by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Unless you work in the genre, screenwriters often ignore horror films. This can be to our own demise, as there are many powerful themes, tropes, and archetypes used in these films that transcend stories of horror and suspense. Here are some of the archetypes found in horror scripts that can be used in any story regardless of genre.
1. THE GHOST
Screenwriting gurus have long recommended having a “ghost” that haunts your protagonist. The “ghost” is a person or event in the protagonist’s past that still causes them trouble. Sometimes, this will be a very external experience for your character, such as when a person from their past shows up unexpectedly. The look on Viggo Mortensen’s face is unforgettable when shady figures from his past emerge to haunt his present circumstances in A History of Violence. An unexpected sexual tryst with James Marsden haunts Jack Black’s character in the recently released The D Train.
Other times, the “ghost” only haunts the protagonist internally. We are only aware of their presence through a brief flashback or line of dialogue. Ray Charles’s character in Ray is plagued with guilt throughout the film by the childhood death of his brother. Saving Mr. Banks, Stand By Me, Ordinary People, Patch Adams, and Good Will Hunting all utilize this archetype in their stories.
2. THE MONSTER
An excellent way to maintain ongoing conflict in your story is to create a “monster” that the protagonist must occasionally battle, be hunted by, or run from. Monsters in stories can take on many forms and don’t necessarily serve as the antagonist in the script.
The shark is the “monster” in Jaws, but not the true antagonist. God serves as the “monster” in Time Bandits. In Birdman, the character by the same name serves as both a “monster” and a “ghost,” plaguing Michael Keaton. While there is a specific character serving as the antagonist in Selma, the police act collectively as a “monster” facing down MLK.
3. THE VAMPIRE
A vampire is a character that sucks the life force or potential from the protagonist – sometimes in a malicious fashion and sometimes unintentionally. They might be the good-natured friends that keep our main character from being all they can be – as in Good Will Hunting. Or they might be the husband sucking his wife’s talent and taking credit for her work – as in Big Eyes.
Kathy Bates plays a classic “vampire” to Adam Sandler’s Bobby Boucher in The Waterboy. In Cinderella, the protagonist’s stepmother and wicked stepsisters continually suck life and opportunity away from her. In most cases, our main character must either stand up to the “vampire” or flee from them by the story’s end.
4. THE FRANKENSTEIN
Frankenstein was, of course, known for striking fear in the hearts of those around him, but actually not being innately harmful at all. In a classic scene from cinema, we remember a little girl with a flower taming this “savage beast.” In To Kill A Mockingbird, Boo Radley is a “Frankenstein” that everyone in the neighborhood is afraid of. In the end, he rescues Scout from harm and is known as a protector of those around him. The point of the “Frankenstein” archetype is to reveal shortcomings in the protagonist or the society they live in, not shortcomings in the “Frankenstein.” We see that our main character actually had no reason to be afraid and we are reminded that there are people and things in our own lives that we live in fear of – without good reason.
We see “Frankensteins” present in The Wizard of Oz (The Cowardly Lion and The Wizard), The Goonies (Sloth), Monsters Inc. (Boo), and Sling Blade (Karl Childers). We even see a subtle version of this “Frankenstein” scenario in Ex Machina in the interaction between Caleb and Ava. In many stories, the “Frankenstein” will either have their true nature revealed, be destroyed by those who live in fear of them, or become the destroyer themselves.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.