Go to any slasher movie. I guarantee someone will do something stupid. And I also guarantee there’s a reason behind why they did it.

So yesterday I was doing some edits on Rose* and one of the points in the beta reader notes stood out to me. In that particular point, my friend/colleague/beta reader Joleene Naylor pointed out that it was taking the titular character Rose a lot longer to figure something out about the scene that Joleene had figured out much earlier. My immediate first thought was, “Well, it’s horror. Everyone’s a bit slower in horror.” And that thought really stuck with me. Yeah, the characters in horror aren’t always the brightest bulbs in the closet, are they? People in slasher films take too long to realize there’s a killer hunting them around a lake notorious for murders and disappearances, the family stays in their haunted house and might even pretend things are normal even if it’s obvious there’s demonic possession at work, dumb teenagers run upstairs when they should run out the door. They either realize something well after the audience has realized something, or they make really dumb decisions. And it’s such a well-known trope, it gets parodied quite a bit in our media, like in this Geico commercial.

This got me thinking: is this intentional on the part of horror writers? If so, why?

Well, I thought about this throughout the day (couldn’t write this before because I had to go to bed and then to work), and I think that what’s happening is intentional. However, I don’t think the intention is to make the characters stupid idiots.

First, let’s consider something: we’re the audience, and the characters are characters. In our daily lives we’re not keyed up, checking to see if horror-movie circumstances everywhere we go (and if we are, we’re usually recommended to see a doctor about that). It’s only when we sit down for a horror story that we start looking for signs of horror, because that’s what our brains are trained to do. Similarly, unless they’re enjoying a horror story or think they’re in one, characters won’t typically see all the signs of something evil around them unless that evil chooses to make itself known.

There’s also the fact that authors have to tell a story, and often the stories they tell have to be of a certain length. For example, I classify a novel as sixty-thousand words or more, so I have to figure out how to keep a novel going for that long. One of the ways to do that is to make the characters figure things out much slower than the audience, either by only giving them clues slowly or later in the story, or by actually making it so they can’t connect the dots until it’s convenient for the story. And considering that part of the appeal of horror, the thrill of the mystery and the unknown as well as our reactions to it once exposed, this is a sound strategy.

Okay, so making characters slow on the uptake is part imitating people in the real world, part storytelling tool. But what about stupid decisions?

Well, that’s actually pretty easy to answer: they’re under stress. When a character is being chased by a killer or trying to get away from a ghost, they’re under unimaginable pressures. So unless they’ve been trained to think under pressure, like in the Army, they’re not going to make a rational decision. They’re going to make split-second decisions that they hope will ensure their survival, and because it’s a horror story, they’ll likely make the wrong decision. Unless the author says otherwise, of course.

And even if they’re not in a stressful, life-or-death situation, the need for survival can cause us to do very stupid things sometimes, as well as our characters. Polly Chalmers, one of the protagonists of Stephen King’s Needful Things, keeps a charm around her neck, despite suspecting that there’s something alive in it and it’s twisting her personality somehow, because the thing is easing the debilitating pain of her arthritis. In other words, fulfilling a need to help her live.

Sometimes a character acts a certain way either because they’re imitating real people, or the author needs them to be that way.

So it’s not that characters in horror stories are dumb or slow. They’re victims of imitating people in the real world as well as the author’s discretion in storytelling. And we the audience, free of those issues, are able to pick up on things they can’t or won’t for a little while longer.

Of course, we will continue to call characters stupid and wonder how they could not do the smart thing. That just comes with the territory. But perhaps the next time we sit down for a scary movie, we’ll also consider what the characters are going through, as well as what the storytellers behind them decided was best for the characters and their story.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Hope this gave you plenty to think about. I had fun just thinking of it. Until next time, pleasant nightmares.

*Speaking of which, the editing on Rose is going very well. Yesterday I got through four chapters, bringing me halfway through the fourth draft. At the rate I’m going, I could be done before the end of the month. And after that, hopefully it’s a short wait till I find a publisher. God-willing, anyway.

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