Backstory Kills Horror - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Jason Zinoman posts a provocative essay in Slate that says that monsters are scarier when you know as little as possible about them, certainly about their past.
The wisest sentence ever written about horror is the first line in H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 literary history of the genre, Supernatural Horror in Literature: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." If our greatest fear is of the unknown, then too much explanation is usually the enemy of truly frightening horror. What distinguished [the film] HALLOWEEN from its imitators is that its relentless killer is impossible to explain. Michael Myers has no psychology or motivation and barely any back story. The scariest thing about him is the suggestion that his mask isn't hiding anything. Rather, that's all there is.



I think most (not all) film characters are better the less you know about them. It's not specific to horror or backstory. I think a lot of filmmakers put too much "characterization" into the story because they feel it has to be there (or because the star demands it), and not because there's any real justification or purpose for it.

Especially in genre movies where the main draw is the action (that includes slasher flicks like Halloween), the less characterization the better. Stop talking already and start running up the body count.

By Blogger Greylocks, at 12:04 AM  

Two things.

First, yeah, there's a lot to be said for this. Too many horror films fall down in the second half of act two or even into act three when the monster's back-story is revealed, lifting us out of the story and into the meh. A particular favourite of mine is Cloverfield, where the origin of the monster is subtly revealed in the epilogue.

That said, while it may not be important for the audience to know the monster's origins, it is important for the writer.

By Blogger Me, at 12:54 AM  

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