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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Fear Factor

I have read horror scripts that were executed so well that the world disappeared around me and I was so engrossed and scared that when an unexpected sound like the doorbell interrupted me I jumped out of my SKIN. I love that experience. I'm actually kind of a baby; I don't really enjoy scary movies. I don't like the feeling of a racing pulse, and hairs on the back of my neck sticking up. I don't like sweaty palms and the feeling of dread waiting for the bad guy/monster/ghost to leap out and do something horrible. I am such a baby that to me, WHAT LIES BENEATH was like the scariest movie ever. Go ahead, Wavers - laugh. I can take it.

But I love reading scary scripts. Because I enjoy all those feelings knowing that it's on the page not in Dolby Surround Sound and in the dark. I can get as scared as all get out but then look up from the page for a minute if I need to and exit the experience. I need that out.

But it doesn't happen very often that I read a horror script that really scares the heck out of me. Not very often at all. I see a lot of writers who write horror scripts that are gross-out or predictable and my pulse goes nowhere. My theory is that writers think that the fx and/or execution of the moment when it's on film - the creepy music, the dry ice stage fog - all of that will make it nice and scary so it doesn't have to be scary on the page. While it may be true that the execution is going to really nail the scary moment - it should be scary on the page too.

One of the scariest things about THE RING was the jerky, stop frame way the little girl moved. That scared me to death. The original GRUDGE - entitled JUON - scared me so thoroughly that for weeks on end I couldn't go upstairs in my house because the unnatural way that creature moved down the stairs lodged in my unconcious. But if on the page, it simply says:

The CREATURE moves down the stairs jerkily, like a crab.

Do you get a visual? Sure. Kind of. Does that scare you? Not really. Recently I read a script in which this horrendous creature shreds people to pieces. But that's all it said in the action line:

LOUISA reaches her long arms and shreds him to pieces.

Uh - okay. So. I guess that would hurt. But can you really picture that? Did that raise your pulse one iota?

If you are writing a horror script, which has so many conventions and abberations that you could write a master's thesis on the topic - make sure to have fun with it, get gross, get scary, really deliver the horror of the experience with your words. Don't rely on special fx, soundtracks or other post-production devices. Those will absolutely enhance the moment but use the words at your disposal to really write something frightening and disgusting.

Have your monster/ghost/killer look up with blood dripping from their chin. Let mucus ooze from their skin. Give them bad breath and weird eyes and crackly movements. Remember when you were little and you used to put the flashlight under your chin and tell scary stories on sleep-overs? Bloody Mary. Bloooooody Mary. Blooooooody MARY!! That stuff was scary and theatrical. And your script should be too.

Instead of "shredding" someone, how about we hear bones crunch, tendons snap and blood gurgle? Really make it a visceral experience for the reader. But be careful - too much gross-out description and the reader becomes numb. Save it up. Build up the tension in the narrative. Make us wait for it. And then surprise us. Remember to exploit primal fears.

In WHAT LIES BENEATH, the scene that probably scared me the most was the scene in which Michelle Pfieffer is blow drying her hair and in the mirror, behind her, the bluish-green, decayed face of the drowned girl appears. Something behind you in the mirror - that's primal, guys. Something outside the darkened window. Something outside the car. The crunch of bones, the splash of blood - that taps into some pretty intense fears. You can't rely on fx for that fear factor in your horror script. Get it on the page.

The market for unproven writers and their spec scripts is dismal right now. But it's always dismal. There is a brick wall we have to get over. So make your script the absolute best it can humanly be. If you're writing horror - go big and write it so that the reader will be so engrossed and so jumpy that you give them nightmares. Go for it.

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Scott Eggleston said...

Great post, Julie! I'm currently working on a thriller with horror elements, and I appreciate your advice.

My favorite part in What Lies Beneath had to be that bathtub scene. Who couldn't relate to being paralyzed and having to essentially watch yourself drown? The suspense as the water level creeps up toward her face was excellent. In fact, they should have ended the movie there, when it peaked. But nooooo, the dang thing ran on for another 20 ridiculous minutes!

Same thing with The Ring. It just didn't know how to end properly. Another good lesson I'm sure you've already written about.

Geena said...

Watch the Bunny Parodies for The Ring, The Grudge, and many more horror films. The Ring is a good one.
If you can fit a script into 30 seconds, you on to a good premise.
The Waveinitrix has the bunny link at the lower right.