Horror is easy to do wrong. In fact, it’s probably easier to do wrong than right, judging by the general public’s perception of our genre. It doesn’t help that what scares one person doesn’t necessarily scare another, so our job as terror-inducers is made all the harder by personal taste. That being said, there are a few common mistakes that horror writers, directors, and storyspinners should avoid to produce the best quality work they can. Here are four to get you started:
Beating a Dead Horse
Bart Simpson once said, “It's my job to be repetitive. My job. My job. Repetitiveness is my job!” Unfortunately for you, it’s not your job. Imagine a movie where Freddy Krueger walked up to a victim, slashed her throat, walked up to another victim, slashed his throat, walked up to another victim…you get the idea. As soon as your horrifying idea has been discharged, it’s old hat. It loses the power to shock and scare. Come up with something new. A single zombie made the protagonist wet his pants in the first chapter? Okay, in chapter two it has to be two or more. Or they have to be carrying scythes. Or riding a Ferris wheel. Something.
Mistaking gore for horror
Gore is a key ingredient in horror. Physical pain, dismemberment, and death are easy fears to relate to, so when you’re trying to generate fear (that is the purpose of horror writing after all) you’ll want to tap into that. However, bear in mind that an ingredient is not a whole recipe. Chili would taste terrible without red pepper, but a big bowl of nothing but red pepper would taste like shit. Throwing gore at the audience without a compelling story, meaningful reasons for the blood to flow, and characters that you give a shit about is going to lead to nothing but audience disgust at best, or boredom at worst. Remember, we’re not writing disgust here, we’re writing horror.
Not Knowing Your Roots
Take a minute and think about a couple of your favorite horror stories that have broad appeal, by which I mean people outside the insular horror community know them well. One that springs readily to mind is “Scream.” “Scream” was a great slasher pic because the writers obviously knew everything there was to know about the slasher movies that had come before. “Shaun of the Dead” is another great example. This is a zombie movie that used the tropes of the genre to defy expectations. If you don’t know what’s come before your work, you won’t know what your audience’s expectations are and you won’t know what’s truly original. All you’ll be cooking up is weak soup.
This might be the slipperiest slope for the horror auteur. Even if you’ve managed to dodge the previous mistakes and you’ve got a genuinely scary and constantly evolving antagonistic force in your story, it’s entirely possible to focus all your energy on the monster and forget the victims. Remember, horror is about inspiring fear, and fear comes from the ability to empathize with the viewpoint characters. If the audience can’t put themselves in the headspace of the characters, they’ll never be scared along with them. Worse still, if they come to hate the characters or find them stupid it may even turn your attempt at horror into an inadvertent comedy or a hate-watch where the audience is rooting for the monster. If it’s not your goal to make the next “Troll 2,” make sure to give your characters a little humanity.
Well, what do you think? Are these the worst offenses goremeisters have to offer? Or can you think of much bigger traps to avoid? Feel free to sound off in the comments here or reach out to me on social media with your thoughts.
Stephen Kozeniewski (pronounced "causin' ooze key") lives with his wife and two cats in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie. During his time as a Field Artillery officer, he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star. He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor's degree is in German.