Scary movies are hard to write.
When you select a genre to write the first thing you should do is research your audience, and Horror is one of the easiest to research because it has a well-defined clear-cut audience; teens and twentysomethings. They literally “dare the nightmare”.
This younger audience is always looking for intense experiences and they watch these films with a sense of challenge and bravado, which studies have shown, on some level helps them to learn to manage their fears. For them watching a Horror movie is a way to signal to their peers that they are not afraid. It’s no secret that young couples like to watch Horror on dates… because one person in the pair can be protective and the other can openly seek shelter in their arms, prompting confidence, compassion and intimacy.
The genre is sometimes looked down upon by audiences and screenwriters because of their low budgets, exploitative cheap thrills and over-use of blood & gore. But for filmmakers and especially screenwriters, this disrespect is deceiving because writing Horror refines a skill set that many screenwriters find difficult to acquire; an advanced understanding of how to employ emotion to influence audience reaction and ultimately audience satisfaction. All films need to take their audiences on an emotional journey, and there is no better place for a screenwriter to learn this section of their craft than by writing a screenplay in the horror genre.
As in all screenplays, for the audience to be empathetic and care about the characters, the screenwriter needs to take their time establishing solid, likable and relatable characters in the first act. The temptation to torment and scare the audience too early must be overcome, and the establishment of a very solid foundation and a safe, conventional world for the characters to live in is crucial if there is to be a pay-off late in the screenplay.
Unsurprisingly most horror films are inherently conservative, allowing more scope for the extreme but limited spectrum of emotions that will inevitably send the audience on a rollercoaster ride in the second and third act. Think… anxiety, unease, apprehension, surprise, shock, fear, terror, suspense, dread, anguish, panic, fright, horror and hysteria… all alternating with relief and respite.
Research shows that the scare the target audiences crave is a safe one and that their pleasure comes from the relief that follows. It’s therefore no surprise then, that tension is a key weapon in the horror writers’ armoury. Interestingly these audiences also hanker after predictability and happy endings.