What Horror Writers Can Learn from Horror Films
As the weather gets colder and Halloween gets closer, what better way to prepare for the season than catching up on new horror films and rewatching old favorites? Watching horror films is not only a relaxing way to spend a Friday evening in fall, but also a useful way for horror writers to hone their craft. Here are three things horror writers can learn from horror movies.
Let your protagonist run upstairs.
Then do something different. What if the pretty blonde cheerleader runs upstairs to escape the killer who interrupted her popcorn-making, only to turn around at the top and confront them? What if the wife whose husband snaps, in a season of isolation, snaps back? What if all the diverse characters didn’t die at the beginning, but brought their untold stories and unique points-of-view to the story to defeat evil and become the heroes?
Many of the classic horror films are full of stereotypes and cliches that often cause people to dismiss the genre (see next point). It’s true that many films (and books!) portray characters and situations in racist and misogynistic ways. Watch your favorite films through a critical lens to see how you can undermine these stereotypes, cliches, and overused tropes to bring fresh perspectives and richer meaning to your work. You can still give diehard fans what they love about horror while creating more nuanced characters, emotionally resonant scenes, and engaging, insightful themes. You may even appeal to new readers who don’t know how profound works of horror can be.
Many non-horror readers think all horror is blood or cheese.
A cursory look through the horror section on Netflix makes it easy enough to see how people could equate the entire genre with slasher films or cheesy adaptations. This dismissive attitude often carries from one medium to the next, with non-horror readers thinking that’s all we write. They probably wouldn’t consider books like Pine or Eileen horror, or think that The Shining could offer a deep portrait of a person’s psychological decline.
But when I think of some of my favorite horror movies—The Thing, The Exorcist, Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Others—it actually becomes difficult to imagine anyone thinking horror is just murderous unkillable bogeymen or crazy knife-wielding moms. Okay, maybe some moms are crazy with knives, but films like The Others, which to me is genuinely terrifying, show that horror doesn’t just stalk teens at summer camp. Horror lives in remote scientific outposts; houses where families laughed and made memories; places where people grieve and struggle and are haunted by their own choices and paths in life, which have nothing to do with ghosts.
In each of these films, a writer can look beyond the monster to see why it exists. What brought it into being? What does it represent? Is that mom actually crazy—what would you do if some kids (and neglectful camp counselors) murdered your child by throwing him into a lake? Therein lies the true horror.
So, shock your reader not with the amount of blood but the slasher’s psychology (Eileen). Haunt your reader not with the deeds of the ghost but the relationships among the living (Pine). Use different narrative methods and techniques (textual intervention, multimedia, interactive/communal) to create interest in your work and show a wider audience that horror is just as inventive, adaptable, and deep as other popular genres.
Of course, Netflix also reveals that horror fans know what they like, so don’t be afraid to write a straight-up slasher novel … we love that stuff!
Horror is marketable, though not always in the mainstream.
The popularity of indie horror films (does anyone else love Mandy as much as I do?) and their ability to rise to cult status teaches us that independent/small press or self-publishing may be a more effective way of reaching your audience.
Horror fans are a tight-knit, supportive community. Readers know that their next favorite novel might not be released by a big-name publisher. Writers want to find a home for their work that understands the genre and how to market their writing to readers that will appreciate it most. That’s why both groups often look to publishers like Crystal Lake Publishing, Silver Shamrock Publishing, and Cemetery Gates Media, who have a knack for finding new talent and producing high quality publications.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t query agents or go for big-name publishers if that’s your goal. But publication, in general, requires a lot of research and persistence, and there are many paths you can pursue. Be sure to look into each one thoroughly and know that the traditional way isn’t the only way to achieve your writing dreams and connect with other readers and writers in the horror world.
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B. A. Kockaya writes horror and Gothic stories. She is currently working on her first novel, a feminist retelling of Beowulf with horror elements. Originally from Buffalo, NY, she lives here and there with her husband and son.
You can also follow B.A. on Instagram at @totsbels!