As we’ve discussed this week, horror is the easiest sell in the business. It’s the quickest way to break in as a screenwriter. And, for that reason, everyone should write at least one horror script. I can hear non-horror aficionados groaning. Slow your horror-hating roll, snoberinos. The horror genre is a river with hundreds of tributaries. There’s a path for everyone as long as you’re willing to take the ride.
You can write about goofy killer dolls (Chucky) or the possession of your only daughter (The Exorcist). You can write about a skin-burned dream-walker with knives for fingers (Nightmare on Elm Street) or a black man being invited to his potentially racist white girlfriend’s parents’ house for the first time (Get Out). You can use horror to explore mental illness (The Babadook), grief (The Others), redemption (The Sixth Sense), coming of age (Carrie), the power of friendship (It), the abuse of power (Cloverfield Lane), psychosis (Psycho).
Not enough screenwriters realize this. Horror is arguably the best genre to explore character. The assumption that it’s all about jump scares and killer clowns is incorrect. That’s the stuff that makes it onto the posters and into the trailers. But when you watch a good horror film, there’s always something deeper going on. Something to connect with.
It took me awhile to watch The Exorcist. I thought, “Old movie. Girl with twisting head. No thanks.” But when I finally did, I couldn’t get the movie out of my brain. And it wasn’t because this little girl was screaming the most terrible things imaginable to anyone who came near her. It was watching this poor mother lose hope that she could save her only child.
Take the horror out of that scenario. A mom whose kid is really sick, getting sicker every day, and every doctor she talks to tells her nothing can be done for her. That’s a horrifying situation regardless of the possession.
Lots of people think The Sixth Sense is a fancy final twist and nothing more. But it’s actually a story about redemption. This therapist’s life is gutted when one of his child patients comes back as an adult and shoots him before killing himself. It’s the ultimate embodiment of failure. Many years later, the therapist is given another chance with a new child. He feels that if he can just help this kid, he can, in a way, make up for losing that other one. It’s a story about redemption.
One of the horror films that’s stuck with me more recently is “It Follows.” And for a long time, I didn’t know why. The premise was so simplistic. You have to have sex with someone to pass along the invisible demons set on finding and killing you or take on that burden yourself. And yet, it felt like so much more than that.
I’ve since realized that the movie is actually about anxiety. It’s about the unknown fears lurking out there in the big bad world. The kind you can’t see. You wake up every day with this fear that some invisible catastrophe could strike at any moment from any direction (an awkward social encounter, your car breaking down, that asshole at work you try and avoid, a call about that overdue bill). Waking up to that fear day in and day out must be horrifying. That’s why – at least for me – the movie left such an impression. It was exploring something beyond what was shown on the surface.
I want to kill two birds with one stone here. I want you to write a horror film because horror scripts are the easiest sells in the business. But I also want you to use the genre to explore your fears and flaws as a human being. By doing so, you’ll not only be writing something that appeals to others. But you’ll actually WANT to write it.
To achieve this, think about what’s going on in your life right now. What universal issue, either within yourself or within your immediate world, is dominating your thoughts? Is it loneliness? Is it being in a dead-end relationship? Do you lack confidence? Are you in an abusive friendship? Do you have anxiety? Has your relationship with your daughter or son deteriorated? Your father? Do you feel like you’re on a treadmill and that every day is the same? Do you lack purpose?
Whichever of these things resonates most, start there and see if you can come up with a horror concept that’ll allow you to explore it. If you’re struggling with loneliness, for example, maybe you write a horror film about a guy who’s tasked with watching over a deserted spooky town in the middle of nowhere all by himself.
If you’ve wanted to get out of a relationship but don’t have the courage, maybe you write a horror film about a woman who kills her boyfriend, hides the body in the basement, and her whole life changes for the better (or worse). And whatever the issue is, it doesn’t have to directly tie into the concept. It can just as easily be restricted to the main character.
So if you struggle with confidence, maybe you make that your protagonist’s flaw. Then have your hero work at a small company, always keeping to himself. One weekend, the company goes on an impromptu retreat – a hike through the forest. During that retreat, something starts hunting them. You better believe your main character’s lack of confidence is going to be tested.
The big thing that’s going to happen when you approach horror this way is your story’s going to resonate beyond surface level because you’re exploring universal issues/flaws/fears. If you feel it, you can bet others do too. And once you’re tapping into that connection, your reader isn’t just reading your script to see what happens next. They’re reading it because they feel like they know the person the story is about.
This is one of the most powerful tools a screenwriter can use – empathy. It’s that feeling we have, as a viewer, that you and that character on the page are connected. If they can somehow overcome the monster, whatever form that monster may come in, it means you, the reader, can defeat it as well in your real life. When you give the reader hope like that – pft – it’s game over. You’ve got them for the rest of your life. They’re never gonna forget your story.
This is not to say you shouldn’t look for a marketable concept. Obviously, if you’re exploring character but your concept is boring, even Oscar-worthy character development won’t matter. But what I’m hoping for is to get you to see horror as more than just the masked man jumping out from behind the corner. It can be so much more and it SHOULD be so much more.
And if you do it right, it can become some of the best writing you’ve ever done.