Anatomy of Horror (The Final Chapter…for real)

Like any good horror movie franchise, this series of blog posts just keeps coming back for more sequels.

Happy Halloween, everybody! Given that my wife and I are gearing up for our own Halloween festivities this week, I’m a little more strapped for time than usual. So, for this week’s blog, I thought I’d do one last follow-up to my series on horror and name a few of my personal favorite horror stories, films and games. I’ll try to pick some examples that aren’t as well known, so maybe you can find something new to give yourself a good scare.


At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft: While Lovecraft’s emphasis on unknowable horror and verbose writing style can make his stories hit or miss, this is one where Lovecraft’s style works in his favor. The detailed descriptions of creatures and the involved fictional history combine with an emphasis on the unknown to create a story that ratchets up the tension and creates some deeply unsettling scares. Best of all, it’s in the public domain, and you can read it legally and for free online!

John Dies at the End, by David Wong: This is one of the few horror comedy novels I’ve ever come across, and it’s a great one. Full of laughs, dick jokes and legitimate terror, John Dies at the End is a modern-day masterpiece of horror. Better still, it has a sequel and is part of an ongoing series, so if you like it, there’s more where that came from! Check it out!

Jerusalem’s Lot, by Stephen King: Fans of Stephen King probably know that Lovecraft is one of his biggest literary influences, and this short story is a direct homage by King to his literary hero. Told in an epistolary style, this story practically screams “Cthulhu Mythos,” but has the gritty, linguistic flare that King is known for. It’s published in the short story collection Night Shift, which also contains some other great King stories like Graveyard Shift, The Mangler and Children of the Corn.

Rulers of Darkness, by Stephen Spruill: Before Stephanie Meyer reinvented vampires as sparkling high school students,  Stephen Spruill brought them into the medical horror subgenre, applying science and logic to the vampire mythos and creating something fascinating and tangible, but no less frightening, and with all the gore and sensuality you’d expect from a good vampire story. Sadly, it seems to be out of print, with no sign of an ebook edition in sight, but you can buy it used on Amazon for very cheap.

World War Z, by Max Brooks: This may be the definitive zombie book. Taking the brilliant approach of framing the narrative as an oral history, the story consists of a number of personal accounts from survivors of the zombie apocalypse, detailing the major events in a fascinating, horrifying and immensely relatable fashion. Too bad the movie did the exact opposite of that. Ah, well. If you want a multimedia experience, the audiobook is a star-studded, full-cast recording that’s a lot more faithful to the source material.


The Innkeepers: This is one of the scariest horror films I’ve ever seen. It has great pacing, amazing cinematography, good performances and strong writing, all resulting in one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever seen told on film. It’s got a slow build-up, but if you’ve got the patience, it’s a damn good chiller. And it’s available to stream on Netflix!

The Frighteners: Another great ghost story, this is one of Peter Jackson’s first big films, and it’s indirectly responsible for him going on to direct Lord of the Rings. It’s got a lot of good CGI that still holds up today, clever writing and a great ensemble cast including Michael J. Fox in his last live-action theatrical film. This movie was forgotten for a long time, but it seems to be making a bit of a comeback. And once again, it’s available to stream on Netflix.

Ghost Hunt: Man, I’m on kind of a ghost kick here, aren’t I? Anyway, this one is an anime series based off of a long-running manga. It’s almost a kind of police procedural show about ghost hunting and paranormal investigation, so it blends the addictive quality of shows like CSI or Criminal Minds with good scares and well-crafted paranormal mysteries. If you’re new to anime, this isn’t a bad way to ease yourself into it, either. And say it with me folks; it’s streaming on Neftlix.

The Call of Cthulhu: Finally getting away from ghosts, this is one of the few film adaptations of a Lovecraft novel out there. Released in 2005, it’s actually a black-and-white silent film that makes great use of the conventions and style choices common to that medium to craft an engrossing and surprisingly suspenseful film. Unless Guillermo Del Toro’s long-delayed At the Mountains of Madness adaptation finally gets made, this is the best Lovecraft movie you’re likely to find, and you can find it on Netflix (Netflix, you can find my e-mail in the “Contact” section if you want to talk endorsement deals).

Prince of Darkness: This is one of my favorite John Carpenter films, and it’s one that often seems to get overlooked when discussing his filmography. It’s a rather clever take on the Satanic horror subgenre, with some great effects, chilling music, and a few alums from Carpenter films like Big Trouble in Little China and Halloween rounding out the cast. Definitely worth a watch, especially if you’re a big Carpenter fan. Sadly, this one is no longer streaming on Netflix, so here’s an IMDB link instead.


Parasite Eve: This game’s unique in that it’s one of the only horror RPGs I’ve ever come across. One of the earliest games that Squaresoft released on the PS1, Parasite Eve combines an excellent combat and customization system with a cool, creepy science fiction storyline, a great soundtrack and then-state-of-the-art graphics and CGI cutscenes. Unfortunately, its sequels, Parasite Eve II and The 3rd Birthday are both pretty terrible, but the original game is still a real gem, and if you have a PS3, it’s available to download for only $5.99.

Clive Barker’s Undying: One of the only games I’ve come across that had an author tie-in, apart from the Tom Clancy games, Undying is a horror FPS and one of the most effective ones I’ve ever come across. The game combines the combat of a shooter with the limited resources of a survival horror title and a spell that both lets you see in the dark, and shows you horrible visions. It’s a tense, frightening experience that will likely be appreciated by anybody who’s a fan of the System Shock and Bioshock games. You can get it for $5.99 off of GOG.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem: I briefly discussed this one in my last post, but it’s worth bringing up again. Eternal Darkness is about as close as you can get to a perfect horror game; it’s got a great combat system, challenging puzzles, and a sanity mechanic that is perfectly designed to screw with the player. It’s a great game that more developers and players should have paid attention to. Unfortunately, there are no re-releases of the game in existence, and it looks like the proposed spiritual sequel is never going to happen, so the only way to enjoy this sublime horror experience is to get a Gamecube or a Wii that can play Gamecube games and track down a used copy for yourself.

The Lurking Horror: This one’s a text-based adventure game from the glory days of 5 1/4-inch floppy disks and DOS command lines. Released by Infocom, The Lurking Horror is almost more of an interactive story than a game. You type commands to move from room to room and interact with objects, there’s no music, and the only visuals come in the form of your imagination when you read the descriptive text. And yet, this is one of the scariest games you’ll ever play, and one of the best adaptations of Lovecraft’s ideas into game format. And best of all, the game is now considered “abandonware,” and can be downloaded and played legally for free.

ZombiU: This is easily one of the best zombie survival games out there. It really captures the sensation of being a survivor in zombie-infested London, and it has some unique gameplay features that make it stand out even further, including unique touch and motion controls and a perma-death mechanic. It’s also hard as hell, but for all the right reasons. If you currently own a Wii U, it’s available at retail or via download from the eShop, and if not, when you finally break down and buy a Wii U to play Smash Bros., check this title out, because right now it’s being tragically overlooked.

Well, that’s all for me, folks. Next week, it’ll be business as usual, but for now, have a happy and safe Halloween!






Anatomy of Horror (Part 3)

This week’s post concludes my series on the horror genre across multiple mediums. Last week I discussed horror in film, and the week before, horror in prose. Today I’m going to examine the horror genre in one of the newest storytelling mediums, video and computer games.

Video games are still very much in their infancy as a storytelling medium. Depending on what you define as the first “video game,” video games themselves are somewhere between forty-one and sixty-eight years old (depending on what you consider to be the first video game, a topic that is hotly debated), and storytelling games are an even more recent invention than that.

The earliest examples of games that with narrative stories that were advanced through player interaction began to appear in the 1980’s (though again, the precise date that this happened depends on your point of view).

But that’s really a debate for another time; right now, my interest is in horror games and what makes them tick. I think horror games are unquestionably at their strongest when they take advantage of the most unique quality of video games as a medium: interactivity.

The mere fact that video games, by definition, require players to interact and make choices inherently draws players in and involves them to a degree that film cannot. In some ways, horror games find a happy medium between the gripping power of prose and the visceral visuals of film.

The interactivity allows the game to get inside the player’s head in much the same way that good horror prose can, and at the same time, exposes the player to visuals and sounds that are inherently disturbing in the same way that film can be.

By thrusting the player into the experience, a game can get away with things that are difficult to pull off in other mediums. A game can present a protagonist who is somewhat unlikeable or provide a protagonist who is given little characterization and functions as a “shell” for the player’s personality (the protagonists in Silent Hill 2 and Dead Space are prime examples of these approaches, respectively).

Likewise, devices like jump scares, that are tired and annoying in horror film, can work to great effect in horror games because they not only startle the player, they force the player to react quickly to an immediate threat.

Games are a wonderful medium for horror, and on the whole, I find this medium the scariest. However, there are definite pitfalls that are unique to the medium and can ruin the storyteller’s attempt to weave an engrossing narrative of horror. It is at this point in the post where I have to make an admission that will cause any game fans reading to either embrace me with open arms or dismiss me entirely:

I hate the Resident Evil series. I think that every entry in the series is incompetently done and overrated, and I hate it with the fiery, burning passion of a thousand suns.

Unfortunately, Resident Evil, for many fans of horror video games, was the gold standard horror game series for many years (though it’s fallen out of favor with most fans with Resident Evil 5 and 6). However, this makes the series a perfect example of what doesn’t work in a horror game, and provides a perfect counter-point to games that do make the same things work in their favor:

1. Controls: It’s no secret that the Resident Evil series has long been home to some of the clunkiest control schemes ever to blight a game console. But the nature of that scheme is difficult to explain to anybody who’s never tried to play one of these games, so please forgive the following long-winded exposition on the subject.

The series pioneered what has become known as the “tank” control scheme–when 3D polygonal games were new and most players were accustomed to 2D games where they could only move along an X and a Y axis. Many developers attempted to figure out a good way to allow the player to navigate a space where they could move along an X, Y and Z axis in an environment that didn’t conform to a side or top-down view.

For most developers, the solution was to set the character movement to a direction pad and camera movement to another set of buttons (later, when having a second analog stick became standard for controllers, this second stick was assigned to camera-control duty in most games).

However, the original Resident Evil game (as well as Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3) utilized pre-rendered backgrounds; rather than being constructed of polygons with low-resolution textures that could be viewed from any angle, RE used digitally-drawn backgrounds that were then laid over a static polygonal plane that the player character could move around in.

This approach had the effect of creating environments that looked much better than anything that could be rendered using polygons at the time, but had the drawback of creating an environment that could only be viewed from a single angle. Drawing these environments from multiple angles would have been both costly and impossible to fit onto the limited storage space of the CD-ROMs that games were printed on at the time.

To get around this, and to mimic “realistically” moving in a 3D space, the developers implemented a control scheme where the character was controlled by the d-pad, but where pressing “up” meant that the character walked in the direction they were currently facing, and pressing “down” meant that the character backed away, regardless of their relative position on the screen.

Further, pressing “left” or “right,” rather than making the character run in that direction, instead made the character rotate in that direction, so that pressing “up” or “down” would make them move back or forward relative to their new bearing (hence the term “tank” controls; the player character would rotate like a tank turret).

This control scheme is one of the most awkward, unnatural and frustrating things I have ever encountered in a video game. Worse, because the series was incredibly popular (the first three games each sold about four million copies, back when selling one million copies was something to celebrate), many imitators cropped up as other developers tried to jump on the gravy train. One of the key things they imitated was this god-awful control scheme. The “tank” scheme even went on to infect established horror series; I have never been more disappointed with a game sequel than I was with Parasite Eve II, which completely scrapped the controls and combat of the original in favor of becoming a bad RE knock-off.

Defenders of Resident Evil have long claimed that the controls are part of what make the game scary for them. For me, the controls for these games are so clunky and unnatural that it immediately breaks my immersion in the game. I don’t feel like I’m playing the survivor of a zombie apocalypse but rather the unfortunate victim of a severe nervous disorder.

No trained special-forces police officer is that uncoordinated; if bad controls are what the designers are relying on to scare the players, then they’ve made a piss-poor horror game.

By contrast, take a look at all the horror games that have successfully conveyed a creepy, disturbing experience without relying on bad control: Silent Hill 2 and 3, Siren, Shadows of the Damned, Dead Space, Undying…the list goes on and on. Much like horror in film is not synonymous with jump scares, horror in games is not synonymous with bad controls.

One argument that some RE fans make is that the stiff controls contribute to a feeling of helplessness, which adds to the experience of the game. And while I’ll be the first to admit that a feeling of helplessness is one of the key aspects of any good horror game, there are better ways to achieve that feeling than by deliberately handicapping the player. Which leads to my next point:

2. Combat: Many video games are built around fighting, simply because it’s much easier to design a game where players’ primary means of interaction with non-player characters is by fighting and killing them.

In Resident Evil, the bulk of your enemies are zombies; slow-moving, shambling, Romero-esque zombies. Now, anybody who’s seen Night of the Living Dead knows how to deal with such a threat; you shoot them in the head and destroy the brain. Any fan of zombie films knows that, unless you’re dealing with post-28 Days Later fast zombies, the undead are no real threat one-on-one, only in hordes. You’d think this would be true in Resident Evil, as well.

You would be wrong.

Because, you see, Resident Evil’s combat controls are every bit as broken as its movement controls. This is because there is no way to precisely aim your character’s gun. So, even though you, as the player, know that shooting a zombie in the head will permanently lay it to rest, and this is, in fact, true in RE, headshots are almost impossible to achieve except through blind luck, and you could expend an entire magazine of handgun bullets trying to kill just one zombie.

This, in turn, is a problem because Resident Evil is what’s commonly referred to as a “survival horror” game. This means that, in addition to dealing with whatever monsters the game throws at you, one of the big challenges of the game is resource management. There is a finite number of bullets, healing items, and even game-save items throughout the game’s map; there simply aren’t enough bullets to realistically kill every enemy in the game.

That wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the aforementioned crippled controls. The tank-turret controls make it nearly impossible to maneuver around a zombie without getting attacked and damaged at least a little, especially in some of the smaller rooms.

Because of the fact that every Resident Evil game requires at least a little backtracking through areas the player has explored already to solve puzzles, that means the player will be steadily accumulating damage, even if he or she is actively trying to avoid fighting unnecessary battles. And damage can only be healed by the aforementioned healing items, which come in very limited quantities.

Either way, the game is forcing you to waste items that are already in very short supply. This is beyond frustrating; it makes the game difficult for all the wrong reasons. And within the world of the game, it doesn’t make any sense.

You see, every playable character in Resident Evil is combat-trained; they’re either SWAT officers, military or paramilitary personnel, or trained by people with those qualifications. These are, to borrow a line from Aliens, some very tough hombres. And yet, they’re incapable of shooting a slow-moving, humanoid target in the head from ten paces.

And this situation isn’t fixed later on in the series; if anything, it’s made more perplexing by the fact that, thanks to improved aim controls, you can put multiple bullets into a zombie’s eye socket and it still won’t die. So the games reward competence in neither scenario.

I do understand the logic here; the designers didn’t want the player to feel like Rambo, able to mow down wave after wave of enemies without sustaining so much as a scratch in return. They wanted the player to feel outclassed, to be cautious.

But the game systems don’t reward caution or skill; the player is punished for fighting and punished for fleeing, and there’s no real reason given for this. The game doesn’t make you feel like an outnumbered cop with limited resources; it makes you feel like an incompetent ninny.

Many games have managed to strike this balance of making the player feel combat-capable without making them overpowered. In Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, players are very combat-capable. They are able to move freely, target portions of an enemy’s anatomy, and strike strategically so they aren’t wasting resources. Of course, if a player takes too much damage, their character starts limping and loses much of their maneuverability, which makes combat that much harder.

Additionally, the game encourages combat, because every time an enemy lays eyes on the player, the player loses a bit of their sanity, which will cause them to start hallucinating and eventually take physical injury from fright. One of the only ways to replenish sanity is by defeating enemies and performing a finishing move on them. If a player runs from too many fights, the sanity loss will start to take its toll.

This threat infuses an element of strategy to the combat that makes each encounter a nail-biting choice; can you defeat the enemies with minimal injury? If you choose to run, can you afford the sanity loss? Either way, the consequences are a direct result of the player’s actions.

In Alan Wake, the title character is rather capable with a gun, and players are given the ability to dodge enemy attacks with careful timing. The trade-off is that enemies can’t even be harmed without stripping away their protective shield of darkness with Alan’s flashlight. This action takes time, and can potentially drain the flashlight, leaving the player momentarily defenseless. While it’s possible to deal with small groups of enemies effectively, larger numbers leave the player with no choice but to run and hope he reaches the safe haven of bright lights before the monsters pummel him to death.

There are many games that implement similar systems to prevent players from calmly walking through encounters with enemies. But some of the most interesting horror titles are those that don’t allow the player a chance to fight at all.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent does not have any combat mechanics at all. There are no weapons, no way to strike monsters, nothing. In fact, much like Eternal Darkness, Amnesia has a sanity mechanic where even looking at a monster causes sanity damage, and being near the monsters for an extended period of time will frighten the character so much that they die of fear…assuming the monsters don’t kill them first.

Haunting Ground is similar. It lacks sanity effects, and there are actually ways to retaliate against enemies, but there are no ways to permanently kill an enemy, except during a handful of boss battles. The player’s only recourse is to find a place to hide from the enemy and wait for them to break off pursuit. There are few experiences I’ve had playing a video game more harrowing than diving under a bed in Haunting Ground and praying that the enemy chasing after me wasn’t smart enough to look down.

Being forced to run and hide from monsters is a more satisfying experience than being given the option to fight and knowing the game doesn’t realistically allow me to do so. There’s a difference between instilling a feeling of helplessness and a feeling of being handicapped by poor game design. A broken game is a broken game, regardless of the reason for it being broken.

This post concludes my review of horror across the mediums of prose, film and video games. Maybe you’ll enjoy a classic, or find something new to make your Halloween a little spookier; after all, everybody’s entitled to one good scare…


Anatomy of Horror (Part 2)

Welcome back to my examination of the horror genre. Last time we delved into horror in prose form and examined how writers create an atmosphere of dread through the use of language. Today, we’ll be taking a look at horror in film: examining what works and what doesn’t.

Horror films are a different beast entirely from horror in prose, simply because of the fact that the audience is actually presented with images they can see and sounds they can hear, rather than having such things described to them second-hand by a writer. In many ways, I think this makes it easier for a horror director to frighten his audience than it is for a horror writer to do the same.

Not to discount the artfulness and skill it takes to direct a film and ensure that all the elements necessary to make a scene work are in place, but it’s a lot easier to make an audience immediately frightened of a mutilated body that they can see than it is with one you’re describing.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to make a good horror film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there are far more bad horror films than good ones, and that the ratio of bad to good is much higher in film than it is with, say, horror prose or horror video games. The main reason for this, as far as I can discern, is that in the 1970s and 1980s, horror picked up a reputation for being a good genre for low-budget work.

The genre wasn’t particularly well-respected by critics (and honestly, it still isn’t), but there was a big demand for it, and it didn’t cost much to make a horror film. All you really needed was some decent equipment, halfway-decent actors, a good makeup artist, a remote location and a lot of dyed-red Karo syrup.

And time and again, horror films have proven that you can make a low-budget film and have it make lots of money in return. Halloween was the first film to establish this, and films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have shown that it’s still the case today. In fact, Sam Raimi decided to direct a horror film for his first theatrical piece was that he made this exact observation.

But what most producers seem to forget is that you need talent to scare an audience on a shoestring budget. In fact, you need talent to scare an audience period. There is a glut of films on the market that, absent the guiding hand of a John Carpenter or a Sam Raimi or a Sean S. Cunningham, turned out laughably bad or, even worse, boring and annoying. And I have seen a lot of those movies.

My wife and I have a tradition; every year during September and October, we watch a horror movie or TV show nearly every evening until Halloween. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of horror films, some brilliant, some OK, and many that are just bad. And so, I’m going to take a slightly different approach to this post. Instead of analyzing what makes horror work in great films like Halloween or Alien, I’m going to list the most common mistakes I’ve seen in horror films and explain why they don’t work:

1. Unlikeable Characters: One disadvantage that horror films have that horror prose doesn’t is that the audience doesn’t get to share headspace with the characters. This means it’s harder for a director to get an audience to empathize with the characters in their film, which means it’s a lot harder to get the audience to care whether they live or die. If an audience isn’t invested in the well-being of the film’s characters it’s almost impossible to get them scared by what they’re seeing onscreen.

Now that’s not to say that great horror films don’t have some characters who are real shitheels (they absolutely do) and those characters can provide the film with a moment of levity when they meet their just reward at the hands of some nasty beast or unstoppable killer. But those films are still anchored by good, relatable characters.

If every character in the movie is an unlikeable little turd, then the audience members spends the entire run time waiting for your cast to get killed off. They won’t relate to the characters, and won’t get scared for them. This is the primary reason that the slasher subgenre has become more about watching the cast get killed off in ridiculous, gory ways that would look implausible in an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon; the audience has nothing else to enjoy in the film.

On the subject of gore…

2. Bad Special Effects: There are few things in the world that will take an audience out of the atmosphere of tension and dread that a horror movie has worked to build up than a bad special effect. The most common culprit these days is badly-done CGI; bad creature effects or (the cardinal sin of modern horror films) CGI blood are rampant in modern horror films.

But bad effects have been a problem for years, even before good films like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 launched CGI into the mainstream. Usually it was the result of a practical effect, like a dummy or makeup prosthetic that just wasn’t quite good enough to pass muster.

The sad part is it’s actually very easy to fix. If a director knows that they’ve got a bad effect in their film (and honestly, they should), all they need to do is light it dimly or only give the audience a brief glimpse of it.  It’s much scarier to see a monster’s shadow than a fully lit monster with a zipper on the creature suit. If the viewers see the mangled dummy in briefly-edited flashes, it’s harder for them to tell that it’s an unrealistic-looking piece of foam rubber. And CGI can be salvaged in the same way.

3. Jump Scares: This is a device that has become more and more abused as time has gone on. The filmmaker has something either jump or move quickly into frame without any warning, startling the characters (and by extension, the audience). Often, they’re also accompanied by a loud sound in the musical score, a sharp, discordant sound referred to as a “stinger.”

More often than not, jump scares have nothing to do with what’s really scary in the movie. It’s almost never the killer or the monster that’s the subject of a jump scare; it’s almost always a small animal like a cat or a rat, or the oft-derided “HEY IT’S ME!!!” scare, where one of the other characters comes up from behind, grabs the character being scared by the shoulder and loudly announces their presence (seriously, though, who does that?).

The problem with these “scares” is that they’re not really scary; they’re just startling. They’re loud, unpleasant, and startle the audience. Now, that’s not to say they can’t be used effectively to build up the dread of a film. A few false scares can actually heighten an audience’s anticipation for when the actual scares come.

But the key words there are “a few.”

If there are more than about five of these in a movie, the jump scares stop contributing to the atmosphere of dread and just become annoying. The audience will stop being scared by the film and become pissed off at it, because the film is yelling in their ears like an obnoxious child every few minutes. This is especially true when filmmakers use stingers, which they really shouldn’t be doing; if a director can’t frame a shot to make a jump scare startling without the use of a stinger, they really have no business directing horror.

And finally, on the subject of sound…

4. Unmemorable Music: One thing that’s stood out to me as I’ve watched many bad horror movies over the years is the lack of a good musical score. Now, very few horror films actually have bad scores; generally even the most incompetent of filmmakers can at least get somebody to write some atmospheric music for their movie.

The problem is, few of them are actually memorable. Most of the great horror movies have scores that stay with you long after the film has ended. Scores that, if you hum a few bars, people instantly know what movie it came from. Films like Jaws, The Exorcist, Psycho, Friday the 13th and Halloween are immortal in large part because they have great scores.

I think John Carpenter’s success as a director can be largely attributed to the fact that the man is also a really good composer and knows how to write a great horror movie score. There are a few great horror films I can think of that didn’t have especially memorable scores (Aliens comes to mind), but they’re few and far in between.

Almost without exception, a great horror film will have a score that has at least one piece that ended up on an “atmospheric music” Halloween CD you can pick up at your local Target for five bucks. A forgettable score isn’t a death sentence for a film, but it’s not something that works in its favor.

Now, there are many other problems that are evident in bad horror films; there are plenty of horror films that suffer from bad writing, bad editing, bad cinematography, etc., but those are problems you’ll see in any bad movie.

The items I’ve listed above are problems that are of particular issue to horror movies because they undermine a horror film’s ability to create an atmosphere of dread and frighten its audience. They’re what will make the difference between a classic cult horror film and a stinker that sits unwatched in someone’s Netflix menu.

Anatomy of Horror (Part 1)

Well, it’s finally October, which means that Halloween is just around the corner. Halloween may be my favorite holiday; even as a kid, it was neck-and-neck with Christmas for me. And now that I’m an adult and have to buy presents myself, Halloween wins hands-down.

It has something for everyone; if you’re a kid, you get to dress up and get free candy. If you’re an adult, you get to dress up and have a night of wild abandon and debauchery that nobody will judge you for.

But most of all, I love the scary side of Halloween; I love haunted houses, reading scary stories and watching my favorite scary movies. I love Halloween because I love horror, and so this month, I’ve decided to do a series of posts analyzing horror stories across various mediums. I’ll be looking at horror prose stories and novels, horror films, and finally, horror video games, dissecting them and finding out what makes their hideous hearts beat.

In the interest of beginning at the beginning, I’ll look at horror in prose first. After all, that’s where the horror genre got its start. Whether you’re looking at scary stories told around a campfire, legends and lore passed from generation to generation, or the earliest horror novels like Frankenstein, Dracula or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, horror was first conveyed to its audience through the written and spoken word. Even today in a world of Hollywood special effects and camera work, prose’s power to terrify remains undiminished. And it is, in my opinion, simultaneously the easiest and hardest medium in which to successfully tell a horror story.

Before we go any further, I should establish the criteria by which I am defining “horror” in this series of posts. Horror is one of those genres that’s tricky to define, because many of the staples of the genre have pulled a Reese’s and mixed their chocolate with another genre’s peanut butter.

A story with murder in it could be horror, but could also be a thriller, a drama, or even a superhero murder mystery. A story with monsters could be fantasy, science fiction or, these days, a romance. Horror is no longer a genre where you can point to a particular feature of a story as a definitive identifier.

What makes a horror story a horror story is what that story does. And what a horror story does (or at least tries to do) is to create an atmosphere of dread; an atmosphere that holds the reader in suspense and makes him anxious and afraid to see what comes next. Once the reader is dreading what happens next, then the writer can bring out the scares and frighten him. In an earlier post, I discussed how story structure has often been analogized to the act of sex, and nowhere is it truer than in a horror story. And continuing that analogy, if stories are like sex, then horror is all about the foreplay.

Building that sense of dread is essential to make scares work, particularly in a prose story, because every scare is rooted in descriptive language, rather than sight or sound. As I’ll discuss later, in a visual medium, scares can work to a degree without much build-up, just because of the visceral nature of certain sights and sounds. In prose, however, a writer can’t rely on that gut reaction.

Building up dread in prose requires a careful crafting of language. Granted, in any genre, prose requires careful crafting of language to be effective. I’m not a horror writer, but on multiple occasions, I have spent nearly half an hour agonizing over whether to include a single sentence as part of the preceding paragraph, or to insert a paragraph break and have it stand alone, not because I’m neurotic (well, not just because I’m neurotic), but because such decisions can mean the difference between a sharp, powerful passage and a so-so passage.

And when a writer is trying to tap into a primal emotion like fear–to make the reader scared through his choices of words and punctuation alone–it can be a monumental task. But the payoff is that once a writer has his hooks into the reader and has them wrapped up in that atmosphere of dread, suddenly the reader’s imagination can do the hard work for the writer.

Utilizing that dread, the writer can make even the most mundane objects frightening; Stephen King has made a long and fruitful career out of doing exactly that. A writer can even make the reader afraid of what he does not describe; everything Lovecraft ever wrote in the Cthulhu Mythos has its biggest scares rooted in the unknown, horrors that are implied but never seen.

And while both King and Lovecraft have had stories that didn’t work, when they do work, the results are uniquely scary and create something that is almost impossible to capture in another medium. There’s a reason that most film adaptations of King’s work range from mediocre to terrible, and why Lovecraft adaptations are rarely attempted at all; it’s because they rely so heavily on the reader to be so filled with dread that they can be frightened by characters who are jumping at shadows, or afraid of what they didn’t see.

That is prose’s power to terrify; like a judo expert catching an opponent in a throw, well-written prose can turn the reader’s own imagination against him and scare him with the power of his own mind.

After all, to quote one of my favorite horror games, the worst foe lies within the self.

Prime Directive

In an earlier post, I discussed why I think science fiction is just as valid a genre for telling a serious story as any other. One of the reasons I gave for this was that science fiction allows for a layer of abstraction obscuring the point you’re driving at, which can make whatever message you’re trying to convey easier for your audience to absorb and consider, particularly if your message is on the radical side. There are limits to this; if you make something too absurd in an effort to prove your point, you run the risk of straining your readers’ suspension of disbelief and making your story laughably implausible.

For example, if, in writing a story pointedly directed at the US government, I wrote about a fictional, democratically-elected government body that gets drunk on the job, brings the legislative process to a screeching halt and deliberately tries to force their own government to shut down in a bid to fight already-approved, court-ratified legislation that their constituents want to see go through, I doubt anybody would take it seriously. Surely no elected officials could be so selfish, so uncaring toward the needs and wants of the people who elected them, that they would blatantly ignore what those people want and put them and their nation’s economy at risk just to fight a law they have absolutely no hope of overturning. That would be ridiculous!

But, here we are.

If I may go off on a tangent for a moment, a bunch of new trailers for the upcoming Robocop remake have been making the rounds. And while the new film looks like it’s going to be pretty bad, the trailers got me thinking about how awesome the original movie was. The original Robocop was both a satisfying sci-fi action film with great special effects and a powerful piece of satire, tackling themes from politics to corporate greed to the quality of entertainment of the era in which it was made. The villains were complete scumbags, whether they were street thugs or corporate raiders, and the hero was a paragon of law and order, a modern-day Christ figure who is killed, rises from the dead to bring his people the salvation they need (though admittedly it’s a much more gun-based form of salvation) and even walks on water at one point in the film. Robocop is such an exemplary public servant that he has three Prime Directives (well, technically four, but we only count the first three) that he is incapable of disobeying:

1. Serve the public trust.

2. Protect the innocent.

3. Uphold the law.

To me, this is a perfect summation of what public service is about. And it perfectly identifies why the members of Congress have failed as public servants. In causing the government shutdown, they did not serve the public trust, they betrayed it. They did not protect the innocent (their constituents, who trusted them not to shut down the government), and while they may not have violated the law, they have violated their oaths of office, which clearly state that they “will well and faithfully discharge the duties of [their] office.”

In other words, they didn’t do their damn job.

So if you’re like me, if you’re pissed off that these arrogant, insensitive, drunken clods have put your safety and livelihood at risk just to prove an ideological point, take note. Do the research. Remember their names. And when the Congressional elections roll around on 2014, cast your vote and give these traitors of the public trust the pink slips they so richly deserve.

So I say to those who have failed us so heartily: your move, creeps.