How To Quickly Take Out The Scary Element In Your Story

Posted: December 29, 2013 in Reflections, Scary Stuff, Writing
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(The following post may contain spoilers for several movies, TV shows, and books. However, these movies, TV shows, and books all came out several years ago. Some before I was even born. So if you read ahead and you haven’t seen any of these movies, TV shows, and books despite their availability…well, you’ve been warned)

As a horror writer, I use a number of techniques to keep the terror in a story at its most present and powerful in order to keep the reader enthralled in the story. At the same time, there are a number of ways I could very easily lose that terror element. This post is dedicated to one of them: revealing the villain and everything about them too soon.

Let’s take the movie Friday the 13th for example (the original, not the crappy remake from 2009). In that movie, we don’t find out the identity of the killer until near the very end of the movie, when it is revealed to be Mrs. Voorhees, Jason’s infamous mother. And even after she is revealed to the audience, we don’t know much about her or her motivation until she tries to kill protagonist Alice. Then we know why she’s killing everyone, but by then we’re too terrified to really process that fact. We’re just like, “The old crone’s got a knife! Run!”

Another example is the original Amityville Horror, which did not reveal the nature of the house and its hauntings until later films. So when you see the first film, you are thrust into this maze of nightmarish strangeness that keeps you terrified wondering two things: 1) what the hell is going on? And 2) what the hell is going to happen next?

An even better example than these two is The Blair Witch Project, in which the antagonist is never really revealed. All you get is spooky noises and some weird happenings around the three main characters. This lends the film a very intense element of fear of the unknown, which would be replicated in Paranormal Activity, Slender, Entity, and several other films that utilize found footage as a storytelling technique.

Some films however reveal their villain way too early, and thus cannot utilize fear of the unknown in their stories. Sometimes this can ruin a movie to the point where it’s no longer scary or fun to watch and you end up thinking to yourself “Why am I still watching this?” One example is 28 Days Later. Now I know there are a lot of fans of the movie out there, but one of my biggest problems with it is that the villains were revealed very quickly and that I felt I knew everything about them before the movie was even ten minutes in. From that point on, slow pacing made it hard for me to stay interested and I ended up stopping the movie after an hour.

Another film that suffered from lack of suspense and fear of the unknown is most of the sequels to Nightmare on Elm Street. In the first film, we’re really terrified. We don’t know why these kids are dying, who’s killing them, how they’re being killed. All we know is there’s an evil man killing these kids in their sleep, and that somehow translates over to the real world in a very bloody fashion. The sequels though feature the same villain and he’s killing in the same fashion. Loses a lot of its scare when you know exactly what’s going to happen, you’re just there to see how it happens, if they can scare you when they do it, and what joke Freddy will make right before he kills his victims.

Of course, revealing your villain or too much about them isn’t always a recipe for failure. In Stephen King’s Misery, we meet antagonist Annie Wilkes very early on in the story, yet she’s able to terrify and disgust and chill us very easily. Of course, that might be Stephen King’s magnificent, if somewhat strange, storytelling at play, but it is possible to reveal your villain early on, even let us know all there is to know about them, and still tell a scary story. You just have to be prepared to find some element to replace that mystery and fear of the unknown (and for God’s sake, I hope it isn’t excessive sex or over-the-top gore).

What do you think of using fear of the unknown in horror stories? What are some other examples or exceptions you can think of where keeping the villain hidden until the right time or revealing them too early made or ruined a scary story?

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