After writing two horror films, directed by Wes Craven (the writer/director of Nightmare on Elm Street and many others), I got to be an expert of sorts in the field of horror.
In the first place, we must realize that the real star in the horror genre is not the hero but the source of the horror itself.
The audience that pays their money to see your horror film is not there to appreciate the nuances of character – they are there to be scared silly. In some ways, this seems rather obvious, but in helping many of the writers in my screenwriting workshops with their horror projects, they seem to overlook this basic tenet.
They spend way too much time on scenes that are dialogue driven or expository and way too little time creating memorable, scary moments.
It is a childish emotion, this love of being scared. That is not to say adults don’t like to be scared as well. Clearly we do. But as adults, we are not responding to a horror film with adult-like behavior. Rationally, if something scares us we avoid it. But now, we are seeking it out. Why would we do this?
Because we are being transported back to a time when nameless fears held us in their sway. It simply means, as adults, we have not outgrown our juvenile fascination with that which goes bump in the night. Just like some of us still like the thrill of going on roller coasters at amusement parks. We like to be scared because it helps us face and overcome our most primal fears of childhood – the monster that lives under the bed or the creatures that haunt our nightmares.
We all come to your work of horror with certain expectations which you must deliver, or we will be extremely disappointed. So think long and hard about your villains and the world in which they exist. Make sure you immediately thrust the reader or filmgoer into that world of dangerous creatures, or crazed killers or aliens who desire our demise.
Be very attentive to what makes your villains unique. Why do we need to see another story about vampires or zombies or rabid animals? What made the Alien franchise so memorable was the originality of the monster – a creature that has acid as blood and could transform itself into whatever environment it was hunting in. How can we possibly kill such a creature? This monster is not of our world, it doesn’t think like us, it has no compassion or conscience -- and that makes it that much more frightening.
And when you write the scary scenes, milk them for all they’re worth. This is the equivalent of writing the funny, touching scenes between lovers in a romantic comedy or the gross out humor in a teen comedy. It is the very essence of what you’re doing as a horror writer. It’s what the audience has paid their money for – so don’t disappoint them.
Use every trick in the book when you create your scares. Study from the best just as I did: whether it’s Steven King or Wes Craven or Edgar Allan Poe.
And for more tricks of the trade in writing scary movies, please join my webinar where I will talk about the career advantages of writing horror films, what themes are most effective in horror, creating great scares, and many more important topics that will make your horror films as creative and commercial as possible.
Glenn M. Benest is an award-winning writing producer with seven produced screenplays, including two that were directed by Wes Craven. His independent film, HUNGRY HEARTS, was nominated for numerous awards at film festivals throughout the country and is being distributed internationally by Shoreline Entertainment. Mr. Benest is a celebrated lecturer and instructor and his professional screenwriting workshops have launched five feature films, including SCREAM and EVENT HORIZON.
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