Summer has only just started and my mind is already on Halloween – mostly due to the happy news that my cousin is getting married on All Hallows Eve and everyone is going to be in full costume.
Of course, when my mind goes to Halloween, it also extends into thinking on horror stories. As such, I’ve been enjoying some campy horror films and playthroughs of horror-themed games and pondering the nature of the scariest form of entertainment.
You see, back in my day (or at least among my circle of childhood authorities), horror had a bad reputation owed to the quickly improving field of special effects in films making for more realistic violence and the stories becoming more brutal in their subject matter to compensate. This always struck me as an odd reaction that some people had. It left me asking, “Why are so offended by a horror story that manages to ACTUALLY be horrifying?”
Because, my beloved Field Operatives, that is the point of horror stories; to put a less than savory aspect of life on display and make you understand why you need to be afraid of and/or despise it.
Every good horror story, or at least the best remembered, works by making a monster out of a major aspect of daily life that the creator feels needs to change or a social issue that they feel needs addressing. For example, there are plenty of propaganda films from the Cold War era that attempted to be direct about “The Red Scare” taking over the world, but most were quickly forgotten at best and laughed off at worse. But do you know what story inspired by the fear of the loss of self in that era has survived the test of time? That’s right, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
All good horror stories employ this philosophical symbolism; Eraserhead‘s mutant baby and the fears of parenthood, The Cenobites from Hellraiser being the manifestations of human vices, Jason Voorhees and the debate on premarital sex, and so on.
Sadly, it’s this formula that also causes a lot of tension with detractors of the genre. These films have to hit very close to a cultural nerve to be effective – so close that they are often accused of being guilty of the very evils that they preach against. This was the case with the 1978 film Day of the Woman (better known as I Spit On Your Grave) which was meant to be an accusatory finger pointing at male chauvinism and rape culture but was criticized for being chauvinistic itself.
Of course, even the films and games that lack this sort of philosophical storytelling, though terrible for the most part, can still have some merit for the creator if not for the audience. Movies like Street Trash may just be a parade of melting bodies, but it was a chance for the creator to explore new special effects. Games like Five Nights at Freddy’s may just be a string of jump scares, but it was a successful experiment in using the Uncanny Valley effect to create unsettling character designs and audio.
So, if you’re an aspiring horror film/game maker, here’s my advice to you; find something you care about, something that you think is a serious problem in the world today, and build a Frankenstein Monster out of all of the worst parts of it to show your audience how terrible it is and make sure it stays in their minds for the rest of their lives. Not only will you create a memorable story, but it will be a story that helps guide your audience against the evil it represents.