Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Anatomy of a Horror Setting #3-7: Horror Invasion

Is it incredulous or inconceivable to believe that an alien invasion could be the driving force of horror? There have been numerous invasion stories. Most of them do not come across as being creepy, scary, horrifying or even particularly terror-filled even with all the screaming that tends to accompany them. On the other hand there are great examples that fit perfectly into the horror mould. The best alien invasion horror has two versions, each called Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is no coincidence that the next famous example also has two versions--War of the Worlds. Both of these are large-scale invasion stories. This does not have to be the case. At the small end of the scale there is The Thing, a remake of a non-horror invasion, which covers a broad spectrum of horror.

What is the first thing that this kind of story requires? Does it have to be amazing special effects; ships flying through the air, death rays vaporising all in their path, or grisly alien metamorphoses, and gory experiments of anatomy? Those don’t hurt in the cinematic medium, but are not necessary in the textual medium. H.G. Wells penned War of the Worlds and it saw publication in 1898. The horror of the situation in this seminal invasion novel runs deeper than its movie representations. It’s not about the number of deaths, or the exact how of the deaths, its about the portrayal of them. Horror needs to be about eliciting that eponymous emotion. The details do not matter nearly as much as the way they are put together. Since it is about emotion the best option is empathy.

It is a fine line between science fiction and horror in an invasion story. The events in the science fiction invasions leave the audience to empathise on their own. The horror tale will, or should, help the audience to empathise. For example take a single death. Who the victim is defines the response a stranger will have to their death. Children get a stronger response than an adult; women are more sympathetic than men, especially a mother versus a father. To get the maximum response requires contact with the people who are directly affected by the death. A scientist witness to the destruction of the invasion has much less impact than the father trying to get his children out of harms way. This is essential to any horror, and although it is about characters it can dictate your setting.

Music: Invaders by Iron Maiden and Tommyknockers by Blind Guardian.

Iron Maiden: Number of the Beast
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Blind Guardian: Tales From The Twilight World

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Anatomy of a Horror Setting #3-6: Extraterrorestrials

Across the vast, nearly unfathomable stretches of space they come to deliver horror on the primitive, disorganised, backwater planet Earth. They are unknown, their intentions incomprehensible, and their arsenal of terror tools vast. As if that were not bad enough, watching the skies for their vessels and looking for little grey men may only leave the unsuspecting to fall prey to less intelligent but much more insidious incursions. This is just a general overview of the forms that science-fiction horror stories involving aliens may take. The first line of horror offence when dealing with extraterrestrials is as before, the unknown. Next comes the intimacy and scale of contact. Then there are the ramifications inherent at several different levels of depth.

Working with the unknown is a point that really deserves some belabouring. The first question to ask when starting the creation process is how apparent will it be that it is a story about aliens? UFOs immediately figure into this question even to the degree that mysterious lights in the sky will be an immediate tip-off unless obfuscation and misdirection are used, requiring that the audience not end up feeling cheated by it. The aliens--greys aside--are much easier to keep out of the spotlight by comparison. As with any inhuman personage aliens should remain unnamed-so until it is well obvious. Furtive figures with unnatural shapes in the shadows, seeing the results of their actions rather than them, and inexplicable events are the way to go when keeping to the strictest level of the unknown.

The big reveal, whenever it occurs in the timeline, begs the question of intimacy. Do one or more members of the main cast come directly into contact with the aliens? Is it at a distance or directly? Is it in a neutral location like a deserted road or something more frightening such as the science lab aboard their ship? Is it even worse than meeting aliens, and be experimented upon, than to be infected with an alien organism or virus? How many aliens are involved, or how many humans are affected or infected determines scale. The scale directly infers what kinds of ramifications will be a part of the author’s considerations. While a handful of people may be directly affected by the alien encounter an even greater number will be party to after effects. What of the bigger picture as well?

Music: Perfect by Alice Cooper and Dead Again by Type O Negative.

Alice Cooper: Dirty Diamonds
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Type O Negative: Dead Again

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