The Problem with Horror

Clients come to me and Starlight Runner all the time with problems regarding their horror franchise. It used to connect with audiences, so why isn’t it doing so now? Why is the main character so popular but the series dragging? Why can’t we seem to re-invigorate the story world? It’s a constant refrain, one that provides no easy answer. At the base of things, transmedia has a problem depicting horror.

This isn’t for lack of effort or appreciation. Hell, I love horror. I just want to make that absolutely clear from the beginning. The Thing is one of my favorite films ever, as are 28 Days Later, The Exorcist, Evil Dead, and too many others to mention. Cthulhu-style insanity-terror creeps under my skin and refuses to let go. I’m even working on a horror project myself, so feel free to hold my feet to the fire when it comes out. Understand that my discussion below is not meant to be a criticism of the form. There’s nothing wrong with horror as a genre.

Unless you happen to be a premarital-sex-loving, pot-smoking teenager who works at a summer camp. 

Unless you happen to be a premarital-sex-loving, pot-smoking teenager who works at a summer camp.

What I’m going to talk about here is why horror doesn’t always translate in a transmedia sense, both from a franchise perspective and as a stand-alone story across multiple media platforms. Characters from horror? They thrive in popular culture long after their initial depiction. Creators of horror? They can be rock gods. But long-form series? Those are much rarer in the grand scheme of things, and those that exist tend to tone down their straight-up scares fairly quickly or go straight for camp.

Please see exhibits A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H…

Please see exhibits A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H…

I mean, it’s hard to keep any narrative going across multiple platforms and years without taking a few missteps, but that’s beside the point. The point is that there are thousands of successful one-off stories that horrify people in the good way, which turn around and then horrify people in the wrong way as the story continues onto other platforms. What makes horror so different from fantasy, or science fiction, or any other genre that produces quality transmedia content?

First off, it’s not that horror can’t be done right. Note that the aforementioned franchises should not be taken as failures. All of them are or were successful brands for a number of years. A few have been remade to accommodate changing tastes or to make up for some quality control issues in the past, but the fact is that people seemingly don’t care all that much about radical shifts in tone when it comes to horror. Indeed, they may even require it.

Notice that these and other franchises are not built on straight-up scares. Their strength comes from tone, imagery, the unusual, a mixture of thrills and laughs, and more. Tension is important. Themes are important. The key elements of transmedia are still important…

  • Know your audience
  • Know your story
  • Know your team
  • Know your platform (in that order)

…but scares? Scares are a dime a dozen. They can be cheap, expensive, implied, built-up, thrown out, undermined, and exposed. They can be made by having a shadow move in the background. They can be done with a knife or a chainsaw or a whispered word in a supposedly empty room. Horror wouldn’t be horror without such thrills, of course, but the truly successful horror stories eschew scares for tension.

Dr. Lector teaches a class on this. Just don't stop by his house unnannounced around dinnertime.

Dr. Lector teaches a class on this. Just don’t stop by his house unnannounced around dinnertime.

Regardless of the platform, tension makes you feel empathy for characters on screen. Consider it as the cousin of “cringe humor”: it refuses to let you walk away but makes it uncomfortable to watch. In horror, the resulting dread emerges as the audience realizes that the alternative to defusing tension is, typically, death (or fates worse than it). The terror of the end is such a basic human emotion that many people understand why horror works at a basic, subconscious level, even if they can’t express how. It creates a thrill that is addicting, that people must come back to. So why is horror so hard to figure out?

Because long-form, multiplatform horror requires a constant reaffirmation of tension that can lead to exhaustion.

One of the core concepts of transmedia is the willful desire on the part of the audience to participate. A creator must constantly reengage with the audience in order to affirm their desire to be there. If it isn’t fun to interact, then people will move on to areas where engaging moments are more plentiful. People have to want to keep coming back, to discuss, to share, to help the narrative flow.

People yearn for the thrills of horror, but in a different way. People want to feel alive. They want to have their subconscious fears addressed. They don’t want to be constantly on edge. They’ve paid with money and/or time and expect to experience something that will reaffirm their choice to give those things up. Unfortunately, The Producers had it right: people want to be entertained, particularly when it comes to long-form work. Depressing experiences are the exact opposite of what people want from their active entertainment. They engage to relax even when they are being challenged.

Consider Slender, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Amnesia, and other recent horror games. A constant refrain is that–despite the achievements of these games (of which there are many)–it is exhausting to have to deal with the terror over and over again in order to succeed. People like the games. All of them got or are getting second go-arounds. But all required an adjustment in order to get people to want to take another dip in the deep end of the abyss. Some of the creators of Dead Space acknowledged as much to Game Informer in January 2010 while opening up about their sequel: many players were too twitchy without moments of calm to allow themselves to process the things in which they had just participated. The mind is way more powerful than any set of words or moving images.

The mind: way more powerful than the moving image.

More than that any of that, though, there is the subconscious long-term goal that comes with any narrative. Dystopic fiction has never been more popular, but if you push it too far? If you say that things can’t really be changed or saved due to human nature? There’s backlash. This is particularly true of active media but can apply almost anywhere. A novel or TV series can succeed for a time in producing twists and turns that are as interesting as they are depressing, but after a certain period of time, many audiences grow bored if the pattern doesn’t change.

People engage in transmedia to escape, to explore new worlds, to become different personages, to make a difference in a galaxy far far away. They do want to be challenged and they do want to be put outside of their comfort zone. They don’t want their choices invalidated on a routine basis. Not only does it remove their agency in the fictional realm, but it is also a none-too-subtle implication about their place in the universe back home. Failure to change means that the actions that people take in their lives ultimately mean nothing in a universe that has its own plans.

To succeed, transmedia horror has to accomplish a few unique elements that are either not strictly necessary for other genres or require the tweaking of details


Go here for the print of this awesome drawing! -

Go here for the print of this awesome pic!

At its heart, horror is a fantasy taken down the wrong road late at night. Just like a fantasy, there must be rules, themes, and commentary on how things work. You must create a depth that inspires people to learn more. More often than not, there will be more questions than answers. Good. That inspires the imagination. Just don’t give it short shrift.

A Changing World


The landscape must change. A single story can take place in a laboratory in Antarctica. That’s not a story world, though. That’s just one adventure. Repetition leads to familiarity, which breeds contempt. Characters, audiences, and players must be shown that they can have influence over the world. They don’t have to succeed all the time, but neither must they be doomed to repeat the same mistakes of the past, again and again.

The Fear of Failure


Death and all that should be the consequences of failure rather than the substance of the narrative. Insanity, prison, annihilation? Lovecraftian horror wouldn’t exist without them yet the characters in those stories typically succeed even if it is at a great price. These omnipresent threat should push characters (and audiences) to succeed rather than serve as punishment. Otherwise, you run the risk of coming across as one-note or didactic (see premarital-sex-lovin’ teenagers).

Being in Control


Much of horror is about being out of control. You cannot reason with a psycopath, a zombie, a virus, an alien. At the same time, characters must make choices that put them into conflict with one another, reflecting their ability to remain in control of at least some portion of the world. Otherwise, they’re just flapping their lips and limbs at one another while the curtain slowly falls.


This last bit is the one I will leave you with: audiences must be in control, even when they are out of it. empowerment-disempowerment scenario, horror fans get their thrills from being put into an uncomfortable situation while still—subconsciously—remaining in charge. There’s no real threat to them, but the power of the imagination can work wonders on their adrenaline. Indeed, there is a renaissance going on for horror in interactive narratives. RPGs, ARGs, Copypasta, zombie runs, post-apocalyptic survival fantasies, and the zillion or so haunted houses that crop up in the fall show that people want to experience horror first-hand.

If you can give these people scares without making them feel scared to go on, then you’ll be golden.

And on a personal note, if you could make sure your characters don't do stupid stuff just to get a scare, I'd really appreciate it.

And if you could make sure your characters don’t do stupid stuff just to get a cheap scare, I’d consider it a personal favor.

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