6 Subjective Rules for Successful Horror

I watched “Beneath” (2013) on Netflix Instant the other day, and was thrown a bit. 1. It doesn’t show up on IMDB under that name, however another movie exists with that name. 2. I couldn’t figure out its internal logic. That’s not always a problem, but does pull me out of the movie a bit.

Horror needs rules. I don’t mean that there always needs to be a killer targeting teens, or a final girl, or anything like that. Horror can have cliche’s as many of them allow us to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists. I mean rules as in an internal consistency in the universe.

One of the problems with most horror movies is the inability to set up rules. Jump scares are prized over real atmospheric terror. The killer being mysterious I have no problem with (if it is that kind of horror, and not existential or body horror or the like,) I have issues when the killer isn’t restricted by any kind of rules.

The movie is around a woman celebrating her father’s last day as a coal miner by returning to her hometown and accompanying on his last trip beneath the mountain. While there, the front line miners break through to a chamber, releasing something from deep in the Earth. Spoiler alert: turned out to be dead miner’s (I think?).

The reason I think that might be the case, is that it’s implied but not enough build up is spent actually defining the horror. The protagonist starts seeing faces warp and twist into ghastly faces of death, then seemingly returning to normal. This is supposed to mark the character as possessed by the end of the movie, but there’s the problem. The possession only seems to occur when it’s useful to the plot as opposed to any kind of order. In addition, the monster’s seem to be the crazed ghosts of miners lost in a previous cave in during the 1920’s. I respect that, but the build up almost made it seem like it was going to be a malevolent force buried deep within the mountain. I would find that personally more interesting, but to each his own.

So, the rules don’t always need to be completely obvious, however they should be at least partly understandable for the theme of the film. Otherwise the only surprise happens when someone dies, and not as a result of the setting or atmosphere.

Now, here’s what I feel would make a successful horror story:


 

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1. If you have one, define the antagonist.

It doesn’t require giving us a life story, but unless your horror is about the mystery of the killer or malevolent force, give us something more than “Possession caused by miner ghost because of a throwaway line about 19 miner’s going mad underground.”

Give us a reason with more depth than that. Are the spirits trying to escape the mountain? Is this the same thing that happened to the earlier 19 miners? Good horror should leave you wanting, not confused.


 

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2. Set consistent rules.

Now this sounds straightforward, but doesn’t need to be. Rules can be suggested or ‘discovered’ by the protagonists, but then they discover that they were wrong the whole time. They can flip the rules on their head so long as they stay consistent. “Cabin in the Woods” and “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” are great representations of this. They play with the rules, but the rules remain steady.


 

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3. Leaving an open-ended finale is fine, but don’t have the antagonists seemingly return to life just for a jump scare.

We can leave open-ends another way! We expect the killer to open his damn eyes at the end. Change it up! Give us a “The Thing” style ending where we know how the organism works, but are cloudy about whether one of the two remaining protagonists are, in fact, the alien. There can also be happy endings. We can have endings where the killer legitimately escapes but is no longer a threat to the main character. Give us Jurassic Park, where the island still exists even though the protagonists escape.

2 thoughts on “6 Subjective Rules for Successful Horror”

  1. I tend to not mind the rules overly much as long as things don’t take me out of the story. I do have pet peeves however. When the human antagonist of a otherwise mundane horror movie is essentially supernatural in some way that takes me out of it (see your complaint with the strangers). Another is when things happen that don’t make sense in the context of the movie… Take Vanishing on 7th street. I enjoyed the movie for the concept they were trying for. But they kept trying to shoehorn in the Croatoan mystery and aside from the initial mention of it by a character, it made no sense to have the word show up anywhere else in the movie.

Let me know what you think!