The Scariest Element of Any Horror Story Is…

The scariest element of any horror story isn’t the rising kill count, graphic eviscerations, or misshapen creatures skulking through door frames. It isn’t the methodically molded mythology, the slow subtle turns, or the brain bending twists, it’s the element you might mistake for the weakest link. The scariest element of any horror story is hope.

Without hope an axe wielding maniac is just a kid tearing the legs off of spiders. If we know all the  deaths are foregone conclusions we won’t be shocked when a film starts hemorrhaging cast members. Without hope the torture dungeon is just an autopsy room with screaming. If we’re exposed to too much gore our eyes will eventually adjust to the sight of red. Without hope there’s no point in rooting for anyone. The characters become sacrificial lambs that we’ve been conditioned to resent more than sympathize with.

This is a sentiment echoed by many of the reviews of the recently released torture porn odyssey The Green Inferno (which currently sits at 38% on Rotten Tomatoes).

CinemaBlend’s positive review says the gore makes up for “its lackadaisical plot and lackluster characters, who you will ultimately actually enjoy seeing ripped to shreds.”

Good carnage is part of the appeal of horror, but the bar shouldn’t be set so low that that’s all we ever show up for. We should care about who’s brains are being splattered.

We measure our heroes by the villains they face. The reverse should be just as true. We should measure our monsters by those that try to take them down. While Marvel has been criticized for the lack of memorable villains in their cinematic universe horror films have few iconic heroes to choose from. Sure, there’s Ash from the Evil Dead series, Shawn from Shaun of the Dead, and Ellen Ripley from the Aliens, but most horror heroes leaving us wanting.

Without real resistance movie monsters are just shuffling through the motions. Mike Meyers might as well crowd source his kills and pass his mask around to any tall person with a knife set and penchant for punishing baby sisters. Jason and Leather-face might as well swap blades and try on each others masks. The Jigsaw killer might as well cobble together his Rube Goldberg machines from things he finds at Axe Man.

Of course horror villains need to pose a seemingly impossible challenge, but if we care about the poor schmucks who have to deal with them the villain will be all the more threatening.

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Why Horror Stories Still Need Us to Care About the Characters

I watch a lot of horror movies. I prefer supernatural scares to masked maniacs with machetes.

Slasher films rarely do it for me, not because I have an eversion to blood, but because all too often those movies feature unlikable leads whose survival we’re supposed to root against. Slasher films train us to care more about the elaborate kills than the characters themselves. What so often start as harsh thrillers devolve into accidental slapstick comedies. This might be why my favorite slashers are self-effacing and wear their comedy beats on their sleeve.

We horror screenwriters love to vilify the jocks who pulverized us in high school and the cheerleaders who never shook their pom-poms in our direction. We sacrifice the bullies and the beautiful to our fragile ego. We rally against privileged blonds with a veracity boarding on bigotry. We’re not above inserting ourselves into own stories as the sensitive cardigan wearing curmudgeon. Our emotional avatars rarely get bludgeoned until the third act and even then we’re the ones making a heroic sacrifice to save our romantic ideal: the ever virginal final girl.

These tropes are so widely known they’ve been openly acknowledged by the Scream movies, flipped in Tucker and Dale Vs Evil, and re-motivated by Cabin in the Woods. These days its hard to take a horror movie seriously if it plays those old clichés straight.

This should go without saying but so many horror screenwriters forget this basic concept: give us a reason to care about the characters. Make someone sympathetic from the moment we’re introduced to them. It’s okay to play with horror-tropes, but occasionally subvert our expectations. Why not make the sex-positive blond a proficient martial artist? Why not make the truck driving redneck go through a period of emotional vulnerability? Why not fill the cast with forty-something business types?

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Why Horror Stories Need to Earn Their Tragic Endings

I’ve written about the problem with narratives with too much dread, but horror stories benefit from a constant foreboding threat that never lets up. Many of my favorite horror films end on nihilistic notes where the cast has been reduced to kibble and civilization is in ruins, but what makes some of these stories more effective than others?

While movies like The Strangers reveal that dread prevails in scene one, movies like The Mist and Dawn of the Dead play with the balance of hope and dread all the way until end. The Strangers guarantees the audience two brutal deaths, but The Mist keeps us on the edge of our seat until the credits start rolling.

The reason I’m less inclined to like found footage movies is that the very nature of the genre spoils the ending: strap in because the person holding camera is going to die in ninety minutes. It takes the terror out of early scenes because the audience knows they have sixty minutes before we really need to worry.

If horror stories keeps the terror dialed up to eleven all the time they run the risk of desensitizing the audience. Without hope to counterbalance the dread there is no suspense. This is why horror writers should ease the scales from dread to hope after every grueling sequence.

Just as I like hard won happy endings a hard won tragedy can be equally rewarding, but a victorious evil entity needs resistance until that moment comes. Just as its important to forecast the overlooked hole in the hero’s plans it’s important to highlight a weakness in the villain.

What makes hope such a painful instrument in the horror writer’s torture chamber is that it toys with the audience. It lulls us into a false sense of security, because we know with horror more than any other genre our chances for survival are fifty-fifty.


Stayed tuned to all October for horror movie recommendations, audio plays, flash fiction, and Photoshopped Halloween costumes.

My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!

14 thoughts on “The Scariest Element of Any Horror Story Is…”

  1. Very true! Eeek! It’s that hope that is the secret element to a good horror story. And imagining what it would feel like for that hope to slowly drain out of you as you are trapped in a corner against something you cannot fight against and win. Scared now.

    1. That’s the trick is to keep that little sliver of hope going until the end, even if you’re planning on letting the darkness eclipse everyone. You want the characters to think there’s at least a 1% chance of survival until there isn’t. 🙂

  2. “The scariest element of any horror story is hope.”

    As soon as I read this, a light went on. It is that urge within to see everyone escape horrific fates. Building tension in any storytelling medium isn’t about creating gory threats to chill the blood–it’s about hope conflicting with mortal danger. I *knew* it emotionally, but I never put it to words like you just did.

    It’s such a simple rule, one that can be kept in the fore of a writer’s mind when building that lovely, shivery tension. I think that’s why Stephen King’s novels made him a master of horror: Anyone can survive, and anyone can die. We readers cling to characters we hope will escape (or even conquer) the looming mortal danger and take us with them to safety.

    Another masterful treat of an article, Drew. Beautifully done, and kudos. 🙂

    1. Thank you kindly. All stories ought to play with the balance of hope and dread until the end, but horror tends to lean toward dread and stay there. This is just reminder that dread doesn’t matter without the hope of survival. The stakes aren’t just limited to a matter of death, life ought to be included too.

      I’m glad you liked this one. Thanks so much for commenting.

  3. Wonderful points. Now that you mention it, I thinks the sudden loss of hope at the end of Return of the Living Dead is what made that movie terrifying (I think that’s the movie I’m thinking of).

    But it’s something I’ll shall definitely keep in mind when working on my own stories that have horror elements. 🙂

  4. First, I’m with you here: “I prefer supernatural scares to masked maniacs with machetes.”

    Regarding hope, spot on. But it’s important not to have too much hope, also. Though they were not Horror films, the “younger-crew” Star Trek movies had zero tension in them (e.g., as Kirk’s spacesuit glass begins to crack in space, etc.), because we know all of the characters make it.

    But back to your point, I thought of Bane’s quote in “The Pit” from The Dark Knight Rises: “There can be no true despair without hope.”

    I’m leaping about here, but I’m curious: What did you think of Let Me In (2010)?

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