Writing Lessons Learned from 80s Horror Movies
In October, I did a month of movie watch parties, watching a different horror every day live on Twitch. The movies ranged from releases from the 1930s through movies that came out this year. The quality varied widely. Sometimes the poorer quality movies were the most fun to watch with viewers as we shared our suffering together in the chat.
I started to believe that the absolute widest range in quality came from horror movies released in the 1980s. This may hurt a few people to hear, but 1980 was over 40 years ago. That’s long enough that we’ve had time to decide which movies are now classics and which ones do not stand the test of time.
There’s something about 1980s horror movies though. Even the bad ones feel like something special. I’m not going to give a list of winners and losers here. That could fill a book. It could probably fill a series of books.
For this discussion, I’m going to list off general lessons I learned in my short revisit of 80s horror movies as they relate to writing good and bad horror. Whatever monsters or supernatural peril you intend to write, there is a lot to learn from these 80s offerings.
1. Sex is Dangerous
You knew this one was coming. I figured I would get it out of the way. If you have sex in an 80s horror movie, the monster can somehow smell it on you and you are done for. The audience appreciates your gratuitous sacrifice, though.
In terms of writing, there are lots of ways to mess up or waste a love scene. Sex is baked in and expected in various tropes and heat levels of romance. In horror, it can take all sorts of twists and turns. And it might turn out poorly if you don't write with intent. Is your sex scene shoehorned into your story like a low budget 80s film trying to solve all their story’s shortcomings with boobs? Is the level of graphic detail consistent with the rest of the story or are you indulging? Does it serve the story and characters? Be careful. Sex is dangerous!
2. Practical Effects Beat 1980s Lasers
Maybe it's the level of crisp and sanitized detail we get with digital effects today, but time and time again, in even the worst 80s horror movies I watched, the practical effects worked pretty well. The fact that the actors were really touching the stuff made it all seem more… real. However, in even the best the 1980s had to offer in horror, when lasers or energy bolts jumped across the frame, I felt like I was watching a pop music video for a midlist band. None of it looked right. We went from gory blood effects to a magic angry energy tornado with glowing eyes straight out of a cartoon.
This sort of thing doesn’t directly correlate to writing, but it bears mentioning in terms of what works best and what comes off as lasers scratched into the film. There are certain visceral details that draw the reader in and make them really feel, smell, and taste the world with all its peril. Then, there are details that might pull your supernatural threat out of its grounding into an animated tornado of evil whose glowing eyes make it look silly. Make it feel real.
3. Synthesizer Soundtracks Don’t Age Well
Violins were so outdated 40 years ago. Synthesizers were the hot new thing for a cheap soundtrack to set the mood. That left more money in the budget for lasers! watching a tense and moody opening scene set up a terrorizing threat tearing a family apart set to the springy boing of an 80s synthesizer makes me think, “This is the weirdest chewing gum commercial I’ve ever seen.”
Mood is important in a story. If you find a way to put an 80s synthesizer soundtrack into your book, I think you will be a god among men, honestly. But it terms of just using words, failing to set the tone can leave the audience disconnected from the characters they are supposed to care about. Lay it on too thick and you sink into melodrama or “suffering porn”. Take it easy with that keyboard.
4. Listen to the Old Man’s Warnings
If a crazy old dude warns you about the slaughterhouse you’re driving into, consider your options. If kids come running out of a house in the middle of the night reporting murder and mayhem, err on the side of caution. Now, I wouldn’t take all my life advice from the crazy old man who still lives and works at a gas station up the road from a killing field. Obviously, he hasn’t made the best choices along the way. You don’t want to end up like him in your retirement years.
These unheeded warnings make characters look stupid. You might not want your characters to look foolish. You don’t want readers thinking the story is stupid as a result. If life teaches us anything, it is that the world is full of stupid people, but that reality doesn’t always translate to the page well. Foreshadowing is great for a story. You don’t want a character to see a ghost pressing through a bleeding wall and then decide, “Well, we have to stay in this house with the bleeding wall ghosts because we’ve already sunk a lot of money into the renovations. I’m sure it will be fine. Honey? Honey?! Where are you?”
5. I Thought There’d be More Quicksand and Burial Grounds to Deal with Growing Up
As a kid watching TV in the 70s and 80s, I thought quicksand was going to be waiting for me around every corner. Characters were always falling into quicksand. I also thought amnesia was best treated by a second hit on the head and that evil twins were far more likely than statistics bear out. Likewise, evil magic around burial grounds was as common in horror as quicksand and encounters between 70s superheroes and Big Foot. Real estate agents in the 1980s really should have checked on cursed burial grounds after they saw whether the schools were good or not.
If you are seeing a trope as often as quicksand and burial grounds, you might want to look around and see what hasn’t been done in your genre as often. What is new or what is a truly new angle on the old trope?
6. It Doesn’t Pay to be the First One to Meet the Monster
If you are the first character to meet the monster, you’re having a bad night. When the credits are still rolling while you’re running away, your chances of making it to the second reel are thin.
Introducing the monster or Big Bad in your story sets up much of what is to follow. Do you hint at it or do you give a full shocking view? Does the action build or do you come out of the gate with machetes swinging? You can tell your story any way you like, but decide what kind of story you want to tell.
7. Where Are the Parents?
Holy smokes, these kids have a lot of time to do as they please. I remember roaming the Earth free in that era, left to my own devices much of the time, but my parents tended to be around at night. They asked a few more questions before just letting me sleep over at someone’s house at a moment’s notice, especially if there had been a higher than average number of killings or vampires in the neighborhood that week.
Horror stories that depend on authority being entirely absent or bumbling to the point of slapstick has its limits. If you can make the normal authority in the world still be semi-competent, but not able to overcome the threat, there is a lot of potential in that. It can raise the peril. It can ground the supernatural in the natural world.
8. Plot Holes Can Take You Anywhere
There were more than a few 80s horror movies that just didn’t care whether characters’ motives made sense or whether there was a clear line between scenes connecting the action together. They'd cut a hole through their plot wide enough to drive a train through then it was all aboard to Crazy Town.
That sort of thing is great to make fun of, but it is the stuff that makes readers put down books. It doesn’t really matter if you need the character to do something unless you can justify the character doing it. If you’ve established them as one type of person, they can change over an arc, but not on a dime because that’s just where you need the scene to go. But it’s your story. If all else fails, plot holes can literally take you anywhere like magic portals.
9. He Has Whatever Powers or Weakness We Say He Has from Scene to Scene
Much like plot holes, breaking your own rules can solve any problem in your scene or story quick and easy. No thought or creativity is required. Whether you’re dealing with zombies, vampires, or Stabby Jim the resurrected mental patient, the audience will suspend disbelief along the set of rules you reveal during the story. That agreement to suspend disbelief usually breaks with the first or second broken rule. It may look cool to have the monsters climb up a wall, but if they weren’t Spiderman in the previous scene, you sacrifice a lot for the “cool” visual later. When it is time for the Final Girl to kill the unkillable slasher, that’s a bad time to introduce the convenient weakness that wasn’t present through the rest of the story. The best stories set the rules, accomplish the action within those rules, and win creatively according to the laws of that story universe.
10. No One in Horror Movies Has Seen a Horror Movie
This is really common in zombie stories, but horror in general has operated well with characters that had no clue that horror movies existed. This is why they run upstairs instead of out the door. This is how characters blunder into situations the audience knows not to. By the mid to late 90s, a number of meta horror movies started to come out where characters knew about horror movies or even sort of knew they were in a horror movie. But that gimmick grew old after a while, too.
Many stories and movies that were seen as new at the time can look cliché in retrospect. Part of the reason that happens is because they are imitated over and over again. The longer a genre goes on, the more familiar the audience gets. Readers get more sophisticated in their tastes with exposure.
Notable author Chet Williamson recently posted that the way to resonate with readers’ expectations is to confound their expectations. That advice rings true. Sometimes that’s accomplished with a twist in the story itself, but even that can fall into old used patterns. To keep from doing what has always been done, we have to be more creative and more sophisticated with our approaches.
Readers are onto us. This has been going on long enough that the old tricks have become classics that slowly decay into cliches. You’re going to have to step it up to surprise them. If all else fails, go with synthesizers and lasers.
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