Writing Horror Screenplays: How to Write Supernatural Horror

Supernatural Horror is perhaps the most writer-friendly of all Horror sub-genres because its effectiveness really does live on the page, rather than being hostage to practical or CGI effects (even though we should love those too!). Unlike other Horror sub-genres (Slasher, Urbanoia, Body Horror, Cannibal) Supernatural Horror has its deepest roots in folklore rather than urban legend or the modus operandi of serial killers.

DEFINING THE SUPERNATURAL GENRE

The Supernatural dwells behind, beside, above, beneath; it seeps in, slips through, bursts out, rises up and drops down, it is everything that monotheistic religion, cognitive psychology and global capitalism have pushed out to the margins. Animistic, atavistic and archaic, the spirits, ghosts, djinns and elementals drag us shaking and screaming back to our quintessential selves, back to a landscape where society, culture, economics and military hardware count for nothing.

The great Nigel Kneale famously called Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING ‘junk’; clearly he was unimpressed. The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson on the other hand has said that he was so frightened by the same film that he was too scared to move his hand in order to switch channels. Apart from THE HAUNTING remake, for which you’d be hard pressed to find an advocate, Supernatural Horror is arguably the most subjective of all sub-genres, the fear response being determined by cultural, social and historical factors.

Although the underlying, archetypal sources of fear cut across geographies and epochs, their narrative and visual representation can range from a white-faced woman (A CHINESE GHOST STORY) to some pulsating green blobs (Nigel Knell’s THE STONE TAPE).

While the edict ‘show, don’t tell’ covers 95% of all narrative screenplays, Supernatural Horror sits in the 5% for which this rule doesn’t quite go far enough. The unwritten rule of Supernatural Horror is ‘suggest, don’t show’. In the age of bedroom CGI, we live more than ever in a world where everything is shown, from the inner dance of molecules and the firing of synapses to the colliding of worlds and the mass infection of the population.

Supernatural Horror is inherently reactionary; it dismisses five thousand years of human progress and asks how we would act if we were to come face-to-face with the shadows on the cave wall.

BUILDING BLOCKS OF SUPERNATURAL HORROR

So what are the primary building blocks of Supernatural Horror? Anyone who’s come across John Truby’s 22-Step program will know that ‘The Ghost’ is what Truby calls that part of the protagonist’s back-story that still haunts them (for example the murder/suicide in THE OTHERS). In Supernatural narratives this haunting is literal.

The protagonist’s inner and outer dilemmas are closer together than in any other genre, the inner dilemma often literally personified by the antagonist, who also, as usual, personifies the outer dilemma. So, stop the antagonist – usually by sending it back from whence it came – and both dilemmas are solved; but that’s not where true Supernatural Horror ends, hence the prolific use of twist and sting-in-the-tale endings.

By definition, the Supernatural cannot be contained, circumscribed or erased. Horror, at its most fundamental level, plays out Freud’s return of the repressed, and as all humanity is only too painfully aware, you can’t ever fully destroy the repressed, the best you can do is repress it again – whether it’s for a lunar 28 days, an illuminated 23 years (JEEPERS CREEPERS) or an apocalyptic millennium (LOST SOULS); or until the studio decides to green-light yet another sequel or remake.

In 1957, Jacques Tourneur directed the masterful NIGHT OF THE DEMON (from the story Casting the Runes by M R James; scripted by Charles Bennett and Hal E Chester) creating one of the classics of the Supernatural Horror sub-genre (albeit the film also has significant Occult Horror tropes). The protagonist, Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews) is a psychologist. By making the protagonist an empirical scientist, a conflict is instantly created between the known and unknown worlds, forcing the protagonist to traverse irrational terrain with the mind-set of a rationalist: instant drama.

The other favoured protagonist of Supernatural Horror is, of course, the writer, who cannot tell the difference between the two worlds – or at least is having trouble doing so.

The other favoured protagonist of Supernatural Horror is, of course, the writer, who cannot tell the difference between the two worlds – or at least is having trouble doing so. Screenwriter beware, however. Break the “no writer protagonists” rule with extreme caution, not least because writers are immensely unsympathetic heroes (which can, of course, work in your favour when they become the antagonist, as in THE SHINING).

GHOST NARRATIVES

Ghost narratives sit between the Supernatural (what Todorov named ‘the marvellous’; tangible but inexplicable) and the Cognitive Uncanny or Fantastique (in McKee’s terminology ‘the Super-Uncanny’; is it all in the mind?) As with the paranoid identity crises and memory relativity of Philip K Dick’s dystopian Sci-Fi, Supernatural Horror tears up our paper-thin sense of reality and punctures the membrane between the everyday and the extraordinary.

In other Horror sub-genres the fear is specifically of physical pain, of disease, of penetration, of inbred backwoodsmen. In Supernatural Horror the defining fear is of madness, of reality not being as definitive as we believe it to be.

In other Horror sub-genres the fear is specifically of physical pain, of disease, of penetration, of inbred backwoodsmen. In Supernatural Horror the defining fear is of madness, of reality not being as definitive as we believe it to be.

In 1942, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur created the epitome of Todorov’s Fantastique with the seminal CAT PEOPLE. In Tourneur’s masterpiece, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) may be a woman who turns into a panther, or may be a woman stalked by a panther, or may be a woman going mad imagining the whole thing. Most Supernatural Horror films play out their entire narrative in the realm of the marvellous. Some start in the realm of the Fantastique and resolve in the Supernatural.

Rarely, a film dwells in the Fantastique for all twelve reels. WHAT LIES BENEATH, along with FINAL DESTINATION one of only a handful of genuine Fantastique narratives made in recent years, cleverly takes the idea of the back-story ghost – Dr Norman Spencer’s (Harrison Ford) murdered mistress – and has it haunt his wife Claire (Michelle Pheiffer) rather than Spencer himself, thus splicing Supernatural Fantastique Horror with Drama (Claire’s daughter has just left home; her marriage is falling apart) and Thriller (mystery plus jeopardy).

It is the haunting that drives the plot forward. Supernatural Horror splices well with Thriller because there is either a literal mystery (What/who is the antagonist? What is its/their motivation?) or, in Fantastique, a literal plus an ontological one (Is the antagonist real at all?). The oft-uttered line of protagonist dialogue “What do you want from me?” (not a cliché because it’s both utterly natural and entirely apt; once you’re aware of this line you’ll hear it over and over again) finds its apotheosis in this splice because it’s the Horror ghost (who doesn’t really care whether the heroine answers or not) tacitly asking the question on behalf of the Thriller plot (which knows the answer, but isn’t telling).

SUPERNATURAL AND PSYCHODRAMA

Supernatural Horror also has much in common with Psychodrama – something in the past ‘haunts’ the psyche of the protagonist – and is often spliced with it. THE OTHERS and THE SIXTH SENSE are both Family (‘Family’ meaning the story genre where the dilemmas of the adult/parent and the child are symbiotic) Psychodrama splices.  Remove the Supernatural element (i.e. omit the major reveal) from these films and you’re left with Family Psychodrama.

There are three basic approaches to the Supernatural Horror premise:

  • take a known malevolence and place it in its traditional setting,
  • invent an unknown malevolence and place it in an original setting, or…
  • re-imagine a known malevolence and place it in a contemporary setting (or you could do what Seth Grahame-Smith did and place a know malevolence in a period setting – the dissonance instantly creating comedy).

Supernatural Horror, due to its focus on the protagonist’s state of mind, can in theory be set anywhere in any period, but within that setting there must be an isolated location in which most of the action occurs, whether it is the space ship of EVENT HORIZON (Supernatural Horror-Sci-Fi splice), the WWI trench of DEATHWATCH (Supernatural Horror-War splice) or the Glasgow sink estate of URBAN GHOST STORY (Supernatural Horror-Drama splice).

Thematically, Supernatural Horror is, at its core, about the mutability of sanity and reality. This thematic resonance is heightened by a loop or ambiguous ending (the most ingenious loop of recent years being in SINISTER, in which the loop is also a key plot reveal and the premise and an in-joke about horror protagonists who refuse to move out of haunted houses: nice work if you can get it!).

Even narratives that end in redemption, the re-establishing of the status quo, a return to normality or the end of a psychotic episode, hint that the world is a far darker, scarier and ultimately less knowable place than we could ever imagine.

Even narratives that end in redemption, the re-establishing of the status quo, a return to normality or the end of a psychotic episode, hint that the world is a far darker, scarier and ultimately less knowable place than we could ever imagine. Even the unshakeably “seen it all” psychic Elise Rainier (as portrayed by the wonderful Lin Shaye in the INSIDIOUS series) sometimes has her hard-won stoicism brutally undermined by sheer unadulterated terror.

SUPERNATURAL AND PROSE

Of all the Horror sub-genres, the Supernatural and Fantastique definitively require a solid grasp of certain specific screenwriting techniques: suspense (especially concealed or off-screen suspense), ‘fake’ dream transitions (a character entering or leaving a dream state within a film narrative without us knowing that this has happened), the ‘startle’ and portraying the interior thoughts and feelings of the protagonist without writing prose.

Many Supernatural Horror films are literary adaptations, connected in no small part to the fact that prose is  the perfect medium for the elliptically suggestive, the creeping menace and the first person psychology so central to this sub-genre (adapted with Voice-Over, or without!). British culture has a rich history of ghost stories and the haunted gothic, from Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, M R James and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw through Daphne du Maurier and on to Susan Hill.

Maybe this rich tradition is due to the fact that there is over 12,000 years of blood-soaked history lurking deep in the English psyche – or maybe it’s because the innate conservatism of the English prefers it when the imagination creates its terror close to home, safe in the knowledge that when things get too terrifying one can always make a cup of tea and listen to the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast.

Either way, just when you think you’ve come to terms with ‘the other’ you realise that actually you haven’t at all, because ‘the other’ is you, and you’re not going anywhere… for now. So write the natural/supernatural dichotomy as if your life depends on it because we’re all haunted, even the ghosts.

Written by Nic Ransome. Copyright Industrial Scripts 2015, All Rights Reserved. 

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Writing Horror Screenplays: How to Write Supernatural Horror
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