How to Write Horror 101

a review of Life (spoilers ahead)

There are 3 fundamentals.

a) Offend Expectations. In Life, a recent space horror movie, the funniest guy dies first. You know, the charming handsome face who keeps the scene ticking? The character who is usually the protagonist? The guy who has the plot constructed around him? The type you root for? That guy. Bam, in the first half an hour, he’s gone. A bacterial alien floats inside his mouth — more lightning than feather — and feeds on his organs. Emptied out of his vitals, the charming guy withers away. Suspended in zero gravity. Blood spurting out of his mouth. Dead.

RIP, Rory Adams.

Why did it happen? Why did the movie assign the wittiest lines to the most likable guy only to kill him minutes later? Why did the movie make the audience invest in the character, only to finish him off? Because horror works by offending expectations. Hence the pretty girl has to become the witch. The cute boy needs to be demonically possessed. And the funny likable guy must die.

b) Offend expectations. And keep at it. In Life, the funniest guy dies, but that’s only the beginning.

The Jap, called Sho, crawls into the mouth of oblivion thinking that is his ticket to get out alive. The captain of ISS commits suicide in space trying to contain the alien. The pretty sidekick flies off into deep space while trying to go back to Earth. And here’s the twister — the most depressing, Earth-phobic member of the crew, David Jordan, tries to ride into deep space with the alien but he accidentally lands on Earth. With the alien.

Horror works by taking the standard movie tropes, and inversing them. On one level, this is meant to push the audience into the terrifying space of “the unknown unknown.” If the guy you thought was the main character dies in the first 15 minutes, how much do you really understand the world? When everything you know is suspended into doubt, and then latter outright disproved, it is more than discomfort that you experience — you experience fear. Our ability to survive is a function of our capacity to know; and if the latter spins into a tizzy, the former is called into question, too.

Horror, hence, works by teasing our unconscious into a confrontation with death. Or with the idea of it, anyway. By watching our expectations and hunches constantly disregarded, our foothold over reality loosens. The ground beneath shakes and shivers. Life, so solid a moment ago, seems to slither away from between our fingers.

c) Make the monster relatable. True horror doesn’t lie on the screen. True horror lies in imagining the screen possible on mirror.

The alien in Life is a killing machine — but not because it hates humans. It kills humans because it needs to — we are food. It’s the predator, we are prey. The drama that unfolds on board ISS in the movie is something that has played out on Earth since forever. Organisms eat organisms. The instinct to survive makes the worst acts understandable — after all, our utmost duty is to keep our breaths going. One of the comforts of civilization is that we seldom have to face this fact. However, when we see a monster on screen and recognize it as a not-so-different version of us, we are more than inconvenienced. We are terrified.

To imagine the worst of the worst as a possibility spilling out of our personhood is to open our eyes to something we shouldn’t have seen.

P.S: I’d like to thank two people. Andrew Forsberg, my professor from last semester, who taught an amazing course and forever altered how we watch film. And Pratyush, my roommate, who saw the movie with me and was the first to hear, make fun of, challenge, and contribute to the ideas presented here.