Minor spoiler warning for The Haunting of Bly Manor
Although it’s not something that is talked about very often, reactions often play a huge part in the way horror affects people. When a character unwittingly wanders into the home of a chainsaw wielding maniac, they run away, as we expect them too. Naturally, upon seeing any kind of threat, we will feel fear, and this is no different in thriller and horror stories. Our hearts beat faster as we helplessly watch characters go to investigate that noise (which was totally just the wind by the way) and hug our pillows and grab our sheets in anticipation for the monster to finally appear. But what happens when there are no screams and no fear in the face of these monsters?
Let's take this same situation again: your character is walking into the house of the chainsaw killer, but instead of screaming, or freezing or fainting or any of the natural responses we’ve come to associate with fear, they just continue walking on. This could tell us a myriad of things: the character is familiar with the killer, the killer is not a threat nor are they worthy of attention, maybe the killer is not a killer at all, but someone in a cheap halloween costume. But the most important thing we learn about this reaction is that the killer is not something to be feared, and so the audience won’t be scared either (for the most part).
Maybe you will be scared for a moment. Under the right circumstances, this scenario could still pass as fear-inducing, but the main takeaway from this is that your character’s reactions will greatly take away (or give more presence to) the immediate fear in your story. A perfect example of this is the second season of The Haunting of Hill House series, The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Bly Manor is a story of abuse, death, love, broken relationships and sacrifice, and it had ghosts in it, but it was simply not a horror story. It was more of a mystery than a scary story, and while I did enjoy it and would definitely recommend both seasons to anyone looking to traverse the horror genre, I still think that the horror aspect of the second season was really quite subdued.
I am sure it scared others and did have some horrific moments, but these were overshadowed by the story and characters (which again, is not a bad thing). Now, the only moment I ever felt a true sense of dread while watching Bly Manor was in one of the final scenes where one of the two main children of the series, Flora, is hiding in the attic. There is a moaning ghost behind her, inching closer and closer to her as she remains totally unaware. The tension is building up and I’m moving closer and closer to the edge of my seat, waiting for the moment when she finally turns around and then-
She shushes the ghost.
She turns around, puts her finger on her lip and shushes the ghost, who immediately turns quiet. The threat is gone, and so is all my fear and anticipation. Now, this moment does a lot for us character wise - showing us the children’s relationship with the ghosts and giving us more background plot information that helps us to understand the story. However, this in turn lessens the scare factor of the moment. Why is that exactly? It’s because of her reaction.
Reactions are one of the main things that help to indicate horror to the audience, whether they are supposed to understand the fears of a character, or be terrified themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, something the main character finds to be terrifying doesn’t mean the audience will also feel the same. They can also prove very useful in situations where things are not supposed to be scary. Imagine watching a film where the main character comes across a dog. Upon seeing it, they back away and scream, doing all they can to get away from the animal, as cute as it may be. An average passerby would not find a dog so terrifying that you would need to flee from it, but by the main character's reaction, you can understand their fear. Or maybe, the dog is actually quite murderous, and only the main character has seen its true tyranny. Whatever the case may be, a character’s response and reaction to any event in a narrative indicates what the audience should feel.
And that’s just part of it! While it may come across as if I’m warning you against using diluted reactions to fear, sometimes they can elevate a story or serve the narrative more effectively than they would in an unadulterated state.
Spoilers for Coraline (2009)
A while back I was re-watching one of my favorite childhood movies and wondering how I ever managed to sit through it. Not because it was bad, but because it was terrifying. Finding hidden portals in walls, having your parents ripped away from you and being trapped by an impostor look-a-like of your own mother who wants to sew buttons into your eyes. Doesn’t sound like something a six year old should be watching, much less enjoying, but despite this I still loved the story. Writing it all down makes it seem horrific, but in reality, Coraline does an excellent job of softening its scares for its audience, and it does this by softening the reactions of its characters to the horror that surrounds them.
Let’s get one thing straight, delayed reactions kill horror. A delayed or diluted reaction to the monster in your horror story can kill (pun intended) any feeling of suspense or threatening presence for your audience, but it can also help to strengthen it in specific situations. This is the case in Coraline (2009), which happens to be one of my favorite films in the horror genre, but is also a movie directed to children.
Coraline goes through some of the most horrifying things imaginable (especially in a child’s mind). She loses her parents after they get trapped in a snow globe by an evil witch, she finds out the new wonderful world she’s grown to love is actually full of terrors out to get her, she is tasked with finding the eyes of three mysterious ghost children and forced to battle distorted versions of the friends she made in the real world while in a race to save her own life and that of her parents all in one night. Oh, and did I mention the evil witch who wants to sew buttons into her eyes and trap her spirit in purgatory forever? That too.
With all this said and done, how does Coraline (while still managing to be scary) attract any kind of young audience without proving itself to be absolutely terrifying and unwatchable to children? The simple answer is Coraline’s reactions.
In the iconic scene where the Beldam (the aforementioned evil button witch) transforms into her true self for the first time, growing into a grotesque spindly-limbed spider woman, Coraline has a pretty subdued reaction. It’s something you wouldn’t notice while watching as a kid, but it’s all the more present as an adult. Throughout the film, Coraline has been very resilient and even a bit snotty at times. She plays in the mud, talks back to her parents and aptly names her friend ‘Why were you born?’ upon meeting him for the first time. Simply put, Coraline is the type of person who is going to defy authority, even if that authority is a terrifying witch grabbing her by the nose and throwing her behind a mirror.
I can’t say what I would do in a similar situation, but Coraline simply demands that The Beldam lets her go and complains all the way to the mirror. She never feels scared at all. In fact, most of the time she is scared throughout the movie, it’s more for the people around her rather than the threats she is currently facing. She has no problem staring the Beldam right in the eye as she eats bugs or taps her button eyes with her needle fingers, or cursing and even fighting her when the moment is right. Even though a threat is clearly present, Coraline’s reaction to it manages to subdue the horror, while not taking away from it. This is precisely how we expect her to act, and it helps to soften the horror of these moments into something fairly palpable for young audiences.
At the same time, viewing these scenes as an adult and recognizing the true horror of them makes the film all the more interesting. You view everything in a different light and you can admire Coraline’s bravery in the face of such despair even more. The film only gets better as you age, while still having that nostalgic feeling of childhood innocence and naivete.
I remember loving the transformation scene as a child. I still do now, and while I do think Coraline has the potential to be much much scarier, it does a good job of summoning scares that are age-appropriate for its audience. Coraline isn’t terrified of the Beldam, but she is wary of her. She knows that she cannot defeat her alone, and that the witch has an obvious advantage over her. Thus, while her actions allow the scares to be softened, they do not take away from The Beldam as a serious threat, which keeps us invested in the stakes of the narrative. Now this is in no way saying that all children’s related horror content should be diluted and watered down (God knows that I did not watch diluted horror content as a kid), but if you’re looking for a simple way to make some introductory horror for your next book, this is a good way to do it.
As human beings, we commonly decide to act based on the reactions of those around us. I’m sure we’ve all told a little white lie about maybe liking a show that you never really enjoyed around friends, or thought twice about our preferences after seeing that people do not in fact like the taste of orange juice and toothpaste. It’s only natural to take guidance from the way others interact with the things around them. Your character’s reactions can help guide the audience’s feelings. They don’t necessarily have to agree with or always mirror them, but there are few better ways to tell your audience how to feel without explicitly saying it to them. Whether you want them to be terrified, shocked, or just a little jarred, reactions are the perfect tool to guide your audience into the depths of fear.
is a Canadian-Jamaican student, slowly making her way through the writing world. She aims to not only write, but be impactful and play her part in making the world a less judgmental and more accepting place for people everywhere.
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