There is a trend in most modern horror that turns me off faster than pretty much anything else. I say “most” because there are exceptions, but it is common enough to bother me. More than that, I think it is becoming more prevalent and that it has even started showing up in other genres.
I call it “The Psychopath Syndrome.”
Let me explain with an example.
I am currently reading The Troop by Nick Cutter. Besides having the perfect horror writer name, Cutter has also crafted an incredibly creepy story. The monster is terrifying, and Cutter’s writing is a study in how to make mundane things frightening, but he falls into a trap that destroys, or at least significantly damages, the story’s believability: All his characters are psychopaths.
To see why this is a problem, you have to understand that The Troop is about a Boy Scout troop that gets isolated on an island off the eastern coast of Canada when what amounts to a biological weapon is released on the island. I know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t all Boy Scouts psychopaths?”
No. No they aren’t.
I spent a lot of time with the Boy Scouts growing up, and even still have regular contact with them. I admit that there is definitely a “Boy Scout Effect” that seems to neutralize the parts of their brains that keep them from doing stupid things, and I will also admit that there is the rare bully, but that’s not the same thing.
In Cutter’s Troop, one boy is a sociopathic bully who mercilessly locks up the Scoutmaster when he gets infected and treats everyone else like a punching bag, another boy has significant anger management issues, another is suffering from an identity crisis, and another is a full-on serial killer-in-the-making. Only one boy is what I would define as relatively normal (though the boy suffering an identity crisis will be familiar to the social outcasts of the world).
See the problem?
I'm not saying boys like these do not exist, but in a single troop? That stretches believability to the breaking point.
I'm not saying boys like these do not exist, but in a single troop?
And that’s the problem. In modern horror (and spreading to other genres), everyone is a psychopath or suffering from extreme neurological disorders. And while I understand that the world of fiction is often meant to be a magnification of reality, the idea that decent, average people are in the vast minority of the population can often ruin a story for me. It’s why I don’t like reading Stephen King.
I am also currently reading a book about writing: Blake Snyder’s seminal Save the Cat! I will discuss Snyder’s work in more detail later, but for now, I want to focus on one concept: the idea of saving the cat.
For Snyder, it’s important that main characters be, at least to some degree, likable or relatable. Think of Ripley in Alien. Even though the ship is alien-infested and the self-destruct counter is ticking down, she goes back to save the cat (I’m not certain if this is where the phrase comes from, Snyder has yet to explain in the book). It is a moment, almost more than any other, that defines her as a hero (Aliens, the sequel, ups the ante by sending her back for a child). Snyder argues that every story needs a moment like that so that the readers can root for the characters.
I don’t know that a “save the cat” moment is necessary in fiction. I think a legitimate argument can be made to omit it, and I can certainly see a case for compelling, despicable characters (I’m looking at you Gillian Flynn), but I also think they should be in the minority, because the truth is: most people are pretty decent, and watching decent people struggle against impossible odds makes for a better story.
Watching decent people struggle against impossible odds makes for a better story.
Seriously, how many outright, evil villains have you met or known in your life? How many actual (not figurative or pseudo) psychopaths do you associate with on a regular basis?
Sure, your boss may be a jerk, and that guy who cut you off in traffic is darned lucky you don’t have a button that will vaporize the car in front of you, but are they really evil? Are they really psychopaths?
Again, I’m not saying those don’t exist, what I’m saying is that they aren’t the norm.
I’m also not saying all humans are wonder, kind-hearted, generous people. Humans today are just what they’ve always been: a flawed mix of good and bad, capable of great destruction and hate and incredible creativity and compassion. They are complex and difficult, they make mistakes and are capable of inflicting terrible pain, but few are outright deviant or psychotic. In fact, most are trying to do the best they can with what they have.
When we give into the Psychopath Syndrome, when we write nothing but terrible people into our stories–even horror stories where characters are little more than monster chow–we cheapen them and we add to the darkness of a world already cast too much in shadow.
When we give into the Psychopath Syndrome, when we write nothing but terrible people into our stories, ... we cheapen them.
The solution is not to write characters that are so unbelievably good–so Pollyanna-ish–that they will be too sweet for even the darkest creature’s palette. The solution is write believable characters, complex characters that approximate reality. Give readers someone they recognize, someone they associate with on a regular basis, and they drive them hell and see how they come out on the other side. Your writing will be better for it.
Last week's post got me thinking about genre again (it's surprising how many things do that). Specifically, I was thinking about the horror genre and the age old question: what makes something horrific?
I don't know that there is a real answer to that question, but my personal favorite is a quote I read somewhere that I can't appropriately attribute because I haven't found it since (though I think it was credited to either Alfred Hitchcock or Guillermo del Toro). It's a very simple definition that I also think accurately sums up what I find horrifying (please note, I'm paraphrasing because, as I said earlier, I can't find the actual quote):
Horror occurs when something is present that should not be there or when something should be there and isn't.
I LOVE this definition! Think about the most horrifying movie you've ever seen. Which parts were the most terrifying? Were they the moments when you fully saw the monster? No, usually, they are the parts you can't see.
Due to serendipitous technical difficulties, Steven Spielberg's Jaws became the masterpiece that it is because they couldn't show the freaking shark! While seeing a fin heading toward a boat would have been scary, it was far scarier to see the barrels pop up out of the water and head toward the boat. Or, even worse, when the barrels disappeared when that should be impossible! An amazing bit of horror.
An interesting example is the old miniseries of Stephen King's IT, which is appropriate given the upcoming movie. I saw this miniseries on VHS when I was in high school--probably a sophomore. I hadn't transitioned to my enjoying horror phase, yet, so watching with friends was an act of stupidity I lived to regret (going into gym locker rooms still gives me the shivers). In my opinion, the first two-thirds of that movie worked exceptionally well. True, you did see Pennywise (sometimes), but he was so out-of-place, so "something that is present that should not be" that he was absolutely terrifying. The same thing with the balloons. In-and-of-themselves, they are not scary, but put them in a sewer with the words "We all float down here" and suddenly your skin crawls. And yet... And yet the last third of that movie was a major disappointment. Why? Because we finally saw the monster and it just wasn't that terrifying. It felt in-place in the deep underground, and we were expecting it (sort of). So in the end, it just wasn't that scary.
The trick, I've found in writing, is how do you create that feeling of alienness about something normal. Even a jar of peanut butter in the right setting with the right description can be horrifying. If you can figure that out, poof, you're a horror writer!
To my amazing wife's chagrin and to my surprise, I'm a horror writer. Looking back, I can't really say how that happened or when. I remember, as a 6-year-old, being so terrified of the movie Poltergeist that I was scarred for life. Ghostbusters had me terrified to go into my parents' back bathroom for fear that the Library Ghost would be waiting for me (NOTE: I have also never figured out why I thought the Library Ghost would haunt my parents' bathroom). I can even remember, as a child, the first time the horror of death really struck me (it was while I was watching Superman II). So I was a pretty sensitive kid who pretty much avoided everything horror, and I'm not sure when things changed.
By the time I was in high school, I was working on a series about a kid who saw monsters everywhere and set out to kill them. The first book--the very first one I ever completed--was about him stalking a poor town doctor that had the misfortune of looking like a vampire (read the first chapter). The story was played for laughs, but looking back, there were elements of horror in it, so sometime around there I started delving into the darker side of things, but it wasn't until recently that I went full on horror.
The thing is that, even as a kid, the idea of horror fascinated me, even if it scared the crap out of me at the same time. There is something incredibly cathartic about facing fears and coming out victor in the end. There is something inspiring about watching people struggle against Hell. Whether they succeed or not seems less important than the fact that they struggle. In spite of all the odds and the dangers and the pressing darkness and the betrayals, they keep fighting.
And then there's just the fact that monsters are cool. But that's a topic for another day.