Book vs Film: Scaring your Audience

Since it’s October, I thought it’d be appropriate to write a series of scary topics to coincide with All Hallows’ Eve. To kick off this series, I’ll be discussing the differences between a horror book and a horror film.

Boo!

By your reaction (yes, I’m watching as you’re watching this) I failed in my attempt at a jump scare. You see, that’s the main difference between a visual media and a written version. For those that don’t know the term, a jump scare is used to scare the audience by surprising them with an abrupt change in image or event. Typically, that means something, or someone appears in front of the audience and often accompanied with a loud noise. At this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two friends of mine. One friend, we shall call Angela, is particularly good at two things: hiding and jump scaring the other friend. The other friend, we shall call Kenny, is particularly good at one thing: being scared. Let’s just say, jump scares are an effective way to frighten your audience.
When used in films in an effective manner, jump scares can be a sudden payoff to a long period of suspense. As the tension builds up, the jump scare is the climax. They’ve been called “one of the most basic building blocks of horror movies.”

Recently, the use of jump scares has been criticized as overused and a lazy method to scare the audience. Which is true. Going back to my two friends, Kenny is like the audience and Angela is like the movie. Kenny’s been scared so many times by Angela that he’s used to it by now. Of course, that just means that Angela (and films) have to figure out new ways of scaring.

In a literary work, the author doesn’t have the above-mentioned technique to scare readers. Like film, authors must find alternative ways to scare the reader. One of those methods (there are many and I have just a limited amount of space, so I’ll only cover one in this article) is to create a false sense of security.

Simon Kurt Unsworth, author of The Devil’s Detective, talks about creating a false sense of security. He explains that if you make your story based in the real world so that readers recognize and relate to it, then add elements that show that world’s weaknesses. “Real fear comes from seeing in the narrative a set of events that, if they occurred, could threaten what’s important to the reader, and could change their world into something they no longer recognize or understand,” he once said. He goes on to say, and I really like this line, that “monsters aren’t really scary; monsters walking up the street where we’re living and threatening our children? That’s scary.”

Why do you think Stephen King’s books are so scary? IT, The Shawshank Redemption, The Institute, The Shining, Carrie, Firestarter… I could go on. He’s written so many books that are set in the real world and shows us that sometimes it isn’t a scary monster that’s the villain. It’s often society or the government that’s scarier than the space alien that feeds on children’s fear and then feasts on their flesh.

Even when your story is fantasy, there are still elements of realism that can be incorporated into it to make it more relatable to readers. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the characters are effected by addiction and mental issues even as they traverse across Mid-World on the Path of the Beam. Sometimes, the things that scare you are the ones that live inside your head.

Like the King of Horror once said in The Shining, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.” Sure, he was talking about a haunted resort, but it also meant Danny’s father turning into a homicidal abusive patriarch.

The real world is scary folks. Hopefully, we only experience it through the pages of a book or through the screen. It’d be nice to think that. Maybe that’s why we read and watch cinema. To escape the horrors of our everyday life. One last quote by Stephen King, I know, I quote him a lot. I think this sums up the article so here goes:

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win,” King said. Isn’t that the scariest part of life and literature, when the monsters win?

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