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.