Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #94:

The Elements of Good ScaryTelling, Part One: Haunting Themes

by Shannon Appelcline

October 31, 2002 - Welcome, boils and ghouls, to the Hallowe'en '02 edition of Trials, Triumphs, and Trivialities. As you probably know, here at Skotos we're in the process of creating our first truly scary game: Lovecraft Country: Arkham by Night. Thus I've decided to take this year's All Hallows' Eve as an excuse to begin a few weeks of discussion on horror.

Before I get started, let me offer credit where credit is due. My biggest source this time around was a panel on horror that occurred at this year's WorldCon. It's participants included Lee Killough, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, a few other panelists who's names didn't make it into my notes, and any number of audience members. I should also offer appropriate credit to Travis Casey, who wrote a few articles on horror game design early this year, and has thus no doubt influenced my own point of view. You can find them at: Building Stories, Telling Game #30, Exploring Genres: Horror and Building Stories, Telling Games #31, Horror, Part 2: Fear Itself. Finally, thanks also to my wife, Kimberly, who helped me fill out my list of common horror themes.

With that all said, let's get started.

I wonder if scary literature is the literary equivalent of skydiving.
— Lee Killough, WorldCon Horror Panel, 2002

So, You Want to Build a Horror Game...

Or perhaps you want to write a horror novel, shoot a horror movie, or draw a horror comic. My discussions this week and next should apply equally to all those mediums, because I plan to be approaching things mainly from the storyteller's point of view.

When creating horror, you need to, at core, make sure your creative work meets one important criteria: it must be scary.

That might silly and obvious, but the honest fact is that the line between what's scary and what's not isn't entirely obvious. Little girl walking to grandma's house? Not scary. Little girl walking to grandma's house through dark woods? Somewhat scary. Little girl walking to grandma's house through dark woods in which hungry wolf is lurking, unseen? Terrifying.

The difference, I think, is theme.

The Theme Lark

Theme is a crucial part of creating stories that wasn't discussed much either in Kimberly's original The Elements of Good StoryTelling or my own The Elements of Good Mythtelling. If you think back to high school English classes, theme was that boring topic the teacher pulled out when she was trying to get to the heart of what a story was really about.

Subtext. Meaning. Topic. Message.

Call it whatever you want, but theme of a story — any story — is about what's truly going on. In the Little Red Riding Hood example that I offered as an example above, the text — or story — is about a girl going to visit her Grandmother, and the obstacle that she encounters on the way, in form of a large, scary, possibly rapacious wolf. The subtext, or theme, is about death or loss of innocence. It's about hidden dangers in a safe place.

Themes can be described in any number of different ways. One of the common ones you might recall from high school English was the immortal man-versus conflicts, including:

  • Man Versus Man
  • Man Versus Nature
  • Man Versus Society
  • Man Versus Himself

Another source I've read says that themes illuminate the nature of humany, society, ethical responsibilities, and our own relationship to the world.

To a certain extent, all of these listings are hooey, as are the listings I'll include below specifically related to horror. Themes are unique and meaningful to individual stories, and thus it's very hard to compartmentalize and itemize them. To get to a theme of a creative work, you have to simply ask, what is this work really saying. But, that wouldn't lead to a very interesting article, so I'll do some compartmentalizing and itemizing today.

Marrying Text and Subtext

In order to truly make a theme work, you need to marry text (the story) and subtext (the theme). That is, you need to figure out what your bite-sized theme is, and then figure out how to tell a story that looks at that theme from several different points of view.

I think the formulaic dramas that proliferate on television today portray this idea to its clearest (though perhaps worst) advantage. An individual episode's theme for, say, Felicity's Creek might be "the dangers of losing yourself in a relationship" (the subtext). So we end up with A, B, and C plots (for a better definition of which see, Thinking Virtually #24, Episodic Plots, Part One: Television) which each illuminate that plot in different ways. In Plot A, Felicity and Dawson are newly in love and ignoring all their other friends; in plot B, Joey and Ben are breaking up because each feels like they've lost their own individuality, and in plot C, Sean and Jack are enjoying their newfound relationship, and mocking the problems of their friends, not realizing that they're falling into a more subtle version of the same trap.

Trite? Yeah. When you start off with trite themes, and pair them up with trite plots, you end up with a trite marriage. On the other hand if you choose meaningful themes and pair them up with meaningful plots... well, then you do your High School English teachers proud. Television's The Prisoner, for example, offers a superb example of themes of alienation and societal repression and pairs them up with plots of trying to escape a repressive society to very good effect.

But Weren't You Supposed to Be Talking About Horror?

Yeah, I was, but there was a bit of groundwork to go through because I haven't really discussed theme before. But, finally, we're here.

If anything, the importance of matching up text and subtext is more important in horror than in any other genre. Sure we might feel some fear from a story when we've come to strongly identify with a character and where we think something bad will happen to that character. But to really appeal to a sense of fear you need to scare a reader/player/viewer for himself, not for the sake of some imaginary friend running through the pages of your book, the panels of your comic, or the bits of your computer. And you do that by introducing strong themes that the reader himself finds horrifying, then connect those up with the action of your story.

As I said before, it's meaningless to try and codify all themes into neat little groups, because they can be about anything. But I can offer some of the themes which are common in horror literature, with examples.

  • Fear of Death. Jason Krueger chopping up busty and bouncy coeds is a good example of the very common "fear of death" theme, and also a good example of a bad marriage of text and subtext — it's so blatant that it doesn't really sink in. On the other hand, consider most any vampire story, be it Interview with a Vampire or Bram Stoker's Dracula; these stories offer excellent examples of subtext/text marriage because they look at the theme from different angles. You can die at a vampire's hands (teeth) or you can live eternally feasting upon the pain of others. Which is truly the darker and worst fate? Zombie stories like Night of the Living Dead play on the same theme in yet another way. Here we see that death is worse than we ever could have imagined it, that it's mindless and barbaric and that our ultimate fate is to fall before it. (I'll try not to spoil the movie for those of you who haven't seen it, but I think I can somewhat safely say that the final death of the movie is just as mindless and barbaric as any that come before it at the hands [teeth] or zombies, and that, in itself, is the whole point of the movie — which is to say the theme.)
  • Fear of Change. The fear of change — of becoming something else — is a theme explored in many different ways within the horror genre. In its most unadulterated form we can see it in The Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where we become something that we were not. There are a number of subthemes within this category.
    • Fear of Loss of Control. Tales of vampires are often rife with stories of how the "blood lust" leads them to kill against their own will. This theme is amped up even more in werewolf stories, particularly modern ones like An American Werewolf in London. What could be scarier than losing control over one's actions, but still feeling responsibility and guilt for them?
    • Fear of Loss of Self. Alzheimer's disease is largely dreaded because the idea of losing ourselves in bits and pieces sends us screaming into the night. Loss of self can thus be a major theme in horror literature. It's another aspect of the werewolf and vampire stories. It's also at the heart of possession stories, such as in The Exorcist.
    • Fear of Corruption. We fear having our natures turned against us: being seduced or tainted. It's what happens to Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, as the spirits of Hill House whisper dark secrets to her. And it's what happens to Jack Torrance in Stephen King's The Shining when he begins to view the dark visions of The Overlook Hotel. And, once more, it's the subtext at the core of the taint caused by a lycanthrope's blood or a vampire's kiss. Fear of Disease is a definite variant of this theme, as seen in any number of stories about plague or disease, including movies such as Outbreak.
  • Fear of The Beyond. Very generally we fear anything that lies beyond our experience of normalcy. This again has subthemes.
    • Fear of the Alien. Some things lie beyond are experience, but are unexplainable. It's at heart dirty racism and a fear of cultures other than our own. We see this theme most commonly today in stories of alien abduction, but also in movies such as Alien and perhaps even Predator, if it can be viewed as a horror movie.
    • Fear of Evil. This might truly be a subtheme of the "Fear of the Alien". We fear that which has a moral code different than our own, or worse no moral code at all. It's what made Silence of the Lambs so terrifying, or really any story about a serial killer. In ye olden days this theme often centered around "Fear of the DEVIL" instead. Many still dabble in that variant, though I personally believe it's lost a lot of its power. But, for examples, see Stephen King's The Stand or any of a number of movies, such as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen.
    • Fear of the Unknown. We're not just afraid of that which we don't understand (the alien or evil), but also that which we don't even perceive (the unknown). This is still portrayed wonderfully in books and novels, but has largely seeped out of movies, as special effects budgets climb. We still see it on occasion, though, for example in The Blair Witch Project, and it's as scary as anything. There's something out there and it doesn't like us. The move The Fog is another great example of evil being invisible and masked until it's too late. (Looking back, those are perhaps the two scariest movies I've ever seen, and so I know where my own subtextual horrors lie.)
  • Fear of the Destruction of Normalcy. Perhaps all horror stories actually go to this core: normal life is destroyed by something unexpected. In some stories this is fairly blatant, such as Stephen King's The Regulators, where horror quickly descends upon a suburban neighborhood. In others, the destruction of normalcy is more subtle, but still there — as in any vampire story, where a new fledging must learn to live at night and upon blood, both totally alien to his normal experience. There are also many ways that normalcy may more specifically be destroyed...
    • Fear of Betrayal. We fear that which we trust suddenly and brutally turning against us. This could be a breakdown of society, our friendships, or our machines. Christine by Stephen King offers an example of such a betrayal, but a better example might be his Cujo, where man's best friend goes very (rabidly) wrong.
    • Fear of Isolation. Normal life involves interaction with other people. Suddenly losing that is a clear destruction of normalcy, though not one that's touched on often in stories, perhaps because of the fact that an isolated character is a boring one. But, we can find that isolation in Louise in Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire. Everyone he loves has died, left him, or betrayed him, and so in the end he is alone.
    • Fear of Power. Within any normal culture, there is a hierarchy of power. Normalcy breaks down when that power is abused. In recent years the "Fear of Power" theme has come on gangbusters, particularly via its subtheme, the "Fear of the Government". What was scary in The X-Files? Some of it was The Alien, as embodied in grays, black ooze, and what not. Some of it was The Unknown, as embodied by only those questions that we didn't know the answers too. But most of it centered around that powerful cabal of people in the government, huddling around the Cigarette Smoking Man, who did whatever they wanted. Rather than those in power turning bad, you can also have that which is bad taking power. This is one of the themes at the heart of both Carrie and Firestarter by Stephen King. And, again, it's at the heart of most vampire stories. (If you haven't caught on yet why vampire stories are popular, it's because those mythical creatures of the night marry a large number of horror subtexts with text beautifully.)
  • Fear of Justice. Each of us is our own worst judge, and thus we fear, more than perhaps anything but death, the judgement of others. This is at the heart of nearly every ghost story, where a vengeful spirit comes back to seek justice. You can also see it in almost every pulp comic put out by "EC" in the 1950s. Finally we can find it in the infamous "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe.

A Nod to Howard Lovecraft

As I said at the start of this article, one of the reasons I'm thinking about horror is because we're developing a game of Lovecraftian horror called Arkham by Night. It's thus fitting, I think, to take a moment to look at the subtext within Lovecraft's own stories.

The theme that Lovecraft hit most commonly was, I think, the Fear of the Unknown. He was sitting on the cusp of the scientific revolution, and he was both intelligent and well educated enough to understand what that meant. Thus, he created a universe full of unfathomable alien beings that we could not see or comprehend. Lovecraft was also, sadly, as racist as any in his time. In pieces such as "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" you can thus see a Fear of the Alien.

I think those two, the fears of the unknown and the alien, are the strongest themes in Lovecraft's corpus of works, though in individual pieces you could find other themes a plenty, involving changing into scaly monsters (Fear of Change, of Lack of Control), being taken over by ancient wizards or witches (Fear of Loss of Self), or finding corruption hidden beneath the normal (Fear of Destruction of Normalcy).

A good horror writer doesn't have just one trick.

Conclusions & Onward

In closing this week I'd simply say this: to write good horror games/novels/stories/comics/whatever, you need to more clearly delineate your themes that you'd have to in just about any other genre. Look at my list, but also consider the many other things that people might be afraid of. Then, move forward from there, creating text (plot, character, etc.) that mirrors that subtext in meaningful, non-blatant ways.

Next week I'm going to approach the whole horror genre from a different angle, by looking at what monstrous archetypes tend to fill it. We'll see the themes from today reflected, hopefully in interesting ways.

I'll see you in 7.

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