Columns > Published on June 21st, 2023

Horror Mechanics: What Are They, How Do They Terrify, and Where They Go Wrong

image credit: Pixabay

How do the scary things work in your horror story?

That’s what we’re here to talk about today: how to pay attention to the mechanic in your story, how to write it so it makes sense, and how to make sure you don’t overwrite it.

What Do I Mean When I Say “Mechanic”?

A mechanic is a term borrowed from gaming that describes how something functions in a game.

Here’s a super simple example, horror-adjacent:

You know how the ghosts in Super Mario games cover their eyes and stay still when you look at them? And then, when you turn your back, they come for you? That’s a mechanic, a way the player and the game interact within a certain set of rules.

The shy ghost mechanic is pretty simple, the player figures it out fast, and then the game messes with it a little. Sometimes you’re in a situation where, if you keep looking at the ghosts, they block your path, so you have to turn away and let them chase you in order to clear the way.

The mechanics of a horror story work the same way: they describe how something works, and they may also force characters or readers to interact with the threat in a certain way.

For Example

The “mechanic” of A Nightmare on Elm Street is that Freddy visits you in your dreams, where he can do anything, be anything, and is unstoppable. Another aspect of this mechanic is that he can be pulled into the real world, but we’ll get to that later.

This is not to be confused with Freddy’s motive, that he was killed by a group of parents, and now he’s taking revenge on those parents by killing their kids.

This is also not to be confused with the plot, the “This happens, then this happens…” part of the story.

The mechanic can be considered the “how it works” portion of the story, or maybe “how the audience interacts with the story.”

Does Your Story Need a Mechanic?

The original Halloween does not have a mechanic. Michael Myers doesn’t have any supernatural powers or abilities, there’s no question of “How is he doing this?”

That’s why the entirety of the explanation is Dr. Loomis saying Michael Myers is “Really, super evil and shit,” or something like that, I’m paraphrasing.

Halloween III, on the other hand, needs a mechanic. If we just showed kids having their heads turned into bugs, we’d be confused. Still aroused by 1982 Tom Atkins, but confused about the bugs.

If your audience is going to ask how the horror element functions, you need to consider the mechanic. BUT, if your audience is not going to have questions about your mechanic because it’s not that complicated, then PLEASE leave it out.

The Mechanic Isn’t Always Supernatural Or Complicated

If your mechanic has to be explained in words rather than demonstrated, it might be too complicated. Or too confusing. It might be more mechanic than you need.

Hush is a movie about a woman who is trying to keep herself from getting killed by some dude in a mask.

The mechanic that makes Hush unique is that our hero lost her hearing as a young girl.

I call this a mechanic because it’s not just a setup, a thing that brings the man and the woman together. Instead, it affects the way viewers receive the story, and it changes the typical slasher/final girl dynamic. It allows the storyteller to do things like having the killer walk up behind the woman, and while the viewer sees and hears this, the woman does not. 

It plays with the audience's sense of sight, but also their sense of hearing.

It means the audience and the characters are having different experiences, and the unfolding story works on the audience differently than it does on the main character.

Again, we don’t need a ton of explanation on this. We need to know the main character doesn’t hear, and we need the slasher to know this as well, and that’s it. We don’t need the slasher to have noticed this woman coming out of a medical exam, and he happens to notice she can’t hear. We don’t need a slasher who is targeting only people who cannot hear. The bare bones we need are there, and the bare bones are all we need.

Violating The Mechanic

This is a good time to talk about violation of the mechanic.

If the movie Hush was resolved by the protagonist suddenly regaining her hearing, that’d be a destruction of the mechanic, not an ending to a story, and it’d wreck the entire thing.

When the hero in Hush manages to turn the tables and use the antagonist’s own hearing against him, the mechanic is flipped without being violated.

And that should be the goal: how can your story press on the mechanic, push it to its extreme, and figure out a solution that works within the mechanic?

Show and Tell

There’s a TON of writing advice out there about showing and telling, and let me tell you, mechanics are a time when you REALLY need to show and not tell.

Many a story trots out a character to explain the entirety of the mechanic to our heroes, who have almost lost hope. Usually this is some old person with some kind of air of mysticism about them. "Oh, many years ago, I remember Old Billy Jimmins was playing around with a demon summoning spell..."

The most blatant of these I've ever seen is in the movie Jeepers Creepers: this lady comes out of nowhere, explains that she is a psychic who sees the future in her dreams, and then basically tells us nothing about the baddie that we don’t already know.

When it comes to mechanics, telling isn’t just about bad form.

If your mechanic has to be explained in words rather than demonstrated, it might be too complicated. Or too confusing.

It might be more mechanic than you need.

To go back to Jeepers Creepers, if the psychic never showed up, if we never knew that this baddie was a demon, and instead we just saw him eating some dude, all crouched down with leathery wings and shit, I think we’d get it. Because “monster eating people” is not that complicated.

If you’re not sure the audience is going to get it, instead of explaining it in an exposition dump, look for ways to simplify it.

Deeper Workings

Let’s circle back to Elm Street.

Freddy is very easy to shrug off when you’re a kid at a sleepover, when you and your little buddies are eating pizza and chugging Mountain Dew, laughing at a burned-up criminal calling everyone "Bitch."

But when it’s lights out and you’re the only one awake in a weird house you’ve never slept in before, it’s not so simple.

See, it’s easy to not be scared of Freddy when you’re awake. He poses no threat when you’re awake.

But when you sleep, you’re alone. You’re vulnerable. You might know you’re in a dream, and you might not.

Freddy’s mechanic works in the movie, and it continues to work outside the movie as well.

When the scariest part of your story thrives outside your story, that’s a mechanic doing the work for you.

Get Slash of the Titans: The Road to Freddy vs Jason by Dustin McNeill at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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