Horror Analysis: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Different Story Mediums

The horror genre is one that has been around for a very long time.  Pretty much since we’ve been aware that things go bump in the night, we’ve been telling stories about them.  Some served a precautionary purpose, to keep kids from wandering around alone late at night.  But some were just for fun, to frighten others or even to frighten ourselves.  There is a morbid curiosity that draws people to the genre, one that continues to this day.

So for this week’s post, I wanted to dive into the strengths and weaknesses of different storytelling mediums, specifically three: books, movies, and video games.

 

Books

Strengths: Books have a unique ability to tap into the human mind, making it spin an image of what it is describing on the page.  Since books don’t have the same visual strength as movies or games, they rely on this ability to engage our imaginations, forcing us to come up with our own visual interpretations of events and places.  And in that sense, books are very powerful.  The mind can weave a web of macabre images much better than any movie camera or video game engine.  Rather than being hamstrung by the limitations of visual production, books leave it up to the person reading to generate the movie in their heads while reading.  This means that a person’s own fears or anxieties can feed into the power of the narrative, making something spookier than perhaps even the author intended.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, this reliance on the imagination is a bit of a double-edged sword at times.  The mind is a powerful thing yes, but if it isn’t given enough stimulation then it won’t generate as spectacular an image as it could.  This makes it necessary for the author to be exceedingly good at descriptive writing, particularly in horror.  If you can’t evoke emotions of fear or dread in the reader, they won’t buy into your story.  You can’t just say “the house was creepy”.  You have to show them the house was creepy, like saying “the old, dilapidated swingset creaked forlornly in the backyard, caked under years of orange rust.”  That evokes some feelings in the reader.  But it’s a tricky balance.  Show them too much, and it gets boring to read.  Show them too little, and they won’t be invested.

 

Movies

Strengths: The art of the visual medium is indeed a very powerful one.  Cinematographers can use various tricks and techniques to draw our attention to something or make us feel uneasy.  Strange, tilted camera angles tend to make a viewer feel slightly disoriented or anxious, and darkened lighting only aids in that effect.  In older days, movies relied a lot on lighting and setting to craft its feelings of horror.  As the technology only grew more and more sophisticated, so did the methods of scaring people visually.  Music can also play a key role in this, as it tends to heighten certain emotions in people depending on the type of music playing (i.e. classical music makes people feel relaxed).  Movies can also be sneaky.  They can place something spooky just off the side of the screen, and whether or not a viewer sees it depends on them.  Compare this to a book, which would have to literally describe said thing otherwise no one would know it’s there.

Weaknesses: I’ve bemoaned this a number of times before, but as movies became more and more sophisticated it also become more and more of an industry.  And industries like trends.  So when movies like Paranormal Activity hit the scene and were huge hits, cue the onslaught of movies involving cheap jumpscares and demons.  As I’ve said before, I actually enjoyed the Paranormal Activity movies (the first three anyways).  But the constant influx of similar themed movies gets pretty old.  There can only be so many chapters of Insidious and so many movies set in the Conjuring movie universe before people start wondering “okay, but what’s next?”  You can only do so many movies with characters being stalked in the shadows by some supernatural being before it falls flat.  And then Hollywood is on to finding the next big trend.

Rinse and repeat.

 

Video Games

Strengths: The interactive nature of video games are their greatest asset when it comes to horror.  Things feel a bit different when you are controlling the character being chased rather than watching it happen or reading about it.  There’s a whole new sense of dread that comes from being forced to enter an area you don’t want to go in.  You know you need whatever is in there, but at the same time you know that something could be stalking around in the darkness, waiting to eviscerate you.  Games have a dynamic factor to them that also makes them very enticing.  Take for example, the game Prey from 2017.  The game takes place on a space station that’s been overrun by alien entities.  But some of them have the ability to disguise themselves as ordinary objects.  One second you’re looking at a coffee mug, and the next some shrieking black mass of tentacles is attacking your face.  It’s not scripted either.  If given enough time, they will run away and disguise themselves again as a nearby object, lying in wait for you to come around again.

Weaknesses: Video games’ weaknesses are two-fold.  First, there is repetition.  Take Alien Isolation as an example.  It’s a fantastic game that nails the atmosphere of the Alien franchise.  However, your first time through the game will likely take close to twenty hours to complete.  On top of that, since the alien itself is pretty much invincible, the only thing you can do is distract it or scare it off.  This can lead to a lot of trial and error sections of the game where you are continually killed by the creature and forced to repeat that same section multiple times.  Nothing sucks the life out of horror faster than frustration.

Secondly, it’s difficult to predict what a player is going to do.  A lot of times, a player will miss a scare because they weren’t looking in the right place at the right time.  Developers can use certain tricks such as lighting to draw a player’s eye to a specific spot, but even then it’s not guaranteed will look there when the scare happens.  Even good horror games occasionally wrench control away from the player in order to keep them focused on a particular scary moment.  This can backfire and annoy the player more than actually evoking any sort of fear response.

 

Conclusion

No medium is explicitly better than the other at crafting horror stories and scary moments.  Instead, I prefer to see them as providing different lenses to view the genre through.  I will definitely say that I consider horror movies to be the weakest of the three, but that’s more because of the multi-million dollar industry influencing what movies do and don’t get made.  In terms of potential I think all three mediums have great power.  It just takes the right mind to tap into it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next week for another spooky post, and have a wonderful week!

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Are Jumpscares Scary?

It may seem like a loaded question, but it’s one worth asking.  Are jumpscares scary or not?

Now, I’ve already talked about my frustrations with the horror genre and I’ve listed five horror clichés that I don’t like.  Because I love the horror genre.  It’s one of my favorites and tells some of the most interesting and captivating stories.  But in more recent years, the horror genre has become so mired in this idea of having to be “scary”, which results in treading and re-treading already worn ground in an attempt to scare audiences without any real meaning.  For example, ever since Alien did the “cat jumpscare” back in the ’70s, it’s become a staple of movies and television shows.

And this I think shows part of the problem with horror as a genre.  Creators continually looks back at whatever was popular or effective and then simply tries to re-do it.  I mean they’re even doing a sequel to the Blair Witch project simply called “Blair Witch“.  Now, admittedly, the movie doesn’t look that bad, but it just shows how Hollywood has no original ideas for scaring people anymore.  It’s pretty much all demonic possession movies nowadays, which are routinely panned critically and I would imagine don’t do too well at the box office (although The Conjuring 2 did get some praise earlier this year).

But I digress.  Back to the question at hand, are jumpscares scary?  They can be.  They just have to be done right.

See, for a jumpscare to work, it has to capitalize on built-up tension throughout a scene or on its pure shock value.  If people know it’s coming, then it loses a lot of its power.  Everyone knows that when a character is moving down a dark hallway with spooky music that suddenly cuts out before they round a corner, a jumpscare is about to happen.  There needs to be a little more subtlety than that or it needs to happen when the audience isn’t expecting it.

A great example of the latter can be seen in Paranormal Activity 2.  If you haven’t seen any of the movies, I’ll sum it up for you: people set up cameras around their house.  Spooky stuff happens.  Something about demons.  That’s the general gist of it, but for how cliché it all sounds, the movies are surprisingly effective.  They’ll often just show you dark nighttime scenes with nothing happening in them because the filmmakers know your eyes will be darting about the screen trying to find even the most minute of movement.  But one of the best scary moments in the movie actually happens in the middle of the day.

Now, I’ve already talked about this scenario in my “Horror clichés” post, but I think it’s worth mentioning again.  There’s a scene later in Paranormal Activity 2 where one of the people living in the house sits down at the kitchen table to read either a magazine or newspaper (I honestly can’t tell).  And the scene sits there for a good ten or fifteen seconds with nothing happening before, suddenly, all the cabinets in the kitchen fly open with a crash.

You can take a look at the scene here if you want.

I think what makes the scene particularly effective is how it raises your alert level just seconds before the jumpscare happens.  You see the character in the scene suddenly turn and look away from her reading, almost as if she heard something.  Your brain is immediately like “something’s wrong here” and then BOOM!  You just got jumpscared.

Another thing that makes that scene work so well is that the movie has done a great job of building up the tension.  The Paranormal Activity movies are a very slow burn.  Very little happens for much of the movie until later on when things get more and more violent and suddenly the entire thing descends into chaos (at least for the first three movies…the fourth literally has a chandelier nearly falling on the main character in the first ten or fifteen minutes).

But unfortunately, it seems that most movies don’t want to take the time to be scary.  Instead, they want to get immediately to the scary bits, resorting to things popping up in your face and screaming as attempts to scare you.  I remember watching the trailer for Insidious Chapter 3 in a movie theater some months back and couldn’t help but laugh at how utterly cliché the last half of the trailer is.  It starts off decently enough, with a girl knocking on the wall thinking that it’s her neighbor knocking back until he reveals through text that he’s not him.  Cue creepy children’s lullaby and every trope in the book: old lady in dark hallway, séance gone wrong, creepy shadow people abruptly disappearing, mysterious oily footprints, and so on.  The trailer even ends with someone going into the darkened basement and getting scared by someone hanging from the ceiling and screaming in their face.

Who knows?  Maybe that’s what people want.  I don’t really know anymore.  There has to be a reason these movies keep getting made after all.

In the end I think horror is going to be better served combining itself with other genres, because straight horror movies are far too predictable.  Even 10 Cloverfield Lane (which is a great movie by the way) feels more like a psychological thriller than a straight horror movie.  But perhaps that’s for the best.  Because if all we keep getting are these installments of movies revolving around demons and possession, then I think the horror genre is going to die a slow death.  In all fairness clichés are clichés for a reason.  They were effective at one point in time, but they lose effectiveness the more often they are used.  The cat jumpscare was really unique when it was used in Alien but now it either elicits eye rolls or laughter (and it is often used for comedic purposes instead of scary purposes these days because of how overdone it is).

You see, if your primary method of scaring people is loud noises, then the movie won’t stick out in your mind.  You need to leave a lasting impression.  You need to build up to the jumpscare instead of just throwing them at people one after another.  It’s the reason why I remember 10 Cloverfield Lane so vividly but can barely remember the names of Insidious and The Conjuring, because 10 Cloverfield Lane, even if I hadn’t gone to see it, left me with a very damn good trailer that sticks out in my mind compared to the usual fare (I actually had to think to remember the name of that Insidious movie…that’s how generic the trailer was).

To truly scare someone with a jumpscare, you need to earn it first.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.