creature-from-beyond, an ancient evil, the man-that-would-be within, the autistic kid with the big knife, the revenge seeking ghost, or even a force of nature. There are two rules to the monster: it must be overall greater than the sum-total of victims at start, and it must represent a break from normalcy. If either of these are lacking, then it will likely not come across purely as the monster (he's just this guy, you know?). More contemporary horror, since the 60s at least, has tried the ready question of "Who is the true beast?"; and there is no violate of the rules to have more than one creature in the plot. Principally, this two-beasted horror format posits a monster with a set of victims-turned-monster as counterpart. In the end, the VtC will fall, or will escapely heavily scarred from a final showdown with the main monster right before the main heroes (the prime victims) come up against the monster themselves. They are rarely the climax because it would truly imbalance the whole thing. In some cases, the monster comes from within the first victim; though more recent stories try and use the twist element, below, to make it out that one of the victims was really the monster the whole time. In Science Fiction horror, and in Ghost horror, the monster is quite likely benign in its own way, though turned malignant due to forces outside of even it's control. In the case of more speculative horror, the monster rarely violates normalcy outright, but does violate the conditions in which mankind can live. Of course, the definite article is not meant to exclude more horde-based monsters, such as zombies or viruses or animal attacks. In this case, they are often treated as very simplistic things to a single goal, making them literally a more singular unit. Only rare are monsters shown to be at war with one another, in which case the condition of the monsters existing is often the real problem (mid- to late-kaiju movies often used this...they do not mean to destroy Tokyo, they are just fighting it out on top of buildings, and that's horrifying).
The Victim: equally important to the horror story, and not always not the monster, old school rules often made victims just regular folks somewhere at the wrong time. A fair amount current horror makes the victims either deserving their fate or necessarily the ones to try and survive it because they have some gift that gives them an edge. While I am not sure of the exact rules of this, it seems that 1-4 main Victims are about the max, with anything over this number requiring minor victims. The early establishment of the monster will likely require a minor victim as proof. This first death is rarely plot-jarring, outside of the establishment of the monster's evilness. It is not uncommon by any means for some number of the victims to have some connection to the monster, though this is less common in survival films than others. A common, and often annoying rule, is that victims will average out through most of the movie, so that little kids are portrayed just as capable as gun-toting vigilantes. Until the last battle, in which case the weaker victims may turn out to be the most successful. This plot device has some merit, but in most cases is an attempt at "the twist" mixed in with the worst sort of "its in the script" behavior. The primary justification is, of course, that without victims you do not have a horror story.
The Isolation: isolation, of all of the factors on this list, is the most fascinating. It is a simple thing that is nearly ubiquitous with the horror genre. In older ghost tales, it was the lone traveler coming upon the lonely house. In newer stories, it is the small town that is out of the way, or the person who feels outcast. Its first primary use is to limit the scope of the story. There is very little horror when all the elements of the world are brought into play. Even zombie plagues usually have to start with disorganized humans and end with disorganized humans. It also explains why the monster has not already got around to taking over the world, or been destroyed or, conversely, why the victims do not merely just go to some place less monster-filled. Once established, its enforcement is almost vital to keeping the story together, in the way of nightmares: if you can just get outside, you can go home. Perhaps the most interesting use of isolation that has developed since about the time of Lovecraft is that it, itself, breeds the monster: small town violence, the suffering of the mentally disabled, in-breeding, things unnoticed for too long. The plot of probably 99% of horror stories is that the isolation seperating the monster from the victim is somehow broken down.
The Visitation: the normalcy-violating monster is exposed to normalcy and proceeds to feed, sometimes literally, off of its breakdown. Who visits whom can swing either way, really. Maybe a pair of siblings end up spotting a scary man dumping bodies into a pipe on a trip home. Maybe an old dirt-poor farmer has a strange meteor crash near his home. Maybe the two meet in the middle (Brian Keene's story "I Am An Exit" involves travelers meeting). What is more scary than that? You are away from your element, and so is it? Anything can go down. In classic horror, the visitation was more the fault of the victims than the monster itself (sure, Dracula came to England, but he had help). Lately, this is being somewhat reversed (though the classic horror concept of "Don't go knocking" is still around) and the monster directly represents a breakdown in the every-day life. Due to the law of horror's averages, though, this home-town advantage rarely means anything in terms of plot outside of offering up scenes of whistfulness. In "mad scientist" horror, the visitation is either handled by creation of the evil, by awakening the evil trapped insider of one or more of the victims, or by removing the isolation that the evil was trapped within. It is almost harder to avoid making the "man should not mess with things outside of his control" moral in horror due the visitation, which will cause many audience members and readers to assume that all this could have been avoided had someone merely stayed home. No it couldn't, because the structure of horror requires this visitation. If they stayed home, you would be stuck watching romantic comedies, and no one is happy, then. An interesting side-effect of the importance of the visitation to horror is that many stories starting in media res, with the monster already present, involve some form of travel to or from a place of safety. One last variation on the visitation is the return, where the monster has been there with the victims the whole time, but is somehow brought back.
The Consumption: the monster will always feed off of the destruction of the normal. This can be quite literally, in that it can drink blood or feed on the flesh of the victims. Less obvious are cases like slasher flicks; but in these the monster tends to receive some sort of self-justifcation in the act of being the monster. The consumption can be thought of the monster satisfying its desires (the desires often being outside of the norm). For instance, the monster might be trying to seek peace (in ghost stories), avenge itself on some local city (in kaiju) or fulfill some ancient curse (in mummy movies). Whether or not the monster can actually be satisfied is tied into the escalation and the legend. A often used plot device is that the monster wants something that would be detrimental for the victims to lose (including other victims) and so the storyline is a continual battle between consumption and protection. If the consumption is open-ended, then the movie will often end with the monster seemily be destroyed, but reserve "the twist" as a device to establish otherwise. If the consumption is close-ended, the will simply go away if nothing else, once it is satisfied. Maybe uncommon, now, but used more a few decades back was for the final consumption to be linked to the final destruction of the monster, which can be frustrating to the audience ("he eats the girl...and then dies! dun dun dunnnn"). In cases where the monster feels the need to flaunt its actions, the prime victim will either be killed or kill the monster almost immediately afterward.
The Escalation: the escalation is not always true in older horror stories. They often had an inverted-plot-shape. The climax would happen early, and then there would be a working out of a resolution, followed by something like the resolution to the resolution (a ghost would be spotted, GASP, and then an exorcism would take place and would be guaranteed to work). Since monster stories by nature have a first tension point, a first climax of sorts, at the introduction of the monster; the escalation, in which things go wrong even more so, is useful in building up to a final confrontation where the full plot can be resolved. Nowadays, pretty much every single horror story involves escalation of some sort. Open-ended horror can even end without a true stop to escalation, meaning that you find the the victims merely at a plateau but by no means safe. Most horror is still relatively close-ended (see "the twist", below, though) and so the escalation can be halted through some sort of sacrifice (and it often takes some sort of sacrifice, so you can think of the sacrifice as a regular sub-aspect of escalation). In various "viral horror" offshoots, zombies and plague stories, the escalation is directly linked to the nature of the virus itself. In more mundane, slasher-style horror: escalation is a by-product of a loss in the number of Victims and increased injury and exhaustion in those that are still around. Some horror stories, save the final reveal of the monster until near the very end (and most of these get absolutely hated by just about everyone) and so avoid the need of having escalation, outside of the natural build up to the climax.
The Legend: this sort of post aside, horror may or may not have internal rules as to who counts as what victim and so forth or what being the monster really means; but many (if not all) horror stories have an internal reasoning about themselves. This quite often surfaces as "the legend", a series of stories and anecdotes in the story itself that are a mixture of justifications for the monsters, hope for the victims, and mood setting. They are very poweful devices, when used well. The Blair Witch Project and Stephen King's "1408" are two excellent examples of a story where the legend was superior to the monster. In cases like The Legend of Hell House and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", the horror is primarily generated by the legend, though the monster is scary as wells. In zombie lore, as well as some science fiction horror, the legend interestingly shows up as a learned thing: "Oh, he is destroyed by cold" or "Oh, shoot him in the head!". The legend is the extension of the audience, as muchor moreso than the victims, by the way. It is the part of the story that can thrust the audience into the world. To some degree, the audience brings in a degree of legend to every new horror story based on previous rules and experiences.
The Twist: in the horror works of Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard (and several others), quite a few tales ended with italicized words like: The man in the photograph was his father!. By the time E.C. came about with their classic horror comics Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear; the plot-twist was such a part of horror that many expect there to be a final panel, a final shot, or a final paragraph tossed in. "The twist" can be used in horror as a way to change up the legend, as a way to add new elements to the monster or victims, or as a way to imply some overlooked form of consumption or escalation. Even in cases without apparent horror-irony, sequels or related materials can easily cite that "Monster X rose from the grave!" While the twist should be used sparingly, it does serve one vital function that technically makes it part of every horror story: since it might exist in any given story, you can take nothing for granted until the very end, and not even then. This helps to disrupt a sense of complacency, which is the twist's main function, and so it works.
Si Vales, Valeo
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