Lessons Learned About Writing Dark Fantasy And Horror From Five Classic Horror Movies
Lessons Learned About Writing Dark Fantasy And Horror From Five Classic Horror Movies
By Neal Martin/ August 5, 2015
Last Updated April 27, 2023
As a writer of dark fantasy horror, my early influences where always going to be movies. Yes, I have read thousands of books within the dark fantasy and horror genres, many of which have influenced me greatly over the years, but it would be wrong of me to discount the influence certain movies have had on my writing.
In this post, I would like to talk about five of those movies and how they each in their own way, influenced the type of writer I am today.
The first Hellraiser film is really not all that good when you compare it to other classic films in the horror genre. Superficially, Hellraiser is just another eighties B movie, but what makes it stand out from the crowd is the idea behind the story, the overall concept of Pinhead and the Cenobytes.
The idea obviously came from the vivid imagination of Clive Barker, one of the best dark fantasy writers ever. Barker’s initial idea (stemming from one of his short stories), and the fact that he wrote and directed the movie himself, helped make Hellraiser a classic.
What I got from Hellraiser as a writer (and what I also got from Barker’s writing) is the idea of using the imagination to create vivid, unique and interesting story worlds. Barker is one of those ridiculously imaginative people, able to conjure completely unique worlds and cultures from nothing, and put them on a page in great detail so that those worlds draw others in. If you are a writer, that’s a pretty essential skill to have, especially if you write any kind of fantasy fiction.
Hellraiser also stirred up in me my interest in the concepts of Hell and demons, both of which feature heavily in all of my novels. The movie managed to vividly put across a convincing representation of those concepts, while also managing to put a unique twist on them. Demons have never been done like they have in Hellraiser, with Pinhead and the Cenobytes. (Those characters were largely influenced by Barker’s own sexuality and his interest in bondage.)
As vividly portrayed and detailed as those characters where, what I most liked about them was the mystery that shrouded them. Pinhead and the Cenobytes had very little screen time in the movie, but when they appeared, they stole the show. I remember wanting to know more about those characters after watching the movie. They fascinated me on many different levels, managing to reach into my unconscious in a way that many horror characters try to, but don’t, only managing to arouse a superficial interest that is usually forgotten about when the movie ends. Pinhead and the Cenobytes reached into the dark recesses of my mind and didn’t let go.
The movie showed me that bringing an air of mystery to such characters in a story can be very effective in making people become interested in them. So when I write about demons and such in my own books, I try to infuse the characters with that same mystery, hint at hidden depths that are never really explained or even explored in the books, and generally try to make the reader look at the character and go, “I can’t stop wondering about this character. What are they? Who are they? Where have they been? What have they seen and done?”
The characters that have most stood out to me in movies and books are the ones I can’t help wondering about, the ones shrouded in mystery. Not too much, because I still like to know something about them, but certainly not everything. So when I write, I try to make sure that element of mystery is there to help engage the reader on a deeper level.
2. Evil Dead 2
Where do I start with this movie? It is possibly the most perfect horror movie ever made, for lots of reasons. Bruce Campbell is one of the biggest reasons. Sam Raimi is another. The creepy woodland setting. The unending horror. The over the top effects, and of course, the one liners…groovy.
I have watched this movie a lot over the years, especially in my teens and twenties, and it has always epitomised the horror genre to me. It just nails it perfectly like few other movies have done before or since.
As a writer, this movie taught me about the effectiveness of shock. When you first watch Evil Dead 2, you tend to be blown away by the high shock factor of the movie. There are lots of jumpy moments, the violence is unflinching and gloriously over the top, and of course the blood and gore practically drips of the screen throughout.
Raimi and co went out of there way to make a shocking horror movie. As far as they were concerned, horror movies were meant to be shocking and gory and violent. That’s why they were horror movies after all. That’s why people wanted to watch them. To get scared.
When I write horror scenes in my books, I usually try to make them as explicit as possible. As far as I am concerned, such scenes are meant to shock, so I try to shock the reader.
Of course, these scenes have to be done at the right time, and if you do too many, you end up loosing the effect on the reader. But a few explicitly written, shocking scenes in a story, in my opinion, really add to the reader experience, especially if they are reading horror or dark fantasy.
I also love writing such scenes. I have as much of a good time writing them as Raimi and co did making Evil Dead 2. Well, maybe not quite as good a time, but I enjoy writing shock horror.
Not for the sake of it mind. It has to come from the story, but when it does, I believe it is justified and necessary. If I toned things down, I would feel like I was cheating the reader. Do you think Raimi toned down anything when he made Evil Dead 2? No he didn’t! And I’m also glad to hear that he isn’t planning on toning down the new Evil Dead TV series either, which by the way, I am fucking gagging to see…
3. An American Werewolf In London
Another movie that featured heavily in my younger years. AAWIL is also another movie that didn’t shy away from shocking audiences with scenes of gory horror, violence and a werewolf running around London biting people’s head’s off.
But those aren’t the reasons I include the movie here. I include it here because it is funny. Yes, it made me laugh. AAWIL is essentially a horror comedy, probably more obviously so than Evil Dead 2. Evil Dead 2 was just so shocking and gory that people forgot they were also supposed to laugh at it to.
The first twenty minutes of AAWIL are undoubtedly the best in the whole film, and some of the funniest scenes take place in those minutes also, like the scene where the two American’s walk into the Slaughtered Lamb. That’s one of my favourite scenes in the whole movie.
Director, John Landis expertly used humour to set up the horror that followed. When the two American’s are attacked by the werewolf after they wander off the road, the scene is so much more shocking because of the humour that went before. One minute you are smiling along with these guys, laughing at their witty banter, the next it’s like, “Holy shit a werewolf!”
As a reader, I always appreciate humour in a book when it is done well, and it isn’t corny or too silly (American Psycho comes to mind). As a writer, I try to include as much humour as possible in my stories, when the story itself allows me to anyway.
If you are writing a very dark story (as most of mine are), humour can really help to make it more palatable for the reader, and also help to set up the more shocking scenes by lulling the reader into a false sense of security.
Humour and horror go hand in hand, I think. The blacker the better.
A near perfect movie if ever there was one, but what did it teach me about writing?
In a word: pacing.
More than anything, Jaws taught me the value of pacing in a story. Spielberg is an expert at pacing, and all his movies are paced to perfection. He knows precisely when to slow things down and when to speed things up so that you never get bored or complacent watching his movies.
With Jaws, there is a sense of action and adventure there that is paced accordingly. Most of the movie is quite fast paced, but there also plenty of scenes that aren’t, ones that make the faster paced scenes even more effective.
My own stories are usually quite fast paced, although I’m lucky in that I have an inbuilt sense of timing and pace when it comes to writing stories. I use it to off-set the stuff that I’m weaker on, figuring if I can keep a readers attention throughout the book, then they won’t become bored or notice any of the weaker elements of the story.
Obviously, as a writer, you should try to work on those weaker elements, but I also believe you should play to your strengths as much as possible as well, to try and achieve some kind of equilibrium for you and the reader.
I could go on forever about how unbelievably awesome this movie is, as it is one of my all time favourite movies full stop. But I won’t bore you with the fanboy stuff and I’ll cut straight to it.
As a writer, the Alien movie taught me the value of creating tension in a story. Ridley Scott masterfully ramps up the tension in that movie to almost unbearable levels at times, and when you watch those scenes, you are quite literally on the edge of your seat. (Alien also has one of the most shocking scenes in movie history—the stomach burst scene the movie is most famous for. Another example of how effective shock can be in a story. And also an excuse to include this video clip :))
Any story that can illicit that kind of reaction has to be a winner, which is why I try to make deliberate use of tension in my own books. Basically, if I feel tense while writing those scenes, then I know readers will feel the same (I hope so anyway).
I am by no means saying that it’s easy to achieve any of the effects I have mentioned in this post, nor that I have in any way mastered them. I am still learning to use these techniques in my story telling, but I at least understand them enough—understand the power of them enough—that I know what I should be aiming for when I’m using them in my writing. The rest is just practice.
2 responses to “Lessons Learned About Writing Dark Fantasy And Horror From Five Classic Horror Movies”
Great post! All of those movies are favourites of mine as well. You are right about movies and TV being a big influence. How could they not be these days? I’ve learned a lot as a writer from shows like Hannibal, True Detective, Banshee…the list goes on.
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