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Character and subtext in horror

Banes at 12:00AM, Oct. 20, 2016

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In the movie “The Innkeepers”, two clerks in an allegedly haunted hotel work on the last night before the place closes down. They deal with some odd final guests, both human and otherwise (maybe).

In “Hush”, “Halloween” and “The Strangers”, peoples' homes and neighborhoods are invaded by psychotic masked stalkers.

But of course, there's more going on in these scary flicks than just the plots.

Many of us know about subtext, theme, character arcs, and other moving parts that exist in stories; I've touched on them here and there in these Thursday posts, as you surely know.

(I do and do and do for you people! And do you ever call to check up on me? Feh! Ingrates!)

The power of character and theme is just as present in horror as other genres. This is the stuff that makes us feel when we experience stories.

In many horror stories the character flaws are crucial to the stories. Maybe more crucial than in other genres. Or at least in a different way. Maybe because the real scary stories have dark stuff under the surface to match the more obvious horrors:

In The Innkeepers, Claire may be seeing ghosts. But her real problem is that she's stuck in a rut in life, and not moving forward in her life in any way. Living a meaningless life is scarier than ghosts.

In Hush, the main character has isolated herself in the country and is also isolated by her deafness. This will make survival much more difficult.

The estranged couples in The Strangers, Vacancy, and Open Water are lost because of their bitterness toward each other. If they don't learn their life lessons, they will not survive…and even if they do learn, in may be too late. The real horror lies in how horrible we can be to the people who are closest to us.

In The Shining, Jack's alcoholism and violent temper are more scary, in a real way, than the dark spirits haunting the Overlook hotel. Stephen King said that the way he sometimes felt hate for his young children terrified him, and was a big inspiration for that book.

In SAW, The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity, it's just the neglect of a lives not fully lived or fully engaged that let the evil in. Scary stuff we can all relate to, I'd wager.

More than other genres, horror often doesn't have character arcs…sometimes this is because the characters fail to overcome their flaws, or the flaws just outweigh the ability for them to change and survive.

No matter if the horror story is realistic, heightened reality, or supernatural, the real juice comes from the dark stuff underneath: behavior and thoughts that lead us down the wrong path.


IT's an anniversary!

This is the 30th anniversary of the publication of Stephen King's IT. I loved this book. A small town is stalked every 30-ish years (!) by something that rises from the sewers to kill children. Appearing in many different fearsome guises, but mostly as Pennywise the Clown, the true horror is something else, something hidden.

There are a lot of fantastic characters in this one…young Ben Hanscomb, Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier are three of my favorite characters ever.

I would say that “IT” is a scary creature, but the subtextual horror is something found in human nature: the trauma we carry from childhood, the joy and friendships we sometimes lose as we age…

There's also an aspect of the town of Derry that shows us, under the quaint surface, a tendency of people to ignore the suffering of others, and to racial and other kinds of prejudice.

Is the monsters…us?

Wait. What kind of grammar is that?

…the horrible kind!


take care,


Again, check the DD Awards out! They're always a fun time!



Udyr at 4:22AM, Oct. 21, 2016

That's a very interesting viewpoint. I've never thought about it beyond the characters being very flawed and depressed. Seeing it might be what drives them into these situations makes alot of sense. It is absolutely a chance we are our worst enemy.

Bruno Harm at 5:21AM, Oct. 20, 2016

I started reading Stephen King in middle school. needless to say, It shocked the SH@% out of me. I think most horror stories are morality plays. Looking at the dark side of humanity. There's always the coward, or the selfish, or the hateful character that really comes to light in a crisis. It highlights the lows that humans can and will go to. If there's a happy ending, it's usually the one or two decent people surviving, leaving the more despicable people to get their come-up-ins.

KimLuster at 4:55AM, Oct. 20, 2016

Love your Articles!! Good stuff - again! It... *shivers*... That is one disturbing novel...!! I wonder... if Steven King wrote it today, would he still include.... *spoilers*...................The 11-Year Old's having their gangbang orgy!!

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