The Horror Hook



Catching the attention of your audience with a HOOK is your first step to enchanting them.  Much more is involved in the maintaining of their attention, but all of that is moot if you don’t first hook them.  For this reason, I am writing this short study on the HOOK of many great horror films. What do they have in common? Why do they Hook you?  What do they accomplish in that very first scene or scenes?

The opening itself might be a single images for a few seconds, or a scene of one or a few pages. In the Anatomy of Horror Master course we examine top horror films in detail and dissect what makes them tick. The Opening Hook is just one thing we look at.

What are the characteristics of a good opening horror hook?

1)      The scene should set the tone of the film. If a horror film, people should feel the dread already building. If they view the scene and laugh hysterically, it better be a comedy!

2)      It should hook the attention of the viewer using S.E.W.  Sex, Emotion, or Wonder.  Sex has always been connected to horror, and always a great hook (just look at all the ads on TV!). Emotion is what film is all about. If you can elicit a strong emotion, that is also a hook. Wonder is invoking Awe, or Mystery, or Excitement.  An alien world might create wonder, or a horrific creature, or an unusual mystery.

3)      Should establish the world we will be in. Do we see magic? Do we see aliens? Are we in space? Is it supernatural or realistic?

4)      Could contain the theme of the movie.

5)      Could foreshadow the end or climax.

6)      Could introduce the hero, villain (monster), or the premise of the film. Usually the monster itself, if introduced, is not shown directly, but the aftermath of what it can do is shown, or partial or quick views to build suspense and curiosity.

7)      Should create more questions to be answered.

As an analogy, think of fishing.  The bait (your opening scene) needs to be enticing enough for the fish (your reader or viewer) to take a big bite and HOOK him/herself.  If that doesn’t happen, then nothing else does- the fish got away, the viewer switched channels, turned off the DVD, or what have you. Once you hook, the rest of the movie you are reeling them in (pun intended), with each of your Reels. Once you drag them onto the boat after a long fight there is no escape!

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Something Uneasy and Creepy for Halloween

We all know why certain things scare us.  If we see a shark approach, our survival instinct kicks in and tells us we’ll be food to our fishy friend if we don’t get away fast. Standing on a high ledge also has a primordial fear factor. It’s ingrained in our genetics that high places can lead to broken heads, just like Jack and Jill. But, what about things in horror films that creep us out, but that are not that clear cut? Why are we scared of a doll sitting in a rocking chair?

There are several reasons we get scared and these are covered in our 13 steps of Terror in the Anatomy of Horror Master course. One reason we are creeped out at dolls is the ambiguity of it.  The human form is a threat to us just like an animal is – Who kills more humans? Other humans. When we see a human form and unable to figure out its intention, we are confused and thus scared, but in a vague way since no direct threat can be determined. When we see a mask (think Michael in Halloween) we see no emotion. We don’t know what it’s thinking, or even what it looks like. If we see anything in human form, but with ambiguity, we are creeped out. Think about it – mannequins, dolls, masks, robots. Anything which is human but slightly OFF, or hidden, is creepy.

Basically, anything slightly OFF, makes us uneasy, or creeped out. Take the “Dutch angle” in horror films. It moves the frame of the film slightly off at an angle and creates a feeling of dread or unease. Shirley Jackson, in her description of the haunted house in The Haunting of Hill House, wrote “No Human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of the house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair…”

As we see, the things that are slightly off from what is in our normal reality is what creeps us out. We study this in-depth at Anatomy of Horror.

Suspense in Horror

Suspense in Horror
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What makes horror so exciting and fun to watch? One of the major ingredients in our stew of simmering monstrosities is Suspense. What makes a scene or movie suspenseful? Anticipation of an event, and not the event itself is what creates suspense. So, how do we go about building anticipation in our stories?
One of the cliché scenes in a horror movie is the opening scene when the two teenagers, with little if nothing to do with the story, get killed by the serial killer, boiled in the volcanic lake, eaten by Piranha, or munched on by the shark. Although cliché, there is a good reason these scenes are there. By showing a danger and creating a situation (being in the water, being in the woods, etc.) we know this horrific end can come to any of our beloved characters at ANY TIME. So, with the danger lurking in the back of our mind, we have a constant anticipation and thus suspense. The overall MOOD of the movie, built by the dialogue, the scenery, the events, and the music and light, all build what Lovecraft called DREAD. We study all of these elements in the Anatomy of Horror Master courses ( and master the craft of horror screenwriting.
LAYERS: Layers can be used to build anticipation as well. We have set up something early on, such as the serial killer making sushi of our teens. Now what? We build this danger by bringing it closer to our protagonist and eventually locking him/her in so there can only be one of two outcomes – defeating the monster or being killed (or worse) trying. An example of layers in scenes is this: A boy hears a story that this room in the house is haunted and a girl his age was killed there by a deranged nanny. He walks up to the door which is always locked, and turns the handle. To his surprise, it turns and unlocks. That is two layers so far. We first established the danger and what our hero is afraid of, and next we have the door unlocked. The door SLOWLY creaks open on its own. Is it from a draft? The room is dark but is lit on and off by a malfunctioning ceiling light causing a strobe effect. He enters and sees a puppet theatre with a closed curtain across the room. He thinks he sees something move behind the curtain. Our boy walks carefully to the puppet theatre and reaches toward the curtain. He pulls it aside and sees…
See how we keep building layers of anticipation?
That brings us to a payoff. We can build suspense but if we never pay it off, the audience will be unsatisfied and probably throw coke cans at the screen. If you build something up, pay it off. The ride is the most enjoyable part of the process, but if we never get to a destination, what is the point of the ride?
We study many ways to do this in the Anatomy of Horror, but we’ll just mention one major one here:
ISOLATION: Almost all horror takes the protagonist and isolates them from help, throwing them into a pressure cooker with no way out. This locks the character so there is no running from the problem, and also eliminates help from coming to solve the problem. If a swat team was camping with the kids in Blair Witch, problem solved.

CARING: Finally, we must care about our character. If they are a two dimensional cliché character with no redeeming human qualities, we probably don’t care if they get munched on. If we don’t care, there will be no anticipation. Think about this in your own life. Was there an upcoming event that was important to you? Maybe a speech you were giving, a job interview, a hot date? Because you cared about the outcome, there was anticipation. Maybe you couldn’t eat or sleep. Now think of an event that you didn’t care about or something that happened all the time. You probably had no anticipation because you didn’t care about the outcome or you were already sure of the outcome. There is a secret built into that last line that I’m sure you can deduct with a bit of thought.
We’ve just touched lightly upon the surface of these things to get your appetite wet. We study horror in depth as an art and craft at Anatomy of Horror. In fact, I think we do it better and in more depth than anyone out there. Part of the reason for this is the dedicated, talented group of Anatomy of Horror Master students who work hard at the craft. Go watch a horror flick!
Darkly Yours,

David Hohl

Copyright 2013 by Hohlographic Productions, LLC
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Being a Reader


Someone asked me for advice on being a script reader, so I thought I could write it up to share with others. While you are first trying to establish your screenwriting career, being a script reader can bring a little extra income and immerse you in story on a daily basis. Unfortunately, much of the time you’ll be learning what does NOT work in a screenplay!

The script reader is the first, entry level position in screenplay development. You should have a desire to read and write, and a love for story. It’s also important to have some background in film or screenwriting and knowledge of how to do basic coverage.

Your main employer, unless you are working for a studio, is the independent production company. Once you have some samples of your coverage work, you can contact them and let them know you are open to assignments and that you have samples. You won’t get rich doing this work, but it will be some income and will be helping you learn more about story.

In a nutshell, your work will be to read screenplays given to you and provide coverage. “Coverage” is basically writing up a logline and a one page synopsis of the screenplay as well as notes about how you liked it and why. What were problems and finally, what you suggest to the Producer (Pass- Recommend, -Consider).  The Producer, without the time to read all the scripts they receive, relies on looking at your coverage to decide if they will take the time to read it, or if they will consider other work from the writer in the future.

You want to do this work?

1)      Get samples of coverage to see how it looks and reads. Maybe you have coverage from your own work done by a paid service?  Don’t mix up analysis and screenplay consulting notes with coverage. They are not the same thing. Coverage is not made to help the writer re-write. It is to help the producer decide if they want to read the script.

2)      Study story and film. Take screenplay classes and even coverage classes. Sometimes these coverage classes are offered at AFI, UCLA, etc.

3)      Write some of your own sample coverage.

4)      Get a list of Production companies and contact them by phone, email or mail and ask if they want to see coverage samples and if they ever have the need for a freelance reader. Make it clear right away that this is what you want, and that you are not trying to sell them a script!

5)      Make sure you make a great first impression if you are given an assignment. Get coverage back on time and written in a clear, professional manner.

This work will help you get into the mind of the one of your GKs (gatekeepers). You’ll start seeing screenplays through this perspective and perhaps it will improve your own screenwriting by understanding what a reader wants to see before giving it a thumbs up to the Producer.

Good luck!



Horror vs. Thriller

I had this question three times this week, so thought I’d post it. What is the difference between horror and thrillers?

To be PURE Horror, the purpose of the story must be to invoke fear and dread AND it must not be totally realistic.  Since Horror is a subset of FANTASY, called Dark Fantasy, it should have some element of the fantastic.  If you took Halloween and deleted the part where Michael Myers defeated death supernaturally, it could very well be called a Thriller. By making it in the world of Fantasy, it is completely Horror.

If you get rid of the fantasy element, things become more blurred and many movies could be considered either a thriller, or horror, or both. Certain things are more clear cut. The Bourne Identity is a pure Thriller because it has a protagonist on the run, is in a realistic world, and the primary purpose is intrigue and thrills over fear and dread.

So, to sum up in an easy way, if you intend to cause fear and dread and there is a fantasy element, then it’s HORROR.  If you intend to cause fear and dread but in a realistic world, call it what you want: Horror/Thriller, Horror, what have you.  If you intend primarily to have suspense and intrigue vs. fear/dread, and a realistic world, you have a thriller. While both use tension and anticipation, and in fact any good story does so, the ultimate goal is different: THRILLS vs. FEAR.

Another thing that tends to differ in Horror vs. Thriller is the THEME. We won’t get into that here since we have a large section in the Anatomy of Horror Class, but suffice to say, the themes in Thrillers usually tend to be about society, politics, government, etc. while horror deals with things like Man acting as God, or man vs. the animal within, etc.

Don’t get too anal with these labels though.  That’s all they are- labels.  There is a little blur in many films so don’t get scared if your film crosses over into other genres.



Fear and Excitement

What makes people love to go to Horror movies?

We’ll, there are many reasons, but let’s look at one that came about from a study conducted by Psychologist Arthur Aron.  The  study brought 33 men across a dangerous, unstable bridge to meet a very attractive female assistant on the other end. At the conclusion of the walk, the assistant gave a survey and her number to each man and said to call if they had questions about the experiment. In another group of 33 men, they met the same assistant, but after crossing a very sound, sturdy bridge. Of the 33 men crossing the unstable bridge, 9 called the assistant later compared to 2 from the stable bridge group.

The conclusion was that fight or flight response can mimic sexual arousal – it encourages sexual attraction. Have you ever got off a scary roller coaster ride and felt exhilarated, glad to be alive, and energized? We’ve also all heard stories about people getting married after going through fearful situations together. Now we know one of the many reasons people like Horror movies.

Go buy a ticket NOW!

Press Release


Horror Master Class bursting on the scene this Halloween

By David Hohl

October 25, 2012

Hollywood, CA– This Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day (Oct 31-Nov2) only, the Anatomy of Horror Master Course is enrolling students for the first time. Developed over several years by produced horror writer, and five-star rated script consultant, David Hohl, this course will deliver the genre secrets to help break into Horror screenwriting and producing. The on-line course lives at

About the Anatomy of Horror

Anatomy of Horror Master course is offered by the Kick@$$ Screenplay school as an on-line thirteen week course in the horror genre. Students will master basic screenwriting, and the elements of advanced horror writing. They can complete the course in thirteen weeks, or take up to a year to gain their certificate as a Horror Master. The class is supervised and developed by a five-star rated screenplay consultant and produced horror writer, David Hohl. The class was created because David has seen that Horror is one of the easiest genres to sell because it is the star itself, not needing a big budget or famous star to succeed.

Many of the top 20 most successful movies of all time (based on Return on Investment) are horror – Halloween, Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch Project, and Saw, to name a few.