What Horror can Teach Us

This is a post at Writer Unboxed, very timely since it’s Halloween. I’m wearing my T-shirt that says “I Don’t Do Costumes” and my spider earrings, but other than that, I don’t pay any attention to Halloween, so I generally just about forget it’s there. But of course a Halloween post is a nice thing to do, so hey, I’ll borrow this one.

What the heck was it that made this film [Blair Witch Project]—a 90-minute story of people getting lost in the woods, in which there’s hardly any blood, and we never even see a glimpse of the monster—the one that spooked me to the core?

Found footage movies like Blair Witch have gotten popular in part because they feel more “real.” I’m old enough to remember people having earnest discussions when the film came out over whether it was a true story. But I knew it was more than that. Not only did the found footage style of the film make it feel like something that could realistically happen to me: it made me think about what I would have done in a similar situation. What would I do if I got lost in a wooded area without a map? What would I do if I got lost in a wooded area without a map and I was with someone I didn’t know well, and whom I didn’t trust to keep their head in an emergency?

That train of thought alone was enough to get me feeling anxious.

Most horror films come with an element of the supernatural that removes the characters’ actions from my own day-to-day. What would I do if my train was suddenly filled with zombies? It’s a fun thought experiment, but I don’t know because it’s a scenario that’s highly unlikely to occur (though I’ve lived through enough unprecedented events that I’m not about to tempt fate by declaring in public that a zombie apocalypse cannot happen).

Getting lost in the woods, though? That’s something that definitely could happen. Blair Witch had the right combination of realness (the found footage style) and believability (I could get lost in woods that look just like those woods) to tap right into a well of fear at my center.

I enjoyed this post because I clearly remember those earnest discussions! I think I came down on the side of “No, it’s fiction,” but that was long enough ago that I’m not completely sure. I know I entertained the idea that it might be based on something real, because those discussions were EVERYWHERE at the time. I’m sure the producers made that happen, and good for them, it must have been a great advertising gimmick.

I have also been lost, as in mildly turned around, in the woods a lot of times. I did a project in grad school that took me out into the woods at night a lot, and finally I used reflective tape to mark the trails, although actually I got lost at night rather seldom because few patches of woods were so dense you couldn’t see the lights from homes around the edges. Also, I used to walk my Papillons off-leash in the woods around my house all the time, and though I seldom got turned around, that was because I learned to pay attention. (I don’t take dogs into the woods off leash now because I’m way too lazy these days … or maybe I’m too busy … to train a REALLY solid recall.)

Anyway, I think that immunized me to feeling all that nervous about being lost in the woods as an ordinary thing.

This post carries this idea into writing advice, as here:

Make your characters desperate to avoid the thing that scares them. 

That is really solid advice. But, I would say, it’s then often most powerful to put the characters in a situation where they have to bring themselves to face it. The decision to face the thing that most terrifies them is at the heart of a LOT of heroic fantasy novels because it’s at the heart of a lot of heroes. I’ve done this often enough, of course. In Tuyo, Ryo was put in this position. In Copper Mountain, Miguel had to make this choice. This is not at all unusual, and that’s because it’s really powerful and effective.

Sarah Rees Brennan does this over and over in The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy. That’s why it’s such a tremendously powerful trilogy.

Miles Vorkosigan hits this plot event in … it’s Mirror Dance, right? I mean the one where he has to face giving up his Naismith identity.

I’m sure (very sure) there are lots of others I’m not thinking of right this minute.

Oh, the Spiritwalker trilogy, that’s another one.

Right, how about And All the Stars — that throws multiple characters into this situation, though we don’t realize that until the astounding plot twist.

Ah, here’s one I think we have all probably read.

So I’d re-vamp that rule this way:

Make your characters desperate to avoid the thing that scares them … and then force them to make the choice to face that exact thing.

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2 thoughts on “What Horror can Teach Us”

  1. Make your characters desperate to avoid the thing that scares them … and then force them to make the choice to face that exact thing.”

    “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
    Yep, Alien hits all the high points of this recipe.
    Although I confess I did not realize I should be scared of pharyngeal jaws before this movie.

  2. Those pharyngeal jaws were definitely an excellent design feature.

    Quick: what was the planet like that those things evolved on? Pretty scary to think about that…

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