When considering horror films, it’s often easy to get distracted by the easy ones – cinematic haunted house rides that just scare or disgust for a minute without really telling a story. They’re effective for a reason; scares are as difficult and intricate to execute as magic tricks, and it’s exhilarating to see a film that pulls off those tricks well. But subtler, more human horror films often get overlooked, or shuttled into a different genre (the ever-present threat of being labeled “psychological thriller,” an entirely different genre). In these horror films, characters -not an external evil or antagonist – drive the action through their reactions with an uncanny or frightening situation. While most of the time they aren’t considered commercial or mainstream, they can achieve more honest terror and catharsis through their attention to truth.
CRAFT AN ENDEARING, BUT FLAWED, PERSONALITY
Genre films have it easy, in some ways: their formulas provide entertainment without necessarily requiring truth. This doesn’t mean a horror script can ignore its characters. Not only do protagonists need to feel real, but we need to care about them, or we won’t be able to fear for them. Vulnerability is essential here, though risky – flaws in a character can be dismissed as weakness or fragility by audiences who aren’t willing to acknowledge realism – but without them, the characters can’t create their own life.
What would Rosemary’s Baby be if Mia Farrow’s protagonist wasn’t innocent and hopeful? The Haunting would just be another haunted house thriller without Eleanor’s fragile psyche at its center, driving the fear beyond ghosts; as would The Innocents, in which paranoia causes violence whether the supernatural elements are real or not. If the characters have strong inner lives, their stories would be engaging without the horror. Without the cosmic mythology at its core, Spring would be a charming romance, but the grotesque “monster” adds thematic depth because her inhuman qualities speak to her emotional core. This year’s overlooked masterpiece Raw tells a charming, nuanced coming-of-age story that just happens to be about cannibals.
Displaying neuroses, weak spots, is also important – not only does it expand upon the character’s inner life and past, but it leaves room for doubt. The Haunting and Rosemary’s Baby are possibly the most effective examples of this fact, as their characters’ nervous conditions (though arguably a bit old-fashioned in their presentation) already give them something to fear – the supernatural evil just exacerbates their situations. More recently, The Babadook takes the time to establish its protagonist’s mental illness and crippling grief through a subtle performance before the titular monster begins haunting her. With the seed of doubt planted, the character then has a strong objective: prove the monster is real.
REACTION TO FEAR DRIVES THE NARRATIVE
The fascinating aspect of character-driven horror comes from its essential structure: the interesting character you developed is now placed in an equally interesting, but frightening, situation. Now the question becomes: how do they respond? Masterpieces like Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre don’t follow this formula; their protagonists are rather anonymous, and the otherworldly villains drive the story through the brutality or uncanny nature of their actions. Arguably, the monsters are the protagonists in these films. When human characters drive the story, the horror truly originates in their responses to their situations – how they plan on manipulating them, or escaping them. That’s one of the reasons Get Out was so astonishing – the familiar paranoid thriller becomes driven by its protagonist’s actual world, based in real-life terror that is simply emphasized by a fantastical concept.
This doesn’t mean that films with fantastical or uncanny elements aren’t character-driven. The Witch gets its name from a very real force of black magic, who conducts her evil almost entirely off-screen. She plants the seed of fear and allows the characters to devolve almost entirely on their own, spurned on by their very Puritan paranoias. Possession features a rather nasty-looking tentacled beast, but it only exists as a manifestation of a toxic marriage. Dearest Sister confirms ghosts as a real part of its world, but they don’t act on the plot – the living characters use them for their own gain, which leads to catastrophe.
Some films are equally terrifying just based on their characters’ behavior, without the supernatural coming into play at all. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a deeply disturbing film without a drop of blood – because its characters behave in such grotesque ways, and these behaviors are motivated by recognizable desires. Similarly, Green Room elevates itself from lesser survival horror by establishing both its protagonist and villains as human beings – both parties believe they’re doing the right thing. Seance on a Wet Afternoon has the atmosphere and cadence of a supernatural thriller, but its plot is horrifically realistic. These films aren’t simple slice-and-dice or serial killer mysteries, though; their characters resonate with depth, protagonist and villain alike, and in the end convince us that their cruelties are all too human.
LEAVE AN OPEN ENDING – AND MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS
As discussed above, room for doubt in the protagonist’s sanity creates a number of narrative possibilities. The Innocents, The Haunting, Rosemary’s Baby, Cat People, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, and countless other classics keep their horror elements enigmatic, which some audience members find frustrating – but it also feeds the protagonist’s terror, not only for their lives, but for their minds. The scariest aspect of these films becomes the central question: is the protagonist destructively insane, or are they really being chased by evil? Either way, the outcome is frightening. If the script places interest in the characters, and the supernatural elements simply support their stories, it doesn’t matter what the audience believes or finds scary – that story will still hold their attention.
Of course, the audience won’t care either way if the character is uninteresting or two-dimensional – an engaging personality, sympathetic vulnerability, and the drive toward an objective are necessary to seal the deal. When we care about the people on screen, we can fear for them; and sometimes that fear illuminates their character further. That’s what makes these films last, because they depict real people trapped in nightmares, and those real people translate into our own lives.