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HORROR. Shayne Armstrong

Today we had the good fortune to be visited by screenwriter Shayne Armstrong, of writing duo Armstrong & Krause, speaking about a genre close to his heart.


Feeling states and audience expectation

How to pace out thrills and emotional experiences

Structuring script overall and scene to scene- a process of architecture

Genre by setting, by topic, by theme, by mood, by tone, by format

Idealist method: Blockbuster (not necessarily a popcorn film- can have subtleties of plot), popcorn movie (Stephen King: “leave your brain at the door”), art house, A-grade (Oscar award type of film), B-grade (Monster film, budget film)

Empirical method: Identifies a film by comparing to pre-existing films that share similar traits

The a prior method: Uses common generic elements which are identified in advance such as setting tone audience etc)

The social convention method: Changes based on culture e.g. animated films in Western culture are largely associated with children but in Asia and Europe animation crosses boundaries of target audience. What is commercial in Europe is classified as art house here (subtitles etc)

Films can traverse multiple genres- hybrid films can have extra impact and draw on multiple tropes

People like categorisation, categorising ourselves, what we like. Helps to know how to find things, how to find what we like and don’t like. Categorisation often relies on marketing (i.e. 6th Sense marketed as Supernatural Thriller, although its a horror film).

Films need to cater to those who like it and to give something new for those who don’t necessarily like it

John Truby says “you have to know how to transcend the forms (genres) so you can give the audience a sense of originality and surprise”.

Hard to know what the audience wants, and if you try you might have missed the bandwagon. Tastes change, people need to have something new, and then get used to it, then parodies begin, then it becomes humorous or even ridiculous.

Making a list of cliches as a way to start and getting rid of them. Originality should be something that should be striven for. Giving the audience what they will be looking for in a genre but provide something unique, surprising within the genre.

George Lucas’ initial scripts for Star Wars (1977) was hugely different to the final product. He was a genre-blender and aimed to create something vastly different from what was being done at the time, mimicking sci-fi serials from the 50s such as Buck Rogers.

Alien (1979) as a genre blend of Horror and Sci-Fi. Aliens (1986) was a meld of a Vietnam War script into an Alien movie. Alien 3 (1992) was horror and a prison film. The Dark Knight (2008) drew upon superhero genre and crime genre conventions, especially Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), allowing it to rise above previous incarnations.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear , and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the unknown.” HP Lovecraft

Its about the construction of thrills and surprise and unease

Humans have always told stories of witchcraft, demonic figures, vampires. Supernatural conflicts, man against gods and monsters. Modern horror is closely related to Gothic literature (War of the Worlds, Frankenstein, Dracula.)

Horror was an important genre at the start of film history as people wanted to be thrilled, scared. Today we want a feeling of catharsis, to have a strong emotional reaction, to feel relieved that this does not happen to us- vicariously experiencing death and mutilation. Feeling emotion but knowing you’re safe. Get through it, survive it, feel like you’ve been through an experience.

Recommended Scary Films

Rec (2007) Spanish zombie film

Martyrs (2007)- brutal horror film with an ideology and intelligence behind it

Birth of modern Horror – Psycho (Hitchcock), Peeping Tom (Michael Powell) – the killer is one of us, just a normal person- thus this is the birth of modern horror, we don’t know who the killer is

Trends in films as a reflection of what is happening in the world. Reflection of our society, of our life.

80s films- Body Horror- Rise of Aids, shown in sexual parasites, diseases etc. “The sluts died first” (Shane Armstrong) ha ha ha.

90s- Postmodern era (resistance to contemporary films, looks to Japanese horror (the Ring etc)

Twenty teens- New Wave of Horror led by Korea, Spain and France

Finding what scares you and writing about that. Inbuilt fears of which there are only 2. Fear of falling, and fear of sudden noise. Known as the “bus scare” (from Hitchcock using the bus appearing and a bus horn sounds.) Sound design is therefore important. Adding this into the script, building atmosphere of sound, ticking clock etc.

You need quiet moments for the big scare. Building unease, a sense of atmosphere.

Humans under great stress will adapt after a time. Being scared, stressed, in love, etc- you adapt to things.

Carpenters Architecture of Fear

  • Relaxation
  • Ambience
  • Unease
  • Dread
  • Terror
  • Horror/Fright

Proving yourself in the script within the first ten pages/minutes- grab the person reading it asap

Thanks Shayne! I still don’t want to watch horror films though.