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Friday, 31 October 2014

Editorial: Four Ingredients of Horror.

Today's spooky archive post is Coraline (2009).

Editorial: Four Ingredients of Horror.

It's going to be a little difficult to write this post, because the ultimate aim of horror is always to be scary, and what that is always varies between different people. I'm not particularly scared by lots of blood, for example, but the success of the Saw films indicates that some people are. Similarly, I am very vulnerable to jump scares, even though there are plenty of people who have never been taken off guard by a jump scare in their life. 

But there have to be some universal ingredients of horror, otherwise it'd be an impossible genre to work in, with entertainment developers pursuing the white whale of a scary game only to have two thirds or more of their market react to what they've produced with a shrug. Let's try to pin down what four of those ingredients are. 

1: Mystery.

You can't have a horror without mystery, because a horror without mystery is just a sequence of slightly alarming but totally understandable events. 

Or, to put it another way, there's nothing more scary than the unknown, and fear thrives off the unknown. An axe murderer is a lot less scary if you know he's located in the bathroom and that his name is Steve and that he bought his axe from B&M, than if you have no idea who he is, why he's there, and most importantly, where in your house he is. 

The spider which was on the opposite wall and is now mysteriously gone is a lot more likely to be laying eggs in your lungs than the spider that's still on the opposite wall. 

2: Being anchored in real life.

A horror that has no connection to real life isn't a horror anymore, it's just a fantasy.

Of course, what 'anchored in real life' means varies. It could mean 'it's set in a world not unlike modern day earth', and that works fine. Going one step further, it could mean 'it revolves in some fashion around fears that real people might have' - sickness, trauma, paranoia, the abduction of children. 

Or you can pull it right back, and it can just mean 'it's set in a world which could happen'.

The connection can be a thin one, but it's important, because it's much easier to be afraid if you can relate what you're experiencing back into your own life in some way, which brings us neatly to point three.

3: A way for the audience to identify.

Closely related to four, the audience has to be invested in the fate of the character in the horrifying situation. They need to be able to identify with them - and while this is true of all fiction, it's especially true of horror, because if you don't identify with the character or characters thrown into this scary situation, no amount of interesting plot or beautiful setting or great soundtrack is going to sway you into being scared.

This is why horror films don't really work for me. In horror films, their preferred method is a fairly ineffective one, usually along the lines of 'make the protagonist as generic as possible in the hopes that any audience member watching will be able to project themselves onto them' and it doesn't usually work, I think, for anyone, which is why that same film genre has become so dependent on jump scares. 

Horror video games, meanwhile, really work for me. In a video game, you automatically identify with your character, no matter who they are, because you're controlling them. They've become an extension of you through which you act in the video game, and you treat them as such. How many people, after all, describe what's going on in a video game with 'And then [character name] did this?' You don't, generally. 

(I once mentioned this to someone and they scoffed at me, but then, they also said that FPS games were the only real video games. What a tool.)

4: Danger. 

I was reluctant about typing this, because one of the most recent horror games I watched someone else play as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, where you are never in danger, ever. It's a horror game that works purely on atmosphere, but it's still pretty scary. 

Except there is danger in Vanishing. Quite apart from things like the miner section, where there's a monster that can't kill you but certainly can pop up and attack you, there's also the ever looming danger in the title: That a young boy has vanished, and if you don't find him, something awful is going to happen. 

You can't have horror without danger, because if there's no danger, what exactly is it the audience is fearing? That danger can be something like 'a monster will attack and eat me', or it can be something more subtle like 'I'm going to find out something horrible' or 'I'm going to fail to achieve my goal'. Just something. 

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