The Guts of Good Horror

By Katie Lewis





October is my favorite month of the year. Every year I look forward to the Spooky Season, though admittedly, my love for horror isn’t confined only to this one month. For example, my favorite movie, Pontypool, is a horror movie that takes place on Valentine’s Day. It gives me an excuse to break it out twice a year, if not more. All the best horror stories have a few critical elements in common that might only be apparent to some.

“Horror is just Drama with the ultimate stakes.”

Marcus Parks, podcaster/author

The Other is the first and arguably most important element of a horror story. The Other refers to anything seemingly abnormal or outside our usual understanding. To take a famous example, let’s look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula to explore the elements that make up the Other.

Dracula is a character that embodies Otherness on several levels. The most obvious, of course, is that he is a vampire. If asked to list three monsters off the top of their head, most people would put vampires somewhere on that list. They’ve become a well-known media staple outside of strictly horror settings. Even so, they are still monsters. They are inhuman. They feed on human blood and typically either kill or turn their victims. They (usually) cannot bear to be in the sunlight or participate in what most would consider typical human society. All these characteristics name the vampire as an Other to humans and, therefore, a monster to be feared.

To look at the text of Dracula, however, there’s another layer of Otherness to Dracula’s character that cannot be overlooked. Published in 1897, Dracula came to life when the British Empire was experiencing one of the highest rates of immigration in all of Europe. Dracula himself is an immigrant. He has to transport some of his grave soil with him from Transylvania to cope with the move. The talking points of those who are against high rates of immigration are much the same today as they were 120 years ago. Namely, native residents fear foreigners will take things from them, such as their land, jobs, and family.

That is, in fact, precisely what Dracula seeks to do. After talking with the protagonist, Johnathan Harker, Dracula sets his sights on Great Britain. He can feed freely and create more of his kind, unlike Transylvania, where he is ostracized and isolated in his castle by the fearful locals. His motivations are a bastardization of the immigrant dream for a better life in a new land. Ultimately, he also kills Lucy Westenra and nearly does the same to Harker’s fiancé-turned-wife, Mina. The role of Other that Dracula fills, then, isn’t only that of an inhuman monster but also the fears and unknowns that are unfortunately tied to immigrants. In that sense, he is, in large part, the ultimate horror archetype.

However, there’s more to a good horror story than merely the Otherness of the antagonist. The other ingredients are a bit like spices in a good stew: you don’t necessarily need all of them, but you need a handful for a satisfying result. These other elements are primarily composed of the following . . .

Setting.

Settings isolating or giving a sense of claustrophobia are hugely influential in horror. In Dracula, Harker remarks in his diary how deserted and empty Dracula’s castle is, full of bolts and locks on just about every door. It’s a recurring image.

I mentioned earlier that Pontypool is my favorite movie. It’s a psychological twist on the zombie genre. The action in the entire film takes place at a radio station in the basement of a church during a blizzard in the tiny Canadian town of Pontypool. There are only three or four characters in this setting at any given time. The sense of isolation is both intense and immediate. In short, think dark, dank, and empty when developing a horror setting.

Characters.

We must care about our characters to feel stressed about anything terrible happening to them. In Dracula, we are given various letters and diary entries whereby we are treated to most of the main cast’s innermost thoughts. It’s hard to read a diary and not find yourself invested in that person. As a result, nearly right away, we care about what happens to these people.

On the other hand, Pontypool takes full advantage of its limited cast to make these people feel like old friends in minutes. The movie’s first twenty minutes are comprised of three characters working together, talking over one another, and exchanging small pleasantries. Essentially showing without telling the audience that they are close co-workers, if not close friends. We never even see one character. We only ever hear them over the phone. But he has so much charisma in his voice he communicates shock and horror that merely listening to his descriptions of events is harrowing.

A Turn or a Twist.

Using the terms twist and horror together immediately brings one particular director to mind. Still, I’m talking about a more fundamental concept than “I see dead people.” I suggest approaching the point where the characters begin to understand the nature of their antagonist and start making a (not consistently successful) plan.

In Dracula, we’re dependent on the character of Professor Abraham Van Helsing. More than the rest, he knows what Dracula is and how to fight him. That said, even he comes to a greater understanding after examining Lucy and learning of Harker’s experiences. The reader comes to conclusions about the situation at the same pace as the characters in the story do. That shared turn also engenders a feeling of investment in reading on to see how events will turn out in the end.

Pontypool is similar. The zombie virus in that movie isn’t passed from host to host through a bite the way the genre usually dictates. Instead, it is passed on through words. Pontypool has its own Van Helsing character, Dr. Jon Mendez. Dr. Mendez arrives about halfway through to say he’s “seen a lot of this lately.” He tells anecdotes about his experiences with infected individuals to help the audience and the other characters understand what is happening. Much like Van Helsing, though, it’s only after the group shares a few terrifying experiences that Dr. Mendez solidifies his understanding of what they are fighting.

I’d love to hear about some of your favorite horror stories or movies and what elements, if any, you think to make them great! I always love new horror recommendations!

Links:

https://crimereads.com/on-otherness-and-terror/

https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/literary-arts/the-skeleton-of-a-scary-story/

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