Suspense in Horror

Suspense in Horror
A Free White Paper from Anatomy of Horror Master Course

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
A Free White Paper from Anatomy of Horror Master Course

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