Finding the focus of your horror story
Orson Scott Card1 categorizes stories by their MICE quotient - that is, what drives the story. (Explanation of the MICE acronym is here.) In horror stories, there’s another thing to consider: The type of horror.
I don’t mean giant spiders versus Frankenstein versus sparkly undead. I’m talking about the desired impact of the horror. Is it internal horror or external horror?
This isn’t an on/off switch, it’s more of a continuum. And it’s also possible to be both internally and externally focused within the same story. That dual-focus is what (I think) makes CABIN IN THE WOODS such a nasty tale.
The labels are tricky, here. Stick with me.
External horror is easy to point at. It’s the horror contained inside the structure of the story itself, but external to you. It’s avoidable horror. Godzilla. Frankenstein. Any monster, really. Don’t do X, and the horror won’t be able to get you. Even stuff that you might be reminded of later on doesn’t count here. My girlfriend talks about how she wasn’t scared by The Blair Witch Project until she was out in the woods a few weeks later. But it’s still about a force outside of herself. It’s even arguable (by pedants like me) that this isn’t true horror, but just being scared.2 This is the “suspense” bits - where the screechy music and wide-angle shots communicate that something scary is going to jump out and gnaw off your arm.
And then there’s internal horror. This is the horror that you can’t walk away from. It’s something intrinsic to the reader - the uncomfortable revelation that you wish you could ignore.
One flavor comes from identifying with the characters (either protagonist or antagonist) and realizing as a reader that you’d do the same horrible thing in that situation. The movie version of The Mist and the book version of Red Dragon have this aspect. Torchwood: Children of Earth does as well, and Natural Born Killers could be seen in this light. My girlfriend tells me Hostel even makes an attempt at this.
The other flavor of internal horror is the realization about you and the cosmos - and a (downward) shift of your perception within it. Lovecraft, of course, springs to mind, but so does House of Leaves and Blindsight. The world isn’t what you think it is - and you’re insignificant. And by the way, what you think of as “you” may just be nothing more than a lie one part of your brain is telling another part.
CABIN IN THE WOODS succeeds, I think, by having all of these in nearly equal strengths. The external horror is very easy to point at - I mean, the scene in the basement and their “free will” choice, right? But the internal horror is what sticks. Not only do we have a Lovecraftian reveal at the very end, but we have the moral dilemma of moral dilemmas... and it’s not hard to identify with the motivations of all the characters by the end of the movie.
It’s the really chilling part of Milgram’s experiments - that realization that you’re no better than any of them. No matter how much you try to avoid thinking of yourself like that.
And that’s some sweet schadenfreude pie being shoved down your throat.
1Regardless of what you think of the guy, he’s written some damn fine work about how to write, especially writing speculative fiction. We aren’t debating his views here now, ‘kay? Thanks.
2Worth noting here that I’m a big chicken about this kind of stuff, so “just” being scared is a big freaking deal for me.