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Horror, Physical and Metaphysical

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Inspiration for writing anything is a slippery thing, let alone writing horror.  For every writer you ask about what inspires them, you'll no doubt get a totally different answer. For me it always starts with "What if?" and "Worst case scenario".  After I get a concept, I layer in characters - often based on myself, or people in my life who have fascinated me. Sometimes I take the idea of a character from an old film or a book, think about how they might act in MY STORY and use that as a starting point for character.

But once you have your concept and your characters, then what?  Well, first you have to decide which of the two branches of horror you would like to follow. On one side is the ARABESQUE, and on the other is the GOTHIC.

First, I'll talk about the Arabesque style of horror. Arabesque horror focuses on pain, shock, blood and bodily harm. Slashers and torture porn fall into this category as they tend to push the same buttons: realistic fear of PHYSICAL harm to self, and profusion of excess blood and gore for shock value.

A lot of people think the gore/slasher thing is a 20th century construct, but believe it or not, that's not true. It's really been around forever. In 19th century France there was even a theater movement that went for the same thing - gouts of blood and gore on stage, so real that members of the audience were given smelling salts for when they fainted. It was called Grand Guignol and it focused on stories about people that "proper theater" deemed unacceptable - hookers, the homeless, drug addicts, etc. Situations revolved around hallucinations, panic, drug fevers, delirium, and violence. The press called the performances gratuitous, gore filled and pornographic. Sound familiar?  Wanna see the slasher's great granddaddy? Search out the Grand Guignol style sometime. Is it legitimate as a kind of horror? Of course! And it's really cool. It just lacks the subtlety that I prefer... which brings me to the Gothic tradition.

While the Arabesque is all about shoving the naturalistic (as opposed to supernatural) bloody horror in your face and forcing you to look at incredibly uncomfortable PHYSICAL things (severed limbs, open wounds, etc), Gothic is all about creeping dread. The unknown. Mysteries, about which, man should not inquire. Not what has happened and is right in front of you, but rather what horrid abomination is around that darkened corner, often supernatural, unexplainable, and unknown...

HP Lovecraft wrote a great piece about supernatural horror literature:

"The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and inexplicable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint... of that most terrible conception of the human brain- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the demons of unplumbed space."

In short, he was talking about suspending disbelief so that we could let in the horrors of the unknown. Pretend they're fact, and suddenly the world isn't so cut and dry. Suddenly we're not so safe anymore.

In a slasher film, it's not so much about "what" will happen, as much as it's about "when" it will happen. We know the victims are doomed. We know the antagonist has a bloody death planned for them. We just don't know WHEN it will happen.

In the gothic tradition, it's not the "when" but the "what" that concerns us. What's cool about Gothic horror is, God only knows WHAT unknown horror is waiting for us, let alone WHY it wants us. And the less explaining of "why" the better - that's the unknown part of the terror. For me, the most fascinating part of the Gothic style is that, despite the unknown horrors before them, the protagonists are compelled by human curiosity to unravel the mystery, looking for the answers... but the closer they get to solving the mystery, the more they realize the supernatural nature of the horrors before them. They fear it, yet they pursue it.

Now that I've defined the two main branches of the horror tree, next week I'm going to talk about the basic fundamentals of creating horror, namely isolation, darkness, lack of control, the horrors of the phantasmagorical or unbelievable, feeling trapped, and hopelessly knowing that the villain is in control in this world, not the heroes...

In the meantime,

Gaudium per Atrox.

(Grand Guignol poster via Grand Guignol Online.)

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