Horror and tragedy go together like old houses and determined ghosts. I mean, it is an obvious combination, when you let loose a murderous monster, demon, ghost or killer, typically they’re going to leave quite a bit of death and destruction in their wake.
Usually a tragedy is just a story that describes the downfall of its protagonist. In the more “classic” version of a tragedy (like Greek or Shakespearian tragedies), there tend to be a lot of rules to follow, but many modern writers have bent those rules and some have even abandoned them completely! The rules and elements of tragedy are less like a recipe and more like guidelines you can follow. Countless artists have broken rules and their art was better for it, but as they say, it’s important to know the rules in order to break them.
The Elements of Tragedy
In most classic definitions of a tragedy, it’s suggested to have your character start at a pretty high point. This doesn’t have to be like a king-style mansion and perfect life, but even having your character be popular at school, have a partner and/or family they love, or anything else that your character cares about, will make their eventual downfall hurt a lot more. Of course there have been tragedies that start bad and just get worse. Those kinds of tragedies tend to lean into more “grimdark” territory, which is a very valid subgenre, but it is typically harder to get your readers on board if you hit them with the doom and gloom right off the bat.
To give an example of how this pertains to horror, this would be the first few scenes of a scary movie (aside from a cold-open), where the character and their life is introduced. This would be the part where we get attached to your characters, so seeing a reason to like them and root for them helps. This is also a great place to introduce or even hint at your character's struggles and their flaws — which in classic tragedy fashion, will come back to haunt them in the acts to come.
Traditionally, a character in a tragic story will have their fate brought down upon them by one of their so-called “fatal” flaws. The Greek called it Hamartia, and essentially it’s the one nasty trait that a character has that comes back to bite them in the butt later. A quite popular one is Pride or Hubris (tempting Fate). A classic horror example would be Victor Frankenstein. He is so proud of his scientific abilities that he decides to play around with being God, (or just a teen dad, if that’s how you want to think about it). This comes back to bite him in the butt, in the form of a massive mish-mash of corpses that follows him around, intent on destroying him.
Following this would be what is called peripeteia, which means “the reversal of fortunes”. This would be the part in your story where crap hits the fan. Usually this part lasts for most of the story, and would be where the main “horrific” events take place. Typically the majority of the protagonist’s actions would be fueled by their hamartia. In keeping with the “pride” example, perhaps your character doesn’t take necessary cautions to protect themselves, or they end up doing something to tempt or challenge the antagonist. Again, this serves to add layers onto the tragedy (like a tragic parfait, if you will), by making the tragedy seem almost “preventable” in a way.
The final piece of the tragedy puzzle is anagnorisis, which is when the character realizes the reality and hopelessness of their situation. This usually happens around the end of the story, it may be when your character loses all hope, or realizes the sacrifice they have to make. Typically, your character will also realize the part that they played in their own fate, thus creating all the pain, sadness, and frustration that comes along with every great tragedy.
Why It’s Effective
So, aside from death and sadness, why do horror and tragedy work so well, and why do we keep coming back to them again and again?
The answer to that is catharsis, or the purging of your emotions. We tend to watch/read horror to feel scared, and we watch/read tragedies to feel sad. These feelings aren’t pleasant to feel, but once we’re able to feel them all in a controlled environment, we tend to feel a little bit better. It’s like how you feel better after a really good cry, or how a big roller coaster gets your adrenaline pumping. These genres serve as an emotional cleanse.
Horror has always been important to me, as a way to explore fear in a controlled setting. What I mean by this is that no matter how scary things get inside the book or movie, I always have the option to walk away. I think that it’s an incredibly effective way to start confronting your own fears. Tragedy is the same, but this time with grief and sadness. Even if we don’t like them, people have feelings for a reason, and these feelings need to be felt, so these two genres provide a wonderful outlet to do just that.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.