Okay, I am still firmly in my creepy kick and, in preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’ve been studying the form. I’ve been reading creepy books, listening to creepy podcasts, watching creepy shows/movies, studying creepy history.
Yada, yada, yada. Creepy, creepy, creepy.
And it can basically be summed up as “The Downward Horror Spiral” (aka “Oh My God, Why Are You Going Into The Basement?!?!”).
They said it best on this week’s Writing Excuses podcast: the main character never really deserves what happens to them in a horror plot. They’re usually good people that just make all the wrong decisions. Wrong decisions like moving into a haunted house. Wandering alone in the woods. Investigating that weird noise in the attic.
Going into the basement.
Decisions that we, as the distant reader don’t agree with and can easily see are terrible. But if the character acted rationally (ie. fled at the first sign of scary), there would be no plot. The tension of horror comes from the characters making the wrong decisions, and the reader recognizing that those decisions will most likely end in a violent death.
So where does the shock and surprise come in?
You know what I’m talking about: those jump out of your seat moments, the twists you didn’t see coming, the (spoiler alert) death of Janet Leigh at the beginning of Psycho. Those come from outright contradicting the genre.
Yes, the characters make all the wrong decisions, ones the reader would never do. But sometimes, to be unpredictable, the wrong decisions can work out. If the reader is always expecting the worst, the most surprising thing would be having terrible decisions work out for the best.
Similarly, the character tropes in horror, when contradicted, usually create the biggest surprises. Killing off Janet Leigh, who had top billing on the film, the assumed “hero” (and later, killing off Drew Barrymore in Scream). Cabin in the Woods does it as well (and does it well as well). It outright acknowledges the genre tropes and twists them in unpredictable ways. It knows its genre, flays it open like Hannibal Lecter, and then sows it back up as a Frankenstinian monster.
Horror is essentially a tragedy (usually a gory one like Macbeth). Yes, the hero may survive, the monster may be defeated (for now), but essentially everyone is worse off than when they began. There is no real “winning” in horror, and no happy endings. Things start off awful and spiral into terrible with each bad decision.
So, going into NaNoWriMo, the big thing I’m keeping in mind is: all decisions are terrible ones. My heroes can be clever and brave and good, but they will always make the wrong decision. However, the severity of the repercussions is entirely up to me.
And how I decide which decisions end in success and which end in violence, well that’s a secret I’m taking to the grave.