Scary stories

The late Kenneth Macgowan in “A Primer on Playwriting” said “We go to the theatre to worry.” This is true of all sorts of fiction, whether novels, short stories, movies, TV shows, or plays.  We read/watch/listen to these things in order to worry.  We worry about whether boy will get girl (or boy get boy, or girl get girl, or human get alien or…).  We worry about whether the “caper” will come off.  We worry about whether the hero will defeat the villain.  We worry if the unspeakable terror will devour the young ingenue.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the genres of “scary stories”–horror, thrillers, what have you.  For the space of our involvement with that fiction we can experience our fears, in a safe environment, and come out at the end safe and hale, having vicariously overcome them.  It can be remarkably cathartic.

I like scary stories, tales of ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedty beasties and things that go bump in the night.  Unfortunately, so much of what I’ve seen misses the mark.  There are several common things that drive me away from a story, that get me to put the book down or turn off the program or even walk out of the theater.  They just…bleah.

So, here are my big pet peeves.  They are my  pet peeves, no one else’s.  Your mileage, as always, may vary.

First, “jump scares”. I don’t mind them used sparingly.  At the right point, they can be quite effective.  But, frankly, they’re easy.  Look, I have a strong “startle” reflex.  I don’t go a week without at least one good “jump scare” in my daily life.  In fiction?  They come across to me as cheap, lazy writing.  They’re easy building suspense through immersion is a challenge.  Having the monster, or just a cat, jump out of nowhere without warning?  Easy.

Second, over reliance of blood and dismembered body parts.  Make a big mess with fake blood, coils of intestines scattered about, various implements cutting/stabbing/drilling into people’s bodies?  Rotting corpses shambling across the scenery.  An easy “shock” scare.   The problem, of course, is that people soon become inured to any given level of blood and gore so you have to ramp it up.  More blood.  More body parts.  More graphic and violent deaths.  All to get the same effect.

Third, idiot plots.  When the plot requires that the characters be idiots for the plot to work just turn me off (and are likely to get me rooting for the monster). Any variation on “let’s split up” (however disguised).  Walls bleeding and disembodied voices saying “get out”?  I’m out of there.  Any place where you scream at the characters saying “don’t do that!” If you, as a reader/viewer can think they shouldn’t do that, then they should be able to figure that out too.  Oh, sure, you can finesse it a bit when the reader/viewer knows things that the character doesn’t.  An example would come from Brahm Stoker’s novel “Dracula”.  After Johnathan Harker hook up with Van Helsing and Company his new wife Mina is dismissed from their counsels in how to defeat the vampire.  By modern standards that would be a major faux pas, but in the setting of the novel and when it was written, that would be normal and expected.  We, unlike Johnathan, have seen what happened to Lucy.  So when the same things start happening to Mina, we know what they portend.  Johnathan, not having seen what happened to Lucy, reasonably does not.  And Van Helsing and company, aren’t seeing what is happening to Mina so they aren’t aware.  A mistake, but not a stupid one on the characters’ parts.  Very little turns me off a story more than stupid characters.

Fourth excess nihilism.  I hate stories where the situation is utterly hopeless.  The key is worry.  That requires the interplay between hope and fear.  And the hope has to be a rel one, not a “he only thought he had a chance.”  It’s one thing for themain character to lose because of mistakes he or she made(so long as they are not stupid mistakes; see above).  It’s another when they were going to lose no matter what they did.  Where there’s no hope, there’s no worry.  Where there’s no chance, there’s no catharsis.  There’s a reason that tragedies traditionally are built around the main character’s “tragic flaw.” Had they overcome their flaw (Hamlet’s indecisiveness, Macbeth’s ambition, Othello’s anger management issues, etc.) and chosen differently, they would not have reached that tragic end.  The same with a victorious ending.  Whatever ending has to come from the choices the character makes with the very real possibility that different choices would have led to a different end.

Now, maybe you like those things.  Maybe you like stories about idiots wandering through a hopeless situation filled with bloody violence and jump scares.  More power to you.  This is what turns me off a scary story, stories in general for that matter, but “horror” and “thrillers” seem to be particularly prone to them.

But when you have intelligent, capable characters, involved in situations where their actions matter and they have some control over their destiny, some agency, and you rely on craft to build suspense and tension rather than cheap theatrics, you can make magic happen.  You get results like Brahm Stoker’s Dracula or John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There.”

You get stories that can send a delightful shiver up the spine time and time again.

5 thoughts on “Scary stories”

  1. And at the end of the movie, do not show a scene that establishes that the monster isn’t dead.

    I don’t give a sh*t if you want to make a sequel or not.

    Don’t show that the efforts of your heroes was in vain. 😦


    1. The beginning of the next film is the appropriate place to show that the villain survived–if you want it clear from the start that it’s the same villain–or sometime later have the discovery that the villain survived and how be part of the ongoing plot.


  2. You have succinctly nailed the reason I stopped watching “The Walking Dead” after three episodes, “Game of Thrones” after about the same number, and any of a variety of other shows I used to enjoy, after varying lengths of time (Grimm, Once Upon A Time, and Supernatural, to name a few). I have enough misery in my life. I don’t need to watch misery porn on t.v.


  3. I don’t do movies, any more…
    I *do* do Audio Drama.
    In 2005, for Halloween weekend, Jim French Productions (Imagination Theatre) aired “They That Dwell in Dark Places,” by Daniel McGachey. Talk about Coming To A Bad End…!
    To my feeble mind, nothing beats listening to well-done Horror in audio, whilst doing repetitive work (or driving some long distance.
    JF Productions seems to be in a sort of Hiatus at present, but *someone* is posting sundry Weeks on YouTube.
    McGachey’s most thrilling tale has yet to appear there (“The Shadow in the Stacks”), but “They That Dwell” is up there (Week 502, with “A Trailer Hitch” filling the remaining 7 minutes):
    When I first heard “They That Dwell,” I noted that as the most horrific thing I had *ever* heard in Radio Drama, Old-Time, or modern!…
    If they ever post “The Shadow in the Stacks,” it will be Week 554, or 677, or 763.
    Another wonderful McGachey tale is “Shalt Thou Know My Name,” Week 658.


  4. I personally think that your fourth point can lead to the first two, and maybe the third. Nihilism nerfs horror. The engine that drives an adrenaline story is uncertainty.

    The audience keeps watching because they have to know if the protagonist(s) are going to survive or not. If it’s a foregone conclusion that the good guys will die (or, as in most modern thrillers, a foregone conclusion that they will live) you’ve got an engine with no drive to it. You can’t make the audience worry–you can only startle them or gross them out.

    Irwin Allen was the King Of Disaster Movies because he kept to a very simple formula–introduce a large group of relatable characters and make it clear that not all of them will survive. The audience is glued to their seats to find out what happens next.

    These days you don’t see that uncertainty from Hollywood (although a lot of Indie films seem to still have the knack). They telegraph the fate of the characters from the first appearance,the A-listers will live, except for the designated villain(s) and the below the line talent will die so that the A-listers can see the situation is really dangerous.


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