Writing Horror Screenplays: How to Write Teen Horror
From 1974’s BLACK CHRISTMAS – rightly credited with being the god-monster of the modern mainstream genre – through to every postmodern twist on the ‘final girl’ archetype, Teen Horror is now a mainstay of popular cinema.
It was a cornerstone of the 1980s’ video revolution and still represents a substantial segment of the international movie business. In addition to the obvious ease with which the genre can be marketed, this is narrative terrain that speaks in very clear and unambiguously symbolic language about one of the most fundamental stages of our psychological development.
If the genre-marketing tag ‘Teen Horror’ describes a movie in which a group of good-looking teens (plus token geek/dork/dweeb/Velma) are bumped off in increasingly gory and innovative ways until one – or perhaps two – remain, then we should perhaps, in film terms, define the Teen Horror sub-genre (though for ease of use it will be referred to as a genre throughout this article) as any Horror movie with a teenage protagonist/s.
In Teen Horror the inner need and outer want are much more closely linked.
In narrative terms, the Teen Horror is a combination of the Coming-of-Age story type and pure single-genre Horror. From STAND BY ME to DONNIE DARKO, two key tropes of Coming- of-Age narratives are ‘coming face-to-face with death’ and ‘encountering the creepy outsider’. When the Coming-of-Age story type is told as single-genre Horror, these two elements take centre stage, with the creepy outsider often becoming a full-blown antagonist who forces the teenage protagonist/s to confront death repeatedly over the best part of three acts.
To use Michael Hauge’s incisive ‘inner’ problem/’outer’ problem paradigm, in the pure Coming-of-Age story type – usually rendered in the Drama genre – there is both an inner need and an outer want. Although the two are often related – and in the best examples symbiotic in plot terms – the outer want can be anything from nursing an animal back to health (KES) to attending a Kiss concert (DETROIT ROCK CITY), while the inner need is, of course, always to traverse successfully the rite-of-passage from adolescence into adulthood.
In Teen Horror the inner need and outer want are much more closely linked. Firstly, the outer problem (the monster) symbolically represents the inner problem (the psychological turmoil of the rite-of-passage from adolescence into adulthood) and secondly, only when the outer want – to survive – is resolved, can the inner need be met.
So to construct a psychologically resonant and dramatically-engaging Teen Horror screen story, it pays to lay strong narrative foundations with a Coming-of-Age dramatic situation and characters, then to render the protagonist’s problem symbolically within the monster’s backstory, motivation, killing method and characterisation. This strategy is at its most elegantly concise in HALLOWEEN.
In Adam Simon’s superb 2000 feature documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (highly recommended and free on the Anchor Bay double-disc edition of THE HILLS HAVE EYES), FRIDAY THE 13th screenwriter Victor Miller recounts how he reverse-engineered the formula for Teen Horror from watching HALLOWEEN:
“First of all you have to start with a prior evil: something that happened a long time ago that was really bad. Then you have to have a group of adolescents – or slightly post-adolescents – who are in an environment in which they cannot be helped by adults. The other thing I learnt from HALLOWEEN is that if you make love you get killed.”
It is psychological awareness that differentiates great Teen Horror from Friday-night streamed-on-their-older-sibling’s-Netflix-account fifteen-year-old sleepover fodder.
Although Miller is correct as far as his brief analysis goes – and the first FRIDAY THE 13th is an acknowledged Horror classic, not least for Tom Savini’s ground-breaking splatter effects – this reductio ad absurdum has been responsible for a plethora of terrible, rather than terrifying, Teen Horror movies.
What is missing in these formulaic and generic Stalk ‘n’ Slashers is any psychological depth and it is psychological awareness that differentiates great Teen Horror from Friday-night streamed-on-their-older-sibling’s-Netflix-account fifteen-year-old sleepover fodder.
The central idea to grasp is that teenagers are instinctively and archetypically likely to transgress – and transgression is one of the core tropes of all Horror, from Argento to Yuzna and all points in between. Teenagers go where they’re specifically told not to go (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES), see what they’re explicitly not supposed to see (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM SREET, HELLRAISER), fall for people they absolutely should not fall for (FEAR, SWIMF@N), meddle with forces way beyond their comprehension (THE CRAFT, LONG TIME DEAD) and generally party in completely inappropriate places (CABIN FEVER).
As Victor Miller quips, the sexually active, drug-taking characters are traditionally killed first, though this can be read in two ways. Textually this narrative strategy appears to be reactionary; it seems to state that if you get laid first and toke first you’ll be stalked ‘n’ slashed first. But the subtext is more interesting in that the monster can be read as a Freudian Super Ego who refuses to allow the teenager to become an adult, and who is intent on keeping the adolescent in an infantilised, pre-Oedipal state rather than allowing them to attain a post-Oedipal, differentiated, adult Self.
In this reading, the victims are being punished not so much for experimenting with sex and drugs, but for daring to act like adults at all. These (among other!) ideas are brilliantly explored by THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, in which a seemingly secular and science-based adult society’s long-ingrained fear of its own repressed Freudian Super Ego (in the shape of chthonic gods) justifies its bloody sacrifice of archetype-embodying teens before they can become adults themselves.
This adult world is at best reluctant and at worst ineluctably opposed to the teenager becoming an adult.
In Teen Horror there should be a simmering tension between the teen protagonist/s and the adult world (think of Carrie and her mother as the apotheosis of this trope), a tension that traps the teenage protagonist between their own developmental processes and the moral strictures of the adult world to which they still desperately yearn to belong.
This adult world is at best reluctant and at worst ineluctably opposed to the teenager becoming an adult and – as represented by the oppressive Super Ego father and the repressive smothering mother – it will often do everything in its power to stop a coming-of-age taking place. Think of HELLRAISER’s Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), caught between her hammer-wielding serial-killer mother Julia (Clare Higgins), her fratricidal uncle Frank (Sean Chapman/Andrew Robinson) and the polymorphously-perverse Cenobites. What chance has she of becoming a balanced, well-adjusted adult with a normal, healthy sex drive?
There’s a scene in ELM STREET in which Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) takes a bath with the bathroom door locked. Her mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) knocks on the door with an offer of “warm milk” to which Nancy privately responds “Warm milk… gross!” Soon after, Nancy falls asleep and is attacked by Freddy.
At first Marge can’t help because the door is locked so she has to pick the lock, simultaneously saving her daughter and invading her personal space. This moment, from what remains the most psychologically-penetrating Teen Horror film ever made, sums up the tug-of-war at the very heart of the genre: The battle between childhood and adulthood, between naivety and experience, between pre-sexuality and burgeoning sexual identity, between safety and risk, between acquiescence to the social order and rebellion, between the adult status quo and transgression, between the as-yet unfixed adult Ego and the limiting, restricting, authoritarian Super Ego, between the still-fragile post-Oedipal psyche and the pre-Oedipal Id.
Nancy’s mother infantilises her by offering her warm milk, turning down her bed and generally trying to cosset her in cotton wool; Nancy’s father (John Saxon) infantilises her by treating her very real fears as the fantastical creations of a delusional mind.
Freudian psychology looms so large over Teen Horror because the psychological processes at play in a teenager are so sweeping and all-encompassing (a Jungian template will often prove more fecund for Horror with adult protagonists, adult conflicts and adult themes).
In his book The American Horror Film, Reynold Humphries concisely describes the two sides of this equation: all Horror, he suggests, can be described to some degree as being generated by the violent clash between the pre-Oedipal monster (driven by an unstoppable need to obtain immediate satisfaction of its desires) and the post-Oedipal protagonist (whose repressed desires can be manifested at any moment).
Teen Horror’s connection to the pre-Oedipal stage is often highlighted by repression generated by a morally conservative and forcefully oppressive adult society.
In Teen Horror this psychological conflict is writ large, as in broad story terms the adolescent is symbolically closer to the pre-Oedipal stage than to post-Oedipal adulthood (in Horror films with child protagonists/monsters, this Oedipal battle is waged in occult or supernatural terms within the child’s body and over the child’s soul because the child’s Ego is not yet defined enough even to begin to combat pre-Oedipal forces).
Teen Horror’s connection to the pre-Oedipal stage is often highlighted by repression generated by a morally conservative and forcefully oppressive adult society. In ELM STREET, Wes Craven takes this one step further. By having the genesis of his pre-Oedipal monster, Freddy, bound up with an act of vengeance by his protagonists’ parents (they ‘lynched’ child-abuser/killer Krueger) he creates a Super Ego status quo that is already fatally compromised – and one that therefore offers absolutely no chance of assistance to the movie’s teenagers.
Urbanoia – in Horror terms, the city-dweller’s fear of the ‘other’, usually the remote countryside and its inhabitants – is another key psychological idea that surfaces time and again in Horror, particularly in Teen Horror. This is the return not only of the psychological repressed, but of the social and economic repressed.
From the original THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, CABIN FEVER, WRONG TURN and on through to WOLF CREEK and beyond, there is often a stark and increasingly violent juxtaposition of affluent, middle-class college/city kids and those left behind by global capitalism: out-of-work slaughter-house workers, outback vermin-controllers and all those backwoods folk generally disenfranchised by the slow death of the countryside and the inexorable rise of the (latterly app-enabled) sub/urban.
There is one other way to remove the possibility of assistance from the adult world: that is to make them figures of ridicule.
Again, the late great master of Horror, Wes Craven, goes one step further and in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT executes a stunningly innovative reverse urbanoia: two teenage girls, looking to score some drugs on the way to a rock concert, are abducted by city-dwelling criminals, driven into the country and then brutally raped and murdered; while the criminals, in turn, are killed by the affluent, intellectual, vengeance-fuelled, country-dwelling parents of one of the victims.
Apart from the antagonist/s killing them off (WRONG TURN, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES), moral compromise (ELM STREET), isolation (FRIDAY THE 13th, CABIN FEVER) and being part, or all, of the problem (HELLRAISER, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE ), there is one other way to remove the possibility of assistance from the adult world: that is to make them figures of ridicule, in other words to infantilise them professionally; hence the high number of utterly incompetent Sheriffs/cops in Teen Horror films.
The shockingly ingenious CHERRY FALLS uses three of these five classic devices: Sheriff Marken (Michael Biehn) – the protagonist Jody Marken’s (Brittany Murphy) father – is a key part of the prior evil backstory, a Deputy has his head split open with an axe and the killer turns out to be a figure of authority.
Another fruitful way to approach Teen Horror is through anthropology. The aim that motivates the protagonist/s of all Teen Horror (and indeed of all Coming-of-Age narratives) is initiation into the world of adults and, in anthropological terms, initiation means venturing into dark, cruel and excruciatingly painful territory (tribal initiation rituals are a fabulous inspirational source for Teen Horror). In tribal society it is the male who usually undergoes the type of initiation often reserved for the female in Teen Horror.
In her seminal book Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol J Clover argues that the teenage boys in a Horror audience do not want to see fictional teenage boys running away from danger, screaming and generally being terrified. She suggests that because society regards this behaviour as feminine, the Teen Horror protagonist is embodied in a female character even though it is precisely this female character with whom the male teenage viewer identifies so strongly.
Only when the protagonist has finally defeated the monster is she able to take on an ‘adult’ sexual identity and adult responsibility.
Because the monster de facto represents aspects of the protagonist’s own turbulent psyche and because the protagonist is sexually in a state of flux (not yet a fully-sexualised adult), Teen Horror narratives tend not to include a sexual dimension in the protagonist’s human relationships (unlike pure Coming-of-Age narratives) other than the symbolically sexual relationship with the killer.
Instead, Teen Horror narratives can be seen as being about initiating the protagonist into the sexual world. Only when the protagonist has finally defeated the monster is she able to take on an ‘adult’ sexual identity and adult responsibility.
Two Hollywood remakes of classic Horrors have in their own way found innovative strategies with which to address this plot element: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake features a new plot strand in which Erin (Jessica Biel) rescues a baby from the Leatherface family toward the very end of the narrative, thus marking her successful journey into adulthood and adult responsibility.
Innovatively echoing Freudian and Jungian ideas, the HOUSE OF WAX remake astutely centres on two psychologically resonant pairs of siblings: the protagonists Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and Nick (Chad Michael Murray) and the antagonist brothers Bo and Vincent (Brian Van Holt). It is through resolving their sibling conflicts that the protagonists are able not only literally to survive the plot, but symbolically, as ‘one’ protagonist, to balance their masculine and feminine energies, an essential task to complete prior to a psychologically successful adulthood.
This fact leaves plenty of room for screenwriters to make highly personal, satirical or polemical comments on precisely what it is that society requires from its adults and whether these requirements are entirely appropriate or psychologically healthy.
As essentially and clearly distinguished from the other teens – who will become victims – the protagonist’s character is the one that will ultimately prove to be closest to that of an adult, the one that over the course of the narrative will exhibit the traits that society sees as most useful in its adult members: restraint, caution, selflessness, common sense, loyalty and compassion, and also strength, courage, tenacity and the ability to kill-or-be-killed when push comes to shove, something like the combination of a Buddhist monk and a US Marine.
Teen Horror could be read as a kind of Darwinian natural selection of teens fit for adulthood: only the best-suited and most adaptable will survive. This fact leaves plenty of room for screenwriters to make highly personal, satirical or polemical comments on precisely what it is that society requires from its adults and whether these requirements are entirely appropriate or psychologically healthy (as MY LITTLE EYE does with its comments on the contemporary addiction to celebrity and technology).
In order to achieve initiation, in Freudian terms the protagonist will successfully repress her pre-Oedipal psychology by killing the monster, leaving herself battered, bloody and exhausted but most importantly leaving her not just literally as the ‘final girl’ but also symbolically as a womb-torn adult.
If the protagonist is defeated by the monster (as tends to happen in Teen Horror narratives in which the protagonist is ultimately her own monster or the monster is inside her own head: CARRIE, THEY) then initiation is frustrated, but this tragic yet nonetheless cathartic ending can allow for another protagonist to take up the sword and make their own stand against the monster.
One important exception is transformational Teen Horror movies like GINGER SNAPS or SOCIETY in which becoming the monster is itself symbolic of initiation into adulthood. Whether this mutation is, in the final analysis, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is down to the screenwriter’s choice of theme. An interesting spin on this is the Scottish Teen Horror/werewolf hybrid WILD COUNTRY.
It is when initiation is not only frustrated but symbolically negated that Teen Horror can go beyond tragedy and take on a genuinely nihilistic tone.
If the protagonist survives and returns in a sequel (SCREAM), there is a law of diminishing returns because the protagonist appears to be trapped in permanent adolescence (as also happened with later seasons of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER despite the introduction of Buffy’s younger sister, Dawn). The franchise monster simply represents the psychological battle that awaits all teenagers and the fact that, in Freudian terms, the repressed will, by its very nature, always return.
It is when initiation is not only frustrated but symbolically negated that Teen Horror can go beyond tragedy and take on a genuinely nihilistic tone. In this tonal range, the protagonist tries to slay the pre-Oedipal monster and defeat the morally-repressive Super Ego but learns that there can be no escape from the monster and moreover, that the world of adults is irredeemably corrupt. The protagonist is completely destroyed by these truths (MY LITTLE EYE, HOUSE OF 1000 Corpses, WOLF CREEK).
In the consumption-addicted West, a culture in which the archetypal rites of passage have been almost entirely eroded, where girls are sexualised at an ever-younger age and boys are denied any sense of a journey into manhood (subsequently rendering both genders increasingly dysfunctional), narratives that show teenagers being denied their basic psychological needs are particularly resonant.
In terms of generating new Teen Horror narratives, one strategy has been to retell adult story types through the Teen Horror genre: FATAL ATTRACTION‘s hell-bitch stalker narrative as SWIMF@N, DELIVERANCE‘s ‘lost in enemy territory’ urbanoia as WRONG TURN. The art with this kind of re-visioning is to skew the drama so that the characters’ concerns, conflicts and milieu are appropriate to their years.
The best Teen Horrors emerge from a conflation of psychological acuity, innovative setting, an innately dramatic situation, sustained conflict, sharp blades and gushing arteries.
Many writers who attempt Teen Horror can do perfectly passable knives and gore, a fair number can come up with an original setting or a new spin on an old one, but few can do absorbing drama and emotionally-engaging characters and even less can manage the psychology. So it is probably a good idea to procure one of those comic-strip-style introductions to Freud, to read Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws and to spend several nights watching the collected works of masters-of-Freud Carpenter, Craven and Cronenberg.
At its most potent, Teen Horror tackles head-on a period of our lives in which everything is up for grabs – and it is this intra-psychic melting-pot of initiation and ‘neophilia’ that can throw up images as powerful as the blood-drenched Carrie, the drowning Nancy, the blade-gloved Freddy, the eternally-damned Denise and the implacable Michael Myers.
Written by Nic Ransome. Copyright Industrial Scripts 2015, All Rights Reserved.