Elements of Horror EQ: Why do we have horror? what makes something scary?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Two genres specifically cater to the emotion of fear: thrillers and horror. Both genres focus on characters in peril, threatened by some outside force or antagonist. Both genres start with an abnormal "what if" scenario and explore it. What if the FBI needed a psycho to catch a psycho is the spine behind Silence of the Lambs. What if a dying man decided to teach moral lessons through torture and mutilation is the spine of the horror film Saw. As similar as they are, thrillers and horror are separated by one critical and foundational element: thrillers have a realistic situation and antagonist, while horror focuses on unnatural monsters.

The Unnatural

One of the most important elements of horror is the incorporation of the unnatural or supernatual. These monsters all play upon fears and insecurities of the audience; for example, vampires play upon fears of sexual intimacy, werewolves play upon fears of one's body image and self-control, and zombies play upon fears of losing one's identity and becoming part of a faceless crowd. Even human monsters have unnatural traits--Michael Myers from Halloween and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th are unkillable, unfeeling, and mute.

Threat of Death

Next, the unnatural element has to threaten the protagonist with death. Said death can either be a physical death or mental death. Physical threats can include being stabbed, impaled, burned, drown, suffocated, eaten, or dismembered. Physical threats can also be bodily additions, such as a protagonist gaining monstrous attributes like claws or horns. Mental death can include insanity or having one's mind replaced with another through acts like mind control and demonic possession. Antagonists like the shadow woman in "The Yellow Wallpaper" can cause these mental breakdown.

The Innocent vs. the Abominable

To contrast from the abominable attributes of the antagonist, the story usually involves an innocent who is "pure of heart." Sometimes, the innocent is the protagonist, like Nancy Thompson in Friday the 13th. Sometimes, the innocent is protected by the protagonist, like how Tommy is protected by Laurie Strode in Halloween. Often, an innocent becomes a victim of the abominable monster, like Casey Becker in Scream.

Just Retribution

However, not all horror victims are innocent. Usually the opposite is true--horror movies operate in a fatalistic way, where the good are usually spared and those that are sinful are slain. This is the idea of just retribution. Look at the victims in the film Halloween: Annie does drugs and abandons Lindsey to fool around with her boyfriend, while Lynda and Bob use Annie's abscence to have sex. However, Laurie (who isn't promiscuous) survives as well as the kids under her care. Even sinful characters who don't die get their comeuppance, like the economic losses suffered by Mr. Teague in Poltergeist, who commissioned the Questa Verde development to be built on a cemetery. The only one who occasionally escapes justice is the monster itself--otherwise, how else could the story continue?

Foreshadowing

These deaths are not just necessary to ensure the film rewards the good and punishes the wicked, but are also used to create dramatic tension. These deaths act as foreshadowing of the final battle between the monster and the narrator. Foreshadowing can also occur by the incorporation of a harbinger, which warns of the danger before it occurs but is ignored. Often this harbinger is a character, like Dr. Loomis in Halloween. A monster can even curse victims and become its own harbinger, like Freddy Krueger's curse upon the parents in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Atmosphere

Foreshadowing adds to the atmosphere of a horror story. Atmosphere, or mood, is a combination of style elements with setting. In horror stories, these style elements include a wary or creppy tone, descript imagery, words that convey visceral reactions, and dialogue that is very abrupt and fast-paced in its syntax. Films use mise en scene that looks old and falling apart, plain cinematography, lots of shadows and night shots, slow paced long shots followed by tons of quick cuts, and creepy, unseetling music. Creepy settings are the norm--abandoned houses, farms, castles, and cemeteries often make for good horror settings.

Isolation

Why are all the settings abandoned? It adds to the element of isolation needed in a horror story. The tension will not be built if the serial killer is stabbing people in front of the police station in the middle of the afternoon. Rather, monsters come out in the dark and prey upon those who are alone. This is why most settings are isolated from readily available help, such as abandonded buildings, forests, and farms. Even settings in neighborhoods are isolated by having the phone lines cut, the lights go out, and possibly the neighbors as monsters themselves. Isolation isn't always physical; Carrie White is isolated socially, which leads to the disaster at Prom Night.

Mystery

All of these elements build suspense, the glue that holds a horror story together and keeps the reader interested. Suspense does require one element to work: mystery. Without a mystery pushing the story forward, the suspense has no purpose or punch. In Saw, the mystery is why the two gentlemen were put in the room. In Scream, we want to know who the killer is. Sometimes the audience knows the mystery that the characters don't, like where Marion Crane has disappeared to in Psycho, and the suspense is in waiting for the characters to figure the mystery out. Sometimes the mystery is as simple as wondering who will survive.

A good horror story requires all these elements in order to be effective at purifying built up emotions of fear. A good horror story doesn't even necessarily have to be scary to be effective, as not every member of the audience fears the exact same monster. I may be terrified of, say, clowns while clowns don't affect my friend in the least. In watching a clown horror film, I may be petrified and he relaxed, but the story will still engage both of us in the purging of fear. Even cross-genre piece like comedic horror or sci-fi horror help engage our emotions in fear response should the text employ all of the aforementioned elements.

Horror Subgenres
  • BODY HORROR: In body horror, the threat is not an outside monster, but one's own body rebelling against the protagonist, turning the person into a monster.
  • SLASHER: Mostly a film genre, this subgenre revolves around suburban teenagers and an unknown mystery killer picking them off one by one. By the end of the film, the killer's identity is revealed and the killer "dies," is arrested, or escapes. The protagonist and enough characters are left surviving to mount a sequel, as slashers are always serialized.
  • GOTHIC HORROR: Gothic literature is a mix of nineteenth century Romanticism and Horror. While Gothic Horror is more a literary movement than subgenre, some modern texts still use Gothic tropes like brooding castles, appeals to God and religion, and European traditionalism vs. New World liberty.
  • Every type of monster has its own subgenre, as each monster has its own fans and rules for how they operate. For a full list of the types of monsters in horror, click on the link below.
Created By
Brandon Coon
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Created with images by isabellaquintana - "clown all-in-one character"

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