by Greg Ruth

 Horror has a lot to teach us narratively that can be used to tell different kinds of stories- you don’t have to tell scary ones. Ignoring the lazy tendency towards shock or gore narratives, which wile technically horror, don’t rate in my book as to what is worth talking about. Jumping out of the closet to spook your little brother if fun and can be cute, but it’s hardly rocket science. What we’re here to dive into is the construction and observation of horror narratives. To earn legitimate frights, to build tension and create mood, whether you’re doing in film, tv, comics, prose or a single image, requires alot of thought and planning and elegance when you’re doing it right. What we can learn from horror, what is needed to make it work are tools used in every other kind of story, even romantic comedies. Comedy and Horror are so related to each other, so identical in their construction as to quite nearly be the same thing. Horror just uses these tools in a more precise and specifically sharp manner, so in developing an observational eye for these tricks, tools and aspects we can make any kind of story better and more effective. So let’s look into some simple tips for going there. 
If you’d like to read, or re-read the first article WHY HORROR IS GOOD FOR YOU, (And Even Better for your Kids), you may find it here, and here.

Fright is not the same as Horror.
Page from EDENTOWN 

Look anyone can leap out from behind a door and give you a good fright. Children do it all the time, especially in my house. Movies lean on it like it’s the only working tool in the box and have codified the jump-scare so much now it’s dull and obvious, (though it still manages to startle even if you find it funny a second later). This is the easiest thing to do, and in comics, or even in prose, much to both mediums strength, it doesn’t work. Jumps have their place and their purpose, fair enough. But let’s do more, because the reward for deeper work is really powerful. Comics let you see the whole page on first blush so jump scares are kind of spoiled by that. You do have an opportunity at the page turn for a reveal, but the manner by which it comes at you does not lend itself to a jolt in the way that can catch you off guard the way a jump scare needs to. So writers, you’re going to have to come up with something else. You’re going to have to work for it, sure it’s harder, but if done right, oh so much more effective than any jump scare ever invented. It requires crafting truly captivating characters you don’t want to see in jeopardy, opposed to tropes that act as redshirts for the death machine. It means inventing new scenarios, new scenes and constructions that rob the reader/viewer of narrative comforts, but with enough of the basic rules of comfort to keep them from being lost. It’s not at all easy but the ones that do it are legendary. They beg for repeat reads and watches and you know you’ve got something the moment it comes to you. Sometimes this can be due to the auteur of the piece, others, the way the idea are delivered. And that solution my friends, is tone, mood and place. The importance of all three of these varies in terms of the kind of story you’re telling, but in good horror, all three are essential. So it’s great practice to get to know and flex these muscles in a realm where it’s essential so you don’t forget to bring this a-game to the stories they don’t need to be.

Tone, Mood and Place.

The countermeasure to the classic jump scare is basically the slow build. It’s an old trick from P.T. Barnum: condition your audience towards the mood you wish them to feel, then triggering that mood becomes easier. Make them come to you. A great example of this in film is Kubrick’s THE SHINING, in comics… it could be Jamie Delano’s HELLBLAZER, or even Daniel Clowes’ EIGHTBALL. All basically start you on a path towards a place, so that even mundane or normal threats inside that place are magnified by the place you’re in. A couple of twins in a hall is quirky and potentially cute. A couple of twins in a hallway in The SHining is terrifying because of Kubrick’s use of sound, music and slow mood and world building. By the time you get to the girls, you’re already conditioned to not find them cute. Those old Hellblazers were supremely disturbing in a classical EC Comics kind of way both because Dealno’s expert writing and John Ridgeway’s terrifying drawings. They weren’t orgy of blood and guts, they were just creepy. Clowes does this well and perhaps better than anyone else in terms of mood and place. I’d say he is the most David Lynchian of any modern day comics creators in this way. The angles, the settings and characters are stiff and off putting, like mannequins in your bedroom. He doesn’t need to try and shock you with classic horror crutches like gore or close up screaming faces, because what he does in terms of the use of mood and pacing more than does the trick. Suddenly normal events like a kiss, or making eggs, or walking down an alley in THAT world, takes on a whole new tone and feel. The mood he creates informs the action, and take a lot of the burden off the action to convey the situation. It’s essentially bringing a whole string section into your narrative symphony where one may have been lacking before. It helps you make better music and makes using these tricks a choice rather than a default due to ignorance, lack or practice or absence of ability.

One important aspect to is to remind yourself as the storyteller to think about the place you’re in, the size scale and scope. Are there dead end hallways, small cramped cupboards? Long darkly lit corridors or weirdly constructed bedrooms? Think about how the place you’re in can be made to contribute to the overall arc of your story. Is being trapped in small damp cabin better than in a large darkly mansion? Depends on what you’re doing. One notion I return to often is to remember to ascribe character to your place. make the house or town or spaceship or whatever a character unto itself. In Twin Peaks, it’s the woods, in 2001, it’s the HAL 9000 computer, in The Shining, it’s the Overlook Hotel, etc… Thinking of places in the same way one thinks of character opens up a tremendous fount of potential and can add a whole new layer to your spooky narrative onion.

Character, Character, Character.
Graphite portrait of Bryan Fullers’s Hannibal 

Like any romance tale or really any tale worth reading, the meat and potatoes live and die right there with the characters. As a creator, you absolutely have to pull off the seemingly incomprehensible magic trick of making an actual living human being, look upon your marks and lines and become emotional invested in them as if they were also real living people. One way this works is because emotion happens only in the reader’s head. You can’t grab it, put a collar on it and take it for a walk. It’s not out there to be found, it’s inside to be triggered. The people the eyes see, whether real or not, all go to the same place in your head, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a photo a drawing or an actual person. At least not to the brain thing locked inside your windowless skull. So as a storyteller, all you really have to accomplish is to paint enough emotionally rich triggers into your characters to fool the brain into investing in them emotionally. You pull this off, the rest is easy- a great set of characters sitting around a table chatting is ten times more interesting to a reader than flat characters in a brilliantly crafted plot. One of the most brilliantly painted modern devils is the character of Hannibal Lecter, and in my book, specifically Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal from the tv series. They craft the character beyond the sniffing deranged extremist made famous by Anthony Hopkins and make of him a creature unknowable in human form. His is a perfect blend of compelling magnetism, and terrible violence. A chess playing tiger in a human suit that is always six steps ahead of you. If you want to really learn how to craft good and terrible creatures in horror, look no further than this.

For horror especially, a genre which demands an emotional response to threats, making the characters investment worthy is the whole game. Otherwise it’s just snuff porn, or a bad visual cue for an even worse drinking game. The more your characters ring true, and connect with their readers, the more you’ll be invested in what happens to them. The harder it will be when something bad happens, and the greater the tension if something is about to happen. We’re living in a time of catchy and often brilliantly clever plot narratives, but less so in terms of character. Worse still we’re in a cycle of retreading old horror films so that even going into the remake means for most of us, we already know the whole film and are really just watching a new rendition of an old song. Comforting, but comfort is not the idea when it comes to horror. This is why when you see a spectacularly drawn or filmed narrative, you find yourself usually feeling a bit empty after. Your brain just got fed, but your tummy’s still rumbly. A good and well crafted character will feed the heart and body and mind. Think of it like a girlfriend or boyfriend. It doesn’t matter where you take them for a date, not really, because the point is spending time with them. You don’t care where you are or where you’re going because you got what you want right there in his/her presence. So, when writing a story, especially a spooky one, make your characters like your girlfriend/ boyfriend. Then when you put them in jeopardy, you’ve really got something. Anything less is just… less.

Tension Sustainability.
Interior page from SUDDEN GRAVITY

This is the tightrope walk of spooky narratives: sustaining and orchestrating tension. It’s easier in film because you have the benefit of time passing in the form of a moving image and sound and music as triggers. In books and comics, you have none of these things. The good news is that you are the scariest person you know. All of you, each of you are. Like building a character, all you have to do is tweak enough of the mind’s desire to see a story unfold, and the mind of the reader will do the rest. We are creatures of stories, almost genetically. We tell each other a story when we first meet each other (Hi, How are you?), we summarize the life of deceased loved ones with stories (eulogies, wakes), we teach and entertain ourselves in story form. So we’re hard wired for them and totally looking to be taken advantage of by one. Your reader is a willing participant in this deception, so spend less time trying to sell them something  they’ve already bought by just being there in the first place, and take that advantage and turn it back on them. One of the most brilliant moments I ever had was talking with John Landis at Comicon years ago as he was raving about how brilliant Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was as a piece of horror cinema. We think we’ve seen a gore fest of murdery horror, but nearly every act of violence occurs off-screen. Which is why it’s so horrific. Leatherface doesn’t go to work on someone in the room with you, he drags the victim off, and slams the door leaving you to sit there alone imagining what’s happening on the other side of that door… and that is SO much worse than anything he could ever show you. The master stroke of good horror storytelling is letting the audience or readers scare themselves. Alfred Hitchcock pointed to its value most expertly in the famous scenario where he describes two people sitting at a table, talking. it can be engaging and it can be dull and boring. Put a ticking bomb underneath of that table and it can never be boring. One way is a congressional oversight discussion, the other is Han Solo and Greedo chatting in the pub before everything goes boom. Your audience, no matter how wonkish,  will always prefer the latter.

The First Rule of the Doctor? The Doctor Lies

#11 from The 52 Weeks Project series: 13 Doctors

This comes out of the afore mentioned Hooper story, and in comics and prose, SO ESSENTIAL. In most circumstances, the author or director of a piece of story needs to be trusted in order for it to work. You need to believe he/she knows what they’re doing, and are taking you to a worthy place. Otherwise it’s time to check your texts or scan emails, or get a snack. In horror though, distrust of the author/director can be the keystone for setting the proper mood, and growing a tone that terrifies. With it all the other stuff we have talked about above can come to life in ways surprising even to the author. Missing this means having to do a lot more work individually in these areas to make the story function. We are predatorially based perception creatures, and when there’s a tickle in the bushes our whole body wakes up to meet what may be there. We become more alert because this tool in narratives tickles our frog brain to stay frosty until the danger/prey is identified and dealt with in some form. But this state of heightened alertness is not perpetually sustainable and can be exhausted. Think of it like big booming crashes in an orchestra- they work best when saved for those moments when they work best, or in the case of the untrustworthy narrator, work best when unexpected. This isn’t to say using them all the time is anything less than noise though. So be conscious of your distrust. Earn it, spend it and buy it back again. While DOcotr WHo has always carried it’s hefty doses of horror, it has reached all new levels of it under Moffatt’s run on the series- and much to my own personal delight. Moffatt, coming from comedy understands the essential power of timing and twists. Comedy and horror are after all kissing cousins and use a lot of the same tools to execute their aims. Laughing is in many ways an automatic response to sudden change or something scary. And you need to achieve this joy/fear combo otherwise your story is just going to be horrible rather than horror. Twin Pekas works becuase it swings between these two poles so well as an example. What Moffatt achieves in his iterations of the Doctor, whether it’s Matt Smith’s nutty professor-ish character or Peter Capaldi’s angry demented magician, what we get is something similar to Fuller’s Hannibal: a character that is at once wholly attractive and compelling and completely, sometimes terrifyingly unpredictable. He’l lie to you, abandon you in a state of near death, and swoop in at the last to rescue you from its consequences. He is a living roller-coaster in humanesque form and is able to deflty move from humor to horror and back again in three lines of dialogue. It is wholly worthy to watch and study how these characters are written and how best to bring those qualities over to your own. We don’t prefer a beef bourguingon over a can of Dinty Moore stew because fancy people tell us we should, we do so because one is better than the other and we know it. You don’t have to be a genius to spot good quality storytelling, but you do have to be a dum-dum to miss it. Doctor Who is a more compelling and attractive character when he’s at his wildest and least trustworthy. As well he should be. Learn to be dangerous.

The Familiar is What’s Scary

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If it’s familiar enough to be identifiable right away, at least in part, it will be far more disturbing than if it were so alien and crazy. The mind is a sorter and cataloguer. It organizes and references past encounters with present ones at lightening speed rates as a basic survival mechanism. It want s to make sense of things. So the less crazy an image is the more scary it can be. Cthulu is freakier because it looks a lot like an octopus head. If it were a ball of spaghettied lights in 7th dimensional undertones, the mind would spend so much time just trying to understand what it’s seeing, it would stop the story until it did. And in comics, if you’re stopping by accident, you’re losing. Heath Ledger’s Joker doesn’t have to act like Caesar Romero’s because just sitting in his chair listening someone talk is terrifying simply because of the way his face has been slightly tweaked by his scars. A giant vampire hissing at you in a room is far less scary than a harmless looking man in his pajamas standing in the same room is who just happens to be floating an inch off the ground. The subtle tricks boom the loudest when attended to and presented int he most simple and elegant ways. This is largely why I so very much love a good ghost story over any other kind of horror: ghost stories demand a level of elegance and grace and subtle hand that other genres don’t. Ghost visitations are private personal intimate encounters you just can’t get in the same way as compared to someone letting a hungry tiger loose in a crowded shopping mall. There’s no place to run from a ghost because ghosts can be everywhere. Hiding under your sheets is the most common response to them, but it belies the point of their power: even in the familiar safety of your bed, they live. Basically the notion here is to craft a singular thing, a concise and essential monster than we can sort out just enough to know to be afraid of it. Like in politics the tried and true rule applies: if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Less is More

The main reason why things are scarier at night is because we can see them less clearly. It’s an animalistic response to the unknown, and here is exactly where you want to sit on your throne if you’re crafting a spooky narrative. Personally I have almost always been most disappointed by full reveals of monsters or threats than by their inference. They always become immediately smaller and containable once revealed. The moment when we see the weird underground cannibal hillbillies in The Descent, the goofy clown face guy in Sinister, or even the room of skeletons in the Shining. These by revealing their threats so clearly essentially turn on the overhead lights in a once dark and quiet room. WHat happens in our brain parts is that our predator’s perception has now become satisfied by beholding its prey, and all the drama stops. Again with Tobe Hooper, in Chainsaw, we never really see a direct gorey murder, it always happens off screen, around the corner or behind the slammed door.  The alien in Alien, is far scarier as teeth and a tail and a clawed hand than it ever is a fully formed running creature. It’s becomes spectacle rather than something more subtle. Crafting this principle is basically an act of going to the edge of the diving board, and doing any manner of acrobatics there without ever falling into the pool. You want to tickle but never grab. it’s all appetizer, and the goal is to let the meal come at the very end. Most recently and probably amongst all of cinematic history, The Babadook does this better than most. It is an entirely elegant, heartfelt terrifying story that is at its heart simple a story about how a woman and her son process the grief at the loss of their husband/father. The Babdook is that grief, that regret made manifest. It comes at night, it comes int he shadows. Even when it stands before you fully revealing itself, you can barely distinguish it from the dark that surrounds it. It is near perfect, if not entirely perfect film in executing what it intends as to surpass its own genre.

A thing that talks to you from the unlit closet is a thing you listen to more than if it’s sitting across the table from you at breakfast. The secret truth behind good horror comes from an understanding of our flight/fight response as perceivers. We are trying, as storytellers, to tickle a very particular and basal part of our minds when we spook our audience. This is why so much horror declines into gore or shock as they are inarguably fast and efficient ways to trigger our lizard brains into leaping off the rock… or our of our seats. The trick we want to achieve though is to do that but keep the lizard on the rock. You want to tease out that part of our minds but not chase us away with it. Remember, the more you show, the less there is to imagine and horror lives and dies in the imagination. The job of a storyteller is then to provide enough space to trigger the audience’s minds to fill in the rest with their own terrors. Anything less than that falls flat or turns to schlock.

Graphite drawing, Vamp from EVERY DAY ORIGINAL

Here’s the thing that is most often misunderstood about what horror does and doesn’t. Fear is not a cause, but a response. Being afraid to be afraid actually creates a more fearful existence. Engaging with it, wrestling with it and coming out from under it makes us stronger. We’re a species designed for this exact arc, our survival was literally based upon this notion. It’s negative side effects are clear and entirely evident, but unfortunately we have allowed these negatives aspects to occupy all the conversation around how we approach fearful things, and blotted out any of the benefits. We live in a  safer world than our fore bearers, and overall this is a very good thing of course, but for our stories it has made us weaker in terms of what we gain from their spooky lessons. This is again not to say that scary things are for everyone. While I am a big fan of horror and scary stories for kids as is laid out in my previous article, forcing scary things on someone not inclined to enjoy it, is terrorizing. When it comes to your own kids, you have to read the room. But don’t be afraid to be afraid from time to time. Remember no matter how scary a movie or a book may be, it’s ability to scare ends at the movie theater doors or the end of the novel. It’s up to you whether you want to take that disturbance further, and you’ll be better equipped in other areas of your life by learning this skill in the relative safety of narratives than in say real life. The point is overall, to have fun. To delight in the additive things in life rather than live in fear of them. Whether you’re an audience of stories or a creator of them, your experience in making and enjoying all stories is only enhanced by some of the basic rules and tricks found in horror. To learn a rule and decide to ignore it is a stronger act than to ignore a rule or tool because you aren’t familiar with it. Making art, telling stories demands the breaking of boundaries and of testing yourself. Find the limits, push them, go too far and race back in. There’s monsters at the edge of the map, but there’s also adventure there too.