What is the Horror Genre?
An external story in the Horror genre focuses on the ability of a protagonist to self-actualize through the expression of the gift of courage and selflessness in the face of fear. The Horror genre pits a single victim (even though there may be multiple AVATARS) against impossible odds and a supernatural, scientifically explainable or ambiguous monster possessed by evil and intent on annihilation.
The underlying question in every Horror story is:
How do we secure and maintain the safety of our lives, our homes, and our grip on reality when we are victimized by a manifestation of our deepest fears?
What is the Controlling Idea of the Horror Genre?
The universal theme or CONTROLLING IDEA of a Horror story is:
Life is preserved when the ordinary person overpowers or outwits a monster, facing the limits of human courage. But death or damnation results when we cannot muster the courage to face our fears to overpower or outwit the monster.
The Four Core Framework of the Horror Genre
The FOUR CORE FRAMEWORK helps us meet reader expectations by bringing the core of our story into focus to create an irresistible, memorable, and shareable experience for the reader.
1. Core Need
The core need of the protagonist in a Horror story is safety. The need arises when the monster—our greatest fears made manifest—attacks. The protagonist wants to defeat the monster to save others and themselves. Monsters, unlike the villains of ACTION stories, cannot be reasoned with. Their essence is to devour the light.
In Horror stories, the protagonist’s deeper need, which all humans share, is to muster the courage to face not only the monster but fear in all its manifestations.
2. Core Value
Damnation to Life
Horror stories show readers the need for safety, spanning life and damnation and the gradations in between, including injury, illness, unconsciousness, and death. Damnation is a fate worse than death, which looms large and lurks around every dark corner in all horror stories. Damnation is always present when the victim is within the monster’s power, and at those moments, death seems like a mercy.
3. Core Emotion
Before the protagonist or the luminary agent defeats the monster and survives, the reader should feel the core emotion of fear. Readers choose horror stories to experience the thrill of courage in the face of fear in a life and death situation, without the actual danger.
4. Core Event
Victim at the Mercy of the Monster
The CLIMAX of the Horror genre is when the victim summons their courage and slays the monster or sacrifices themselves to preserve the lives of others. This scene, which is both the global climax and the climax of the ENDING PAYOFF, integrates the other three core essentials. The protagonist’s Core Need defines the Core Value at stake, which elicits a Core Emotion response in the reader. The Core Need is in peril and the protagonist must face their fears or suffer damnation.
6 Conventions of the Horror Genre
GENRE CONVENTIONS are specific requirements for the story’s ALTERNATE WORLD, AVATARS, and circumstances that create conflict and enable solutions. Conventions set up genre reader expectations. Without these, the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored and quit reading.
The Horror genre has six necessary conventions:
- Conventional settings within fantastical worlds. We use the familiar to ground the fantasy elements of the genre.
- Labyrinths. Settings are claustrophobic and conceal dangers.
- The Monster can’t be reasoned with. It is possessed by the spirit of evil and is present to devour and annihilate.
- Perpetual discomfort. The monster attacks randomly so that the audience cannot settle.
- Mask the power of the Monster. We progressively reveal greater levels of power.
- Sadomasochistic flip flop. Let the reader experience the power of the Monster while empathizing with the victims.
6 Obligatory Moments in the Horror Genre
OBLIGATORY MOMENTS are the must-have events, revelations, or decisions and actions that pay off the raised expectations of the CONVENTIONS.
The Horror genre has six obligatory moments:
- An Inciting Attack by a monster.
- A single non-heroic protagonist is thrown out of stasis and forced to pursue a conscious object of desire: saving their own life.
- Speech in Praise of the Monster. Either a character or a revelation reveals the unbeatable nature of the monster.
- The protagonist becomes the final victim after a series of “kill-off” scenes of minor characters.
- Victim at the Mercy of the Monster. This is the core event of the Horror story when the victim unleashes their gifts.
- False Ending. There must be two endings.
Horror Genre Sub-genres
The Horror genre can be further broken down into three subgenres based on the nature of the monster:
- Uncanny: The force of evil is rational and explainable: psychopaths, Frankenstein’s monster, aliens, etc. Examples include Misery by Stephen King or Get Out (2017).
- Supernatural: The force of evil is from the spirit world and cannot be explained by conventional rational thought. The avatars are possessed by a spirit or undead beings feed on the living (vampires, zombies, etc.). Examples include Dracula by Bram Stoker or The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
- Ambiguous: The source of evil is unexplained as in The Shining by Stephen King or Annihilation by Jeff Vander Meer.
“The Horror Story is a primal external genre, an allegory for the horrific world we presently or could soon inhabit. It serves as a prescriptive or cautionary tale about how best to metabolize our darkest fears and survive. The power gap between the monster and the victim is immense and thus the victim who raises the courage to confront the force with all of their inner genius to their last breath inspires us to do the same. To win is to survive.”— Shawn Coyne
Additional Resources for the Horror Genre
- The Four Core Framework by Shawn Coyne (Portions of this article have been taken from this book.)
- The 5-Leaf Genre Clover
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: A Story Grid Masterworks Analysis Guide by Maya Rushing Walker
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