H.P. Lovecraft started his writing process by defining the emotion he was going after. Then drafting until he would illicit that feeling his subjects..ERH..um.. readers. But H.P. Was a heavy plotter.
Stephen King started with a concept and built around it until it was horrifying. And if he failed in giving the scene the sense of horror intended he would go to the extremes of gross to make the scene at least uncomfortable giving it a more horrifying weight in the readers memory as they would be unnerved to recall such passages. Mr. King was a pantser and started with a concept and characters then followed them through the plot as needed to write his book.
I think that when telling a horror story whether on film or the page. You should at least keep in mind the types of and stages of horror.
Unknown, Uncanny, Unstoppable
are at least three of the most common.
is the easiest to do right because it is the most commonly done wrong. Darkness itself is not scary, it’s when we can see or hear or feel the edges of what lies in the darkness that begins to press the panic button. It’s when a shadow’s fold over themselves in the corner of the room to make the outline of death himself patiently waiting without breathe for your eyes to close here in this world be you are claimed to his. It’s the darkness of space where stars no longer grow but the eyes see a tint of something else blocking the depths from truly being seen. It’s the shifting at the bottom of a lake, past the searcher’s reflection and the clear sky waters that refuse to let the Autumn clouds above take shape as easily as they do in the sky because something is disturbing the water’s hold on them.
When starting with the Unknown each time it appears it must become more defined, otherwise the subject will place their guard between the satisfaction of knowing and the terror of finding out. The most common mistake is going from 10% reveal to 100% reveal before the third act. The audience expects to find out slowly, manage their expectations against the needs of your story.
Friday the 13th
IT by Stephan King
is when something is not quite right. I’d venture that in cinematography this is used by accident and because of form rather than by a deliberate attempt to unnerve the audience.
The best examples are often dolls, painting, ghosts because they are so common and illicit uncanny speculation since they are suppose to fit within a box but changing small details between scenes or in scenes makes them uncanny.
Inanimate objects that move when the viewer isn’t viewing them directly create the start of uncanny horror. “Julee, now three, was about to have her baby sister sharing her room. The sweetest and nicest child according to the neighborhood girls who babysat on our monthly night out. We had set up the crib in the space that was formerly her “High” tea area, where she held here tea parties, passively she may have been throwing us signs that she was upset but she was very outspoken and happy. All the dolls and animals that she gathered around her table were now leaning up against as the wall as if in time-out, all except her porcelain kamacha doll her favorite. She would sit on the edge of Julee’s bed watching the other dolls. Julee was nothing but happy when we talked about her sister coming out of my belly and home soon.”
Ghosts are often given descriptions and visages that would make them human but one detail is wrong. “It may have been they open window but the temperature had fallen and the room was now cold enough to start my shivers. Even over a boiling pot of stew I feel a draft when she walks in the room. Except for a floorboard creak her feet never fall hard enough to hit the ground with sound. “AS A Lady should..” god I’ll be hearing that for the rest of my living days.”
You can start on either side of the Uncanny valley but you must slowly move away from your starting position to build a sense of progression. Dolls with dead eyes and human hair must become moving, talking, demons with soft flesh beating under their immobile outer shell. Ghosts can start as whispers and wind and become the outstretched hand clutching at it’s victim with intend to drag them through the looking glass OR Ghosts can start as people who drift further from humanity as the story unfolds, giving up breathe by never moving their chest, staring off into thought for inhuman stretches, translucency, transparency, incorporeal. The longer something remains in the exact definition as it’s starting point the more familiar that thing becomes and fear begins to remove itself.
is the pretty clear as in being self defined BUT it does not mean indestructible. There must be hope however small that it can be stopped removing that hope creates certainty and certainty is the enemy of horror. If your monster has eaten a grenade explosion and hasn’t even lost a tooth then his immortality is certain.
A cockroach can be crushed and defeated, a thousand is a challenge, a million is a certainty.
A lumbering zombie can be outsmarted, outmaneuvered, or defeated with brawn. You can out run a zombie but you can’t run forever and while you rest your fragile warm body more gather outside waiting for you meet another demand be it food or fresh air.
Death will come for you. The hope is not today or until the end of your earthly works but that is never a guarantee. You have illusion and hope that your choices have some impact on whether he knocks tomorrow or sixty years from now, eat healthy, avoid stress, go to the doctor all of these are well and good but they do not still the reapers hand forever.
I just want to wrap this up with how Friday the 13th uses all three of these to great effect. But when watching a good example its hard to see why it is good. As an artist you’ll learn more/faster from the mistakes you make and the mistakes of others than from works without mistakes.
With love and hopefully better dreams than me,