Saturday, October 15, 2011

Qualities of Classic Horror Stories

Way back in 2009 I wrote some about a favorite horror story, a great book I found about designing a horror story, and how horror stories have similarities to stories about political intrigue.

This week I helped create a short horror story writing contest for school age children (which may or may not actually happen).  The rules were pretty simple:
The submission must include two items: the horror story and a short explanation of how each of the ten attributes below were used.  The explanation should be clear and accurate: it will be more important for judging than the story itself.  Younger children may simply write a phrase or two after each of the ten attributes; older children should compose their explanation in paragraph(s).
Here are the ten attributes I came up with.  What others am I missing?  What makes a classic horror story?  After all, shouldn't there be thirteen attributes of a classic horror story?

1. The danger is personal.  The protagonist, or a loved one, is threatened.

2. The first shock happens early.  Often the opening scene involves the protagonist (or a loved one) witnessing or suffering a freakish situation.

3. The mood builds slowly with few releases of tension.  The eeriness, helplessness, desperation, confusion, and dread grow gradually but relentlessly.

4. The protagonist becomes wrapped up in more and more problems.  Yet although tensions abound, few become violent.  The protagonist is not in an action story and cannot simply fight his or her way to freedom or victory.

5. The protagonist witnesses things that cannot be explained and is opposed by varieties of people or creatures that have never before been encountered.

6. Things that should be permanent act temporary.  (A shouted curse has a long-lasting effect, the dead come back to life, etc.).  Things that should be temporary act permanent.  (Fog never leaves the town, the abandoned asylum is haunted by flashes of illusionary memories).

7. Because of the inexplicable events, unique opponents, and mixing of permanent and temporary, the protagonist is ignorant for many problems about which of his or her options will calm or inflame the situation.  The growing mood includes new uncertainties about what to do and new worries that a new strategy will actually make things worse.

8. When the protagonist does feel a sense of victory, the gain is partly hollow.  As examples, a clue explains why the monster appeared but not how to defeat it, rescuing someone alerts the villain that protagonist is an opponent worth monitoring and dealing with, or defeating one opponent reveals a deeper layer of evil in control.  (Note: for young writers this is often the most difficult criteria to  include, but also perhaps the most powerful for improving the story.  Don't settle for a struggle only one layer deep!)

9. Purity has real value.  Evil hearts draw evil forces.  If the protagonist can remain pure, he or she can escape being attacked, detected, or slowed by the evil forces.

10.  The unexpected happens!  (In any or all of the first nine criteria, for example... Another friend or family member is involved.  Another freakish event happens.  Another part of the protagonist's history is revealed as a source of tension.  A strange creature
ambushes the protagonist.  A strange phenomenon causes the protagonist to doubt his or her sanity.  An unforeseen complication provides additional worries.  A partial victory is surprisingly easy but alarmingly hollow.  The protagonist recognizes another habit or
mindset that counts as a helpful kind of purity.)

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