Horror genre notes

For those working on horror screenplays here is my adaptation of the notes I took at yesterday’s meeting of the Soho Screenwriters writers’ group:

There are three kinds of horror film:

1. Man battles outside monster – [Jaws/Alien/Beowulf]
2. Man creates monster – [Frankenstein/The Fly (a romance)]
3. Man is the monster – [Silence of the Lambs/The Shining  (the dark side of man)] Torture (zeitgeist)

Differences in three act structure

By the end of act one it is clear who the monster is – the full extent of the horror. [Scream: a man with a mask stabs people / Alien: a big monster kills without remorse  / Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A person with a chainsaw kills people for no reason]. We may learn more about what is going on later [Poltergeist], but the nature of the threat doesn’t change. In a thriller the big event at the end of act one sets up that there is a mystery: “What is going on?”

Big event onwards – things get worse and worse (Usually first part of Act two allows for some success for protagonist before midpoint)

The third act is usually much shorter. The denouement is usually a false ending.

Detailed stages

Start with a hook – suspense from the start. [Scream: Someone on the phone with a killer]

Show hero and their flaw – make them human (thematic transformation only slight in horror)
A hero with a fear. Claustrophobia, vertigo etc. The fear they must overcome to win.

An isolated location: a trap [spaceship/house/caves] – An authentic setting that people can understand quickly. A beach, a spaceship, a house.

The hero, or a majority of the people in the hero’s group commits a transgression. The earliest horror stories are about immature heroes unintentionally trespassing in forbidden lands.

Tease audiences with ‘foreplay’ – cheap scares – cats jumping from cupboards. Is it always a real scare? Which is it this time? For unbalancing the audience. Make mental things physical. Things change shape and size. Antagonist appears in multiple unexpected places.

Act 2: Evil attacks – make sure there are at least two attacks – show how evil monster can be.

The primary aim is survival (not discovering the truth, getting the boy etc.)

The hero investigates: Find the truth behind the horror (heroes don’t run away).

Midpoint: The bravest/the leader of the group gets killed “we’re in real trouble now!”

Final confrontation: the protagonist wins over their fear and the monster. Using their brain – not their brawn.

Aftermath: everything has gone back to normal. Except the hero has changed.

Hint of a return…?


Stephen King says that there are three levels of horror. Use at least one if not all in all of your scenes.

The first and most powerful is Terror – A character is being directly attacked. Horror happening immediately. [Psycho: the shower scene]
The next most powerful is Fear – Horror might happen at any moment. [Psycho: wandering around in cellar]
The least effective of the three is Revulsion – Horror that has already happened. Reacting to gore. [Psycho: Norman’s mother’s skeleton]

Terror is best, then try Fear, otherwise you need Revulsion. In every scene. Exhaust the audience with as many elements like this as possible.

The Protagonist

Not the most important character. There is a huge gap in power between protagonist and antagonist.

We can more easily empathise with an ordinary person, not too much depth (therefore no character arc).

The person who isn’t too funny/sexual/brave/rich/brave/intelligence… survives. The best balance of character traits wins out in the end.

The stages the protagonist goes through:
Apprehension –
Investigation –
Experimentation –
Rationalisation –
Rules of competence –
Intuition –
Rules of performance –
Absorb the evil – (may take on aspects of the monster to win out).

The Antagonist

Most important character: Create the monster first – films named after the most important character. [Jaws, Alien]

One-dimensional – one riveting contradiction
A spirit of evil – a pleasure in bad acts (you can’t reason with the monster)
Don’t explain the monster
Completely superior to protagonist (if not individually {zombies} make monster vastly superior in numbers)
Superior strength
Superior reflexes
Iconic tool (weapon)
Metaphysical powers (changing shape, locations)

These days mortal monsters more popular than supernatural forces.

Mythos more scary than monster itself (don’t show all of monster) – cheaper too. The mythos is all the tales told of the monster – its unlimited power, its unearthly nature. Praise the monster (compliments) – we get more scared of it – we feel protags have less chance [Ash praises the Alien, Quint is impressed by sharks].

Show monster’s effects in detail – don’t show monster. Once the monster is revealed in full it can finally be destroyed.


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