There’s a lot about horror that inverts the structural norms.
It’s understood in writing that for a protagonist’s journey to be great, she has to be up against something greater than herself, and we’re impressed, because there’s no drama in an easy win. It’s pulling off the difficult that impresses us.
Horror’s sort of the reverse. For most of the film, you have to believe there’s an imminent threat. Watching Jason mow through the stupid and the slow isn’t impressive, and all that Saw/Eli Roth suckerpunch nonsense just deserves its torture porn nickname.
That’s what was so great about the opening of Scream — Drew Barrymore did everything right. Hell, most of those kids did — they got the hell out of there, fought back when they had to. They made it tough for the killer. But yeah, Drew Barrymore — we had no idea if she would live or die.
The horror monster/villain usually trades on the highest stakes: it’s trying to kill from the start. But it can’t succeed (granted it can wipe out a group of teens, but the stakes and/or scares must escalate with each murder to intensify the thrill) or the story ends. And if it can’t succeed, it loses its potency. After all, the protagonist escapes at every turn, however narrowly. Even if some teens die, the group survives, at least to The Last Girl.
One of my favorite kinds of horror is the realization that something atrocious has been going on for the duration of the seemingly innocuous scene you thought was your break between terror. Yes, surprise is frightening, but less something jumping out at you, and more the looming, unknowable that could strike it any time. Total annihilation, biding its time, something so big and unknowable, it’s almost beyond a question of evil or malice.
Scarier than killers leaping out of the shadows, which is the shock of a second, is strange, amorphous shapes dancing in the distance, or a beast looming outside the window, not moving, just making horrible sounds, gathering itself before it picks its moment to attack. And there’s nothing you can do except try not to hear the lurching and the groaning.
Of course, eventually you need to conflict to resolve in order to induce change. Make that change in favor of the Unknown Beast, the great terror. Make each stage worse. Constrict the throat a little more.
Yes, horror demands a very different dramatic structure than the heroic three-act everyone’s used to.
In a way, your killer is your protagonist for those moments of terror. You don’t want a superhuman killer (even if your killer is actually superhuman) who’s just wading through the kids. And at the same time, the terror comes from relating to the victim and feeling the great and powerful unknown agony bearing down on you. It’s a delicate balance.
A lot of the best Punisher stories are basically horror tales told sympathetically from the monster’s perspective. The criminal’s death is a foregone conclusion. It’s seeing how it plays out.
Horror is a lot like comedy. Both trade on the unexpected, via surprise and the fulfillment of expectation in an unforeseen manner. Because of this, both have an easier time breaking free of the 3-act structure without disappointing the audience. Of course, that structure doesn’t have to be the standard, and most of the best stories break it, when written by people who know what they’re doing. Both also work best if you mix a few kinds of fear/humor.
Anyway, not much to connect the dots, there, just thoughts I need to get together for Black Ambulances.