Subjects & Themes: External Conflict

I’ve been thinking about the specific challenges of writing horror. I think one of the things I would struggle with the most is how to write on common horror-story subjects while avoiding clichés and without retreading old territory. I mean, this is true of everything, but in particular if something is scary, it’s probably been written to death.

Archetypes survive across time and culture for a reason. If you’ve got one in your story, it may be helpful to step back and think about why it’s scary, fascinating, and a good story element. When we deviate from what’s normal to us, primal instincts are tapped into that cause the subconscious to react. For instance, why is being alone in the dark scary? Is it fear of the unknown, of something that might be waiting there that could cause physical harm, or maybe madness?

I’m fascinated with this kind of thing, and if you’d like to really dig into the psychology of storytelling I suggest reading anything by Joseph Campbell. (He thought a little bit too much of Freud, but if you can get past that it’s amazing stuff.) Thinking along these lines would probably be helpful when trying to forge your own story.

Horror has a very big library of tried and true subjects to draw from, but they’ve all been done so many times, especially in film and on TV, that it’s vital that your take on it is from your own unique angle. Probably you don’t want to write the next Manos: The Hands of Fate.

So with all that in mind, I’d like to do a series of posts on horror archetypes, how they tie into deeper themes, and good examples of works that put a new spin on an old story, or that just retold it really effectively. I started out trying to stick with books and short stories, but a lot of our most iconic horror writing has been screenwriting, so I’ve included movies and TV shows as well. (I’m going for elements here, not works as a whole, so there’s a lot of cross-genre stuff.) I’m not really an aficionado, and there are a few things in this list I haven’t seen/read, so I’m going to need you guys to help me expand on it and correct me if I’ve listed something stupid.

When I started compiling this list, I realized every kind of horror conflict I can think of fits into three major categories: External, or Social (man vs. man), Internal, or Individual (man vs. self), and Supernatural. This first post is going to focus on the External.

1. Violence

The most basic primal instinct we have is survival. Anything you can think of that causes fear can be tied back to this instinct. Very much related is the idea of physical violence: murder, violation, pain, and brutality. Generally speaking, we’re all afraid of these things, to some degree. We are weak creatures and death is never far away. Man vs. Death: that’s our eternal conflict. If we were just afraid, horror would not be so popular, but we’re fascinated by this stuff too, by the idea of what happens after death, of course, but also on what happens leading up to that, and on the people who deal out the violence. Why do they do it? What’s broken with them? Could we break like that too?

In most developed places, violence is considered amoral and unacceptable, and people risk their freedom and their lives to commit their acts in secret. But what if there was a place for them in society? (In The Purge we’re all allowed a bit of murder to release tension. There’s a similar safety valve in The Handmaid’s Tale.) Additionally, what’s unacceptable to us may not be in another culture. Stoning deaths and witch-burnings are historical relics to us but current events in some places. What if they were still done here?

Now obviously just about everything can fit into more than one category, but some specific tropes include:

    • Torture (Saw)

2. Social Conflict

We are social animals, of course, and territorial ones. We find safety in numbers, and outside of preserving our own physical safety, our primary instinctual concern is the survival of whatever group we are part of. That categorization could be accidental, by choice, or thrust upon us; it can be the result of where we live, what we look like, how we grew up, or what we believe. We’ve been fighting each other for space, resources, and the domination of beliefs and customs for the whole of human history, and while good things can come of it (inventions, trade routes, genetic diversity), there’s been some very bad stuff, too, and the fear of even worse stuff to come.

Just like with personal violence, everything in this list has a very firm basis in reality. Like death, anarchy is never far away.

On that note, we’ve got:

    • Religious fanaticism; cults; mobs. The Mist, on the surface a not-very-impressive critter invasion story, is really about mob mentality, group psychosis, and people turning on each other.
    • Dystopias; imprisonment; coercion, subjugation, control; power-abusing authority figures. All of these kind of go together. Margaret Atwood said that every utopia is also a dystopia. There is no possible perfect society that is not also a prison. Really well-written dystopias look at both sides of the coin. The motivation and desire for power and control is just as interesting as the fight to gain independence from the oppressor. (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Underground Railroad, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Black Mirror, Dark City, Apt Pupil)
    • War, political massacres, and genocide. Pretty much the worst things one group of humans can do to another. Many of the best war stories focus on the psychological effects on the soldiers and victims, which is usually scarier than the blood and guts. (Johnny Got His Gun, Jacob’s Ladder, Full Metal Jacket)
  • Invasion. This one draws heavily on the themes of tribal mentality and xenophobia, but this time it’s Us vs. Them on a grander scale. The early invasion novels were about countries invading each other, a topic that evolved as fears changed (the Nazis, the Red Scare). Often this theme has played out metaphorically as humans vs. aliens. The aliens usually have superior technology to us, and they’re usually violent. They want to destroy our way of life and replace it with something abhorrent and unnatural. (Like communism.) Interestingly, many times a story about the external force of a threat to all of humankind ends on a rather propagandistic positive note, with intergroup or international cooperation: we all band together to defeat the enemy and we emerge stronger. (Dreamcatcher, John Dies at the End, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Starship Troopers, Event Horizon, The Thing, Mars Attacks)

3. Science/Technology

There have always been denouncers of science. It has been seen as threatening to existing religious beliefs and cultural norms. It has been rebelled against from an environmental or aesthetic standpoint. In developing countries, industrialization initially results in child labor and low wages. Fear of poor living conditions and the idea that technology takes away jobs can translate into fear of the technology itself. This concept has evolved from the demonization of factory machinery (Lord of the Rings) to rogue AI and evil computers. A common theme here is that our own ineptitude results in an inability to control what we create. Imperfect humans play God, creating very imperfect life, and it backfires. Some examples:

I feel like I’ve been writing a term paper, but I know I’ve missed a lot of stuff here. Tell me what to add!



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