When I put out a call for 500 words or so on your favorite horror movie, that sparked an idea in Christopher Gamsby’s head. He reached out to me with the idea, and the first thing I told him was to feel free to do more than 500 words on this. Then, after I read it, I said that even though my guest post slots were already assigned, I’d find a way to fit this in. I think he’s completely right on how the defeating horror movie monsters. How about you?
Monsters as a Force of Nature
One of my first memories as a child was watching A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was so young that all the macroscopic details of my life are unclear. I can’t remember my exact age, my house or even what state I lived in at that point but I remember a maniac terrorizing teenagers in the safety of their own dream worlds. I couldn’t sleep for days without seeing Freddie Krueger’s burnt face and Christmas sweater. As I grew, I continued watching horror movies and today I can watch almost any movie completely unaffected.
I was born in the early 1980’s and raised on the cheesy horror movies of the 80’s to early 90’s. The horror movies that came out before Scream basked in their un-ironic love of excess and the ridiculousness of their premises. The source of the villain’s power was obscure but they were a force of nature, and not beholden to explanation. We don’t need to know why a dropped apple falls or why we get wet in the rain in order to believe the inevitability of those consequences. We also don’t need to understand why Freddy can enter dreams to kill, how Jason resurrects, where the Cenobites fit in that little puzzle-box, or when the Wishmaster first came to Earth.
Often the elaboration of how a horror movie villain received their power greatly reduced their effectiveness as threats and marked the decline in their series. In the Nightmare on Elm Street series, we only knew fairly little about Fred Krueger in the original movie. We knew the important premises that he was a child murderer who was killed by the town’s residents in retribution for his crimes. We know he was resurrected and hunts in children’s dreams. We don’t know how Freddy is capable of his inhuman feats, but he manages to be both menacing and endearing.
The third movie The Dream Warriors elaborated on Freddy’s past and explained that he was the product of 100 asylum inmates rapping his mother. The act of discovering his origins de-elevated Krueger from a cipher to our own vulnerabilities and sins to a petty demon carrying out its own designs. By The Dream Child an even more elaborate mythos revolved around Freddy Krueger and each piece of new information further lowered his status. His overall threat was changed from an unstoppable menace to vulnerable. He’s vulnerable to your bravery, his mother’s spirit, religious iconography and even to imagination. His degradation was complete in The Final Nightmare when his true vulnerability was revealed to be reality. Our mere existence was sufficient to destroy his threat. The movie’s ending felt unsatisfying compared to A Nightmare on Elm Street when Freddy was still alive and unstoppable.
Most of the modern classic horror movies followed the same path of lowering their antagonist’s status throughout their sequels. Michael Myers in Halloween started as a roaming maniac killing members of a small community without clear motive. We intrinsically fear that type of random violence because we could be its victim at any moment with no way to protect ourselves. As the film series continued Michael changed from the incarnation of misfortune to a puppet of a cult bent on fulfilling a prophecy by killing his family. The audience also changes from potential victims to merely observers of others misfortune.
Expectations in Sci-fi and Literature
I could outline similar paths in the series of Alien, Predator, Pumpkinhead, Hellraiser, Wishmaster, or most other similar horror movies. Non-horror movies like the science fantasy series Star Wars fall into the same pattern, except with immersion instead of fear. The original trilogy relied on audiences just accepting that the force was a part of the universe and there were Jedi and Sith who could tap into the force. Since the force was natural to the world it didn’t need any more justification than explaining why planets had gravity or people breathed. The force was a tool in service of the greater plot and people created their own justifications which satisfied the question why. For some people the force was scientific, for some it was space magic and others believed it was an energy akin to chi.
In the prequel trilogy George Lucas focused a lot of attention on the nature of the force and how the Jedi lived. This awesome cosmic power was diminished to cellular functions. Those whose imaginations believed the force was scientific embraced midi-chlorians but those who imagined the force was space magic felt wholly unsatisfied by the explanation. Those who imagined the Jedi as fierce warriors or space wizards were left wanting after seeing they were actually bureaucrats. This disconnect forced previously avid fans of Star Wars to hate the prequels.
The short story writer H.P. Lovecraft was an expert at adding in just enough detail to instill fear in his readers. In stories like Herbert-West Reanimator, Lovecraft used pseudo-scientific detail to establish the possibility that the nature we know can actually be twisted in ways we couldn’t imagine. Dr. West in the story used nature to create unpredictable monsters. Lovecraft never elaborated on the limits to the vitality or the longevity of the resurrected tissue in order to leave the reader a chance to insert their own beliefs into the mystery. The reader’s contribution to the story can add more investment than anything Lovecraft could write in himself.
Lovecraft was fond of vague phrases like ‘unknowable evil’, ‘terrors from the darkest reaches of deep space’, ‘abominations before both man and gods’ or ‘unspeakable horrors’. The impoverished explanations let readers assign their own exact expectations. The phrase ‘unknowable evil’ can be broadly applied to where most people could insert something they fear. Those who feel guilty about adultery, wronging a loved one, stealing or lying could fill the horror waiting to judge them. The phrase ‘evil brought about by the souls of aborted fetuses’, for example, could hold special meaning to anyone who feels guilt over having an abortion, or has strong feelings toward abortion in general, but the majority of readers will not feel an implicit threat.
Basic Psychology in Folk Tales and Fiction
The psychologist F.C. Bartlett, a contemporary of Lovecraft, studied the acquisition and dissemination of folk tales. He found that people remembered folk tales in a principled way that often changed based on the person’s ethnicity and society. His observations fall neatly in modern cognitive psychology today, but in the 1920’s and 1930’s his results were nearly inexplicable in the theories that dominated his day.
First he found that if people are asked to memorize a fable from a culture with different social norms, the people will memorize the story using their own culture’s norms. For example he tested Canadians on remembering the fable “War of the Ghosts”. In that fable a canoe full of warriors approached a pair of brothers standing on a riverbank and asked the brothers to join their raiding party. The older brother said that he couldn’t go, but he gave his brother permission. When asked to recall the story 15 minutes later, most of the Canadians recalled the brothers as father and son because in white culture, a father gives permission to a son, not a brother.
Bartlett also found that fables were much easier to remember if the main part of the tale violated some fundamental property of an object. For example we can easily remember Superman because people can not fly, or stop bullets or use x-ray vision. In this way Superman violates a few of the fundamental properties of being human and so we can easily recall him. We can have elaborate descriptions of people or places that don’t violate our preconceived notions and those details become much harder to remember. You will have trouble remembering a person I describe as wearing a fishbowl as a hat, sporting orange pants with brown stains and a checkered green and white shirt with live roses pinned to the front. Even though the person I described has only three attributes like Superman, his attributes don’t violate our essential concepts of what makes a person, which makes them harder to remember.
So if we look at Freddy Krueger in this light, he is highly memorable because he is a man who can’t die and can enter dreams. Both of those traits are fundamental violations of being human in any culture, which means he will be highly memorable in any culture. In the early movies he could be either considered a ghost or a demon. In eastern cultures, vengeful ghosts are more common than demons and in western cultures demons are more common than vengeful ghosts. In this way once the movies began to explain his past as a demon, western audiences could easily accept that information, but likely eastern viewers would need to dedicate more thought to understanding the character as a demon.
Generally speaking in psychology the more attention a person uses to understand something basic, the less they can attend to all other auxiliary information. The more the viewer thinks about Freddy’s nature, the more they’ll miss the fine details of the plot. A horror movie’s tension is derived from the atmosphere and ambiance the film created, but if people spend more attention on major plot points, they spend less attention noticing the cues signaling they should be scared.
For any writers out there, predicting how your readers will interpret your work is paramount to successful writing. You may be worried that if you don’t explain some fantastic aspect of your world that your readers may be confused or become un-invested in the story. Conversely depending on how specific the explanation, you might actually end up confusing your reader. You may even make your readers apathetic toward the danger of your antagonist, which is far worse than confusing them once or twice. I personally prefer the original formula of 1980’s horror movies. Villains as a force of nature in a slightly schlocky tone still makes for a supremely entertaining time and can connect with readers at a level that caution may destroy. This is all my opinion, but what do I know anyway, I’m as new to this writing game as you can get.
-Christopher W Gamsby
Christopher W Gamsby is the author of the new indie epic fantasy series Shift World. Shift World can be downloaded for free at www.traitorstavern.com.
A vibrant living world connects to the Shift World, a world of monsters, ruins, and treasure. One in ten thousand people can travel between the two worlds and they are known as shifters. Shifters created empires, became merchant barons, and influenced much of the world’s culture. Schools teach about shifters’ exploits and shifters even dictate fashion and entertainment. Children dream about a life of adventure in the Shift World.
A young shifter named Karp was saved from the brink of death in a small trading post called the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern. While recovering she befriended the general store’s manager and apprenticed under a local shifter named The Whitecoat. The store manager, her adopted son, and The Whitecoat became Karp’s family and the Village of the Traitor’s Tavern became her home.
Karp’s idyllic life is threatened by a spreading sickness which takes the lives of shifters. An encounter with a mysterious stranger in the Shift World almost leaves Karp dead on the general store’s floor. To save her new home and family, Karp will need to search the ruins of Shift World for weapons, find powerful new allies, defeat unrelenting enemies, and avert an unclear calamity that looms over everything.
2 thoughts on “Defeating Horror Movie Monsters by Christopher Gamsby”
Interesting take. Vernon Lee once made a similar point: horror depends on what is not defined, but writing involves defining. Her way of addressing the problem was to rely on remarkably insubstantial haunts, in once case a musical tune! But I can see how leaving the origin and powers of a villain as undefined as possible helps make them seem more formidable and threatening.
Let’s tackle this from another angle. If we make something in the story happen that is otherwise impossible, it makes the villain all that more scary. It’s not just that they are more memorable, as you point out Superman is. It’s that they become unpredictable. As the trailer for the ill-fated “Suicide Squad” put it: what if Superman ripped off the roof of the White House and carried off the President? Who could stop him? Superman is a really scary dude . . . until we find out about his upbringing, his problems with kryptonite, his role as a newspaperman in love with a colleague, etc.
Which, to get WAY off the subject, maybe why comic books love origin stories for superheroes: it keeps them from being frightening.
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