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Why Ask 'Why?'


Horror storytelling. What is it?

It's fantasy, that's what it is.  And to be more specific, it's escapist fantasy.  In horror you get to involve yourself in the worst shit imaginable, and not only live to tell about it, but walk away smiling. And what exactly are you escaping, if your fantasy is HORROR?  Boredom. Humans are violent, thrill seeking animals with a need to risk their asses, break  stuff and best their competition.

It's that simple.

And how do we get there? How do we let ourselves really be terrified when it's not really happening? Willing suspension of disbelief. That's how. We've heard that term a lot, but what exactly does it mean? It means that someone (the storyteller or filmmaker) has agreed to tell you a fantastical story, and someone else (the audience) has agreed "willingly" to accept the story as fact, and go for the ride, without being a douchebag and saying "Nuh uh. That can't happen."

Within horror filmmaking there are two kinds of "whys."

The first one deals with motivation of character, and should always be addressed by the storyteller. Why does she want to go into that dark room? Why did they come back to the cabin if they knew there was a monster in the basement? Why don't they just leave the house if it's haunted?

If you don't answer character motivation questions, the audience will crucify you, and frankly, you fuckin' deserve it.

But there's another "Why?" that, in my opinion anyway, should never EVER be answered. And it's the big picture "Why?" It's the macro "Why?"

Rather than spin my wheels trying to describe this "Why?" let me just share some examples of what fantasy and horror storytellers might have been up against throughout history with people who were unwilling to suspend disbelief.

Ancient Greek Storyteller: So I've got this story of a magical horse called a Pegasus, and it flies--

Ancient Greek Development Executive: Wait. Why? A horse? Horses can't fly…

Ancient Greek Storyteller: Yeah, but this one is magical and what happens is—

Ancient Greek Development Executive: That's ridiculous. No one will like that story. How about we make it a bird?

Ancient Greek Storyteller: sigh

Okay, now cut to Bram Stoker, pitching his story to an equally challenged mind…

Bram: Okay, I got this story about a guy who's dead, but rises from the grave—

Victorian Development Executive: Wait. If he's dead, he can't move…

Bram: I know, but go with me on this. See, every night he rises from the grave to drink blood-
Victorian Development Executive: Blood? Ew. Why?

Bram: It's the elixir of life. It represents wine, sex, life—

Victorian Development Executive: Yeah but. "Why?"

Bram puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger out of frustration and thus, the world never knows who Dracula is…

You get the picture. When it comes to fantasy, it's really easy to throw a stick in the spokes of the storyteller with that lame-ass question of "Why?" Whenever I get that question from a Hollywood studio exec, I sigh and shake my head a little, and realize I'm in the room with someone who doesn't get it.

Why do werewolves change at the full moon and not the new moon? Wouldn't hunting be easier for them on darkest night? Why are zombies violent? Why do Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees keep coming back to life? Why are ghosts see-through? Why is the Overlook Hotel "bad?" Why does Satan choose Linda Blair's character, the daughter of an on-location actress in Washington D.C and not... say... the Pope?

The willing suspension of disbelief is really a contract between storyteller and audience. The storyteller agrees to tell a fantastical story. The part about willing to suspend your "Nuh-uh" factor comes from the audience.

So for all you storytellers out there, just tell your story. No matter how dark or bizarre. No one remembers the idiots who nay-sayed Stoker or Poe or Lovecraft or any of the other greats. They remember the storytellers, and they remember their amazing creations. Just cover your bases on character motivation, but let the audience figure out the big "Why?" for themselves. After all, that's their job. Look, if you answer the who, what, when and where, the least they can do is answer the "why?", right?

Gaudium per Atrox.