October 15, 2018

Formulating Horror

There are two books I sit down with every October. One is A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford and the other is Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic by Mark A. Vieira. These books are not only full of great photos, but also interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. The other night I was reading about the making of Universal Studios’ 1941 film The Wolf Man, directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney Jr. At that time the studio was dominating the horror genre with hit horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. They had figured out how to do horror very well and in an interview with The Saturday Evening Post, George Waggner shared the formula for a good Universal horror movie:

  1. They must be once-upon-a-time stories.
  2. They must be believable in characterization.
  3. They must have unusual technical effects.
  4. Besides the major monster, there must be a secondary character of weird appearance.
  5. They must confess right off that the show is a horror film.
  6. They must include a pish-tush character to express the normal skepticism of the audience.
  7. They must be based on some pseudoscientific premise.

A lot of Universal monster movies do follow this formula and yet manage to be very distinct from one another. Despite containing many of the same elements the stories don’t feel repetitive because the elements get combined in different ways. 

This list got me thinking about my own formula for a good horror story. I didn’t read horror as a child, but I watched those monster movies every year. The early horror era looked to the folklore inspired silent films which emerged out of war torn Europe. They are atmospheric, creepy and gothic. The monsters are almost more tragic than evil; they are cursed or created by things beyond their control. These movies left their impression on me and what I look for in a horror story. There are many types of horror stories. They can be about diseases, serial killers, corruption, cannibals, blood and gore or anything else that might be considered scary. For me, though, the best kind are supernatural and more than just a surface scare.

Following the example above, I’ve made my own list of what I want in a horror story. Unlike Waggner, I won’t claim that this is a formula to make good horror. It is merely a list of elements that make for an enjoyable read.

  1. Have some element of the supernatural that’s not explained away by science.
    It’s not just someone pulling strings from behind a curtain. There’s no need for a scientific explanation. Humans have a fear of the unknown and that fear can be played up when fantastical, unexplainable things start to happen.
  2. Be psychological.
    This is the perfect place for an unreliable narrator. It can also be used to explore what the darker side of humanity looks like through a supernatural, fairytale-ish lens.
  3. Have believable characters and let the reader care about them. 
    Who cares if a large cast of characters get picked off willy-nilly? I prefer a few richly drawn characters to worry about. Ironically, Universal made it’s monsters sympathetic by giving them emotional lives and tragic fates. 
  4. Contain elements of Gothic literature.
    Gothic literary elements include: death and decay, haunted homes, madness, curses, ghosts, otherworldly creatures, powerful love/romance. So let’s have some decaying old houses in which the inhabitants are cursed with madness and haunted by dead relatives. 
  5. Have it set somewhere that’s already a bit odd.
    I prefer it to be a little creepy already and slightly removed from the present world. 
  6. Include some tragedy.
    Horrible things are going to have to happen. The nicest people may have to die. I’m usually in favor of happy endings, but in this context it’s more satisfying when characters are manipulated by fate or evil forces. 

Maybe you can tell from the items on my list that my favorite horror novels generally fall into the haunted house category. My re-read shelf includes Hell House by Richard Matheson, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, or any novels by Simone St. James. This year I’m checking out Shirley Jackson (I don’t know why it took me so long.)  These all have those unexplainable events, slow mounting terror and element of mystery that satisfies the picky horror reader in me. 

What do others look for in a horror story?

Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. In terms of reading, I think I started with Poe, grew into Lovecraft, and the ilk, did all the “classics” including Stoker, etc. Was addicted to the Wolf Man/Dracula/Frankenstein films as a kid. As an adult I seem to have drifted away from “horror” both in films and in fiction. I’ve read zero Stephen King horror, and have only seen one or two of the film adaptations. Most of the adaptations of HPL’s stuff have been even worse than the prose.

    As an adult I’m drawn to the “weird” and off-the-wall sort of thing, Twilight Zone stuff. The direction Ray Bradbury moved in with “Something WIcked …” and “October Country” etc. Monsters don’t do it for me and slasher stuff is not entertaining. Similarly vampires don’t really crank me up anymore either. I don’t mind a bit of supernatural paraphernalia or some psycho- whatever stuff. Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Birds” terrified me. Speaking of Hitchcock, I found “Rebecca” pretty scary too (another Du Maurier story), and “Rope,” and “Strangers on a Train.” (etc.)

    Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde I found horrifying. Jack the Ripper stuff interests and scares me. I find Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory a lot scarier than Dracula. I guess I look for stories that explore the horror available in the human soul and mind. I’m a fan of Pogo – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


  2. I grew up with more traditional horror — H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, and even comics when I was a kid like “Tales from the Crypt,” as well as the 19th century classics like Shelley, Stoker, etc. More recently, under Dean’s influence, I picked up a copy of Saki’s short stories. The themes were, as you say, Jennifer, often of damaged, wounded people transformed into monsters rather than of mindless destroyers of human life. But another important sub-theme in 19th and earlier 20th century horror was of nature’s revenge against impudent humans, like Frankenstein or in José Vasconcelos’ classic “The Boar Hunt.” Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” is wonderfully written so that you know what the protagonist believes and wants to happen, and his wishes are seemingly granted — but did it happen the way he wanted it to — which implies a supernatural intervention — or was the outcome just a coincidence? We, the readers, are left to wonder.

    In a sense, a horror story is just a mirror version of the hero’s journey, where someone must find and confront some evil — and where that evil comes from informs a big part of horror stories — and overcome that evil, usually by the thinnest of margins. (In modern Dystopian horror, the hero loses and dies.) In the recent film “Annihilation,” the only two characters to emerge alive from the anomaly are shown by a glint in their eye to have somehow internalized and taken something of the anomaly into their bodies. It has become a part of them.

    I haven’t read much modern (meaning, post-1960s) horror fiction, though I’m always open for suggestions. I was once lent a compendium of Clive Barker short stories, but only found a couple stories worth remembering. Most of its was Hollywood-style blood and gore, very visual, very visceral. It was less horror and more disgust. Only a handful of Hollywood horror films have ever really scared me — most are based on such ridiculous premises that I just can’t invest much belief in them. Any story that involves the fantastic or the supernatural must use these elements sparingly and only to advance the story; they must be able to be believable enough to convince you to “join the story,” so to speak, and willingly suspend your beliefs for the duration of the story. I have no fears of any of Lovecraft’s monsters coming and getting me, but he was a master of putting me in some room or trapped environment with something I did not want to be in that environment with, making me squirm.

    So what do I want in a horror story?

    — Science doesn’t bother me — Matheson goes into some detail in his “I Am Legend” trying to explain how vampires could biologically exist — so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story. “Annihilation” and “Jurassic Park” both require some science education up front. And it can work, if done well.

    — I like the psychological element, certainly over the gore element. If I want to barf, I’ll just watch the news. Not that I mind some gore — “Jaws” was fun, and had just the right amount of gore. After all, you need to be shown what the monster/nasty critter/antagonist is capable of doing. But films like the “Saw” series to me are mindless slasher-porn. For me, there has to be a very real and believable threat to my life, as well as some hope (however tiny or tenuous) that I can somehow survive, if I do the right things. Without that hope, there’s no story. Without hope, a story becomes like the Cthulu Mythos, where Cthulu believers pray to Cthulu that he (she?) eats them first when Cthulu finally breaks into our realm and destroys all, so at least they don’t have to see their loved ones suffer when they are eaten.

    — Supernatural: The supernatural can be a fun plot device but it is used and abused sometimes, methinks. It is sometimes used as a weak plot device to explain short-comings in the story the author couldn’t quite bridge. After all, you don’t have to explain the supernatural –who can? But that said, I like a good ghost or supernatural critter sometimes too. It adds an important variable dimension to stories — because supernatural critters don’t have to play by the usual rules the rest of us do. Part of the hero’s story in a horror tale is figuring out some of the rules the supernatural critter * is * playing by, and using them to stop them.

    — Agree on the real characters bit. We, as readers, need to be able to invest in them, and care about them — at least enough so that we give a crap when they are threatened or suffer tragedy in the story. That said, it’s OK to have some “Red Shirts” who get munched early on, for dramatic effect. 😉

    — One of the things I like about Lovecraft is his ability to transform early 20th century New England into a medieval European-style Gothic horror setting. So yeah — atmosphere and setting are key. Some of my favorite Lovecraft stories have very lavish settings, though he’s good at isolating his protagonists. In Anne Rice’s original book, “Interview with the Vampire,” her vampires — though powerful against individual humans — were vulnerable against larger groups of humans and had to hide from civilization, sometimes in the dank cellars of abandoned homes or even in sewers, living literally among (and surviving on) rats.

    — And tragedy: Yup. To win, there has to be some loss. The hero (in classic fashion) has to win in the end, but not without suffering some damage. Their victory comes at a cost, and they must be profoundly changed by that cost. They purchase their victory dearly. A good horror story should prompt the reader to wonder what they would be willing to sacrifice to confront and defeat evil.

    Nice write-up, Jennifer!


  3. I have only read his “I am Legend,” but loved it.


  4. I am thrilled to see more Richard Matheson readers in this group. He is often overlooked due to the long shadow cast over him by people he collaborated with, but I’m a huge fan of his many contributions to Rod Serling’s excellent work in The Twilight Zone.


    • Well, I’ve only read “Hell House” and “Stir of Echoes” and I was unimpressed with the latter. Someday I’ll get around to “I am Legend.” I didn’t know he worked in film as well, though now that I’ve looked him up I realize that I’ve seen a lot more of his work or things based on his work than I realized.


      • “Stir of Echoes” was an odd work compared to his others — as I understand it, Matheson had a friend (or family member, I’m not sure which) who thought they could see ghosts. Unlike his more philosophical work, Stir of Echoes was a ghost story and heavily metaphorical. The film based off of the work has a huge cult following, but it’s a far cry from most of his other works.



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