You sacrificed a precious hour watching innocent people become lunch meat, and now it’s your bedtime. Tucked underneath cozy comforters, the darkness inside your mind turns on, just like the television inside your living room.
You can’t use a television remote to change the channel inside your mind.
If a thirsty zombie is about to give a cheerleader a hickey from hell, you can turn off the television, especially if you’re not into that kind of shit. However, your imagination keeps the show going…whether you like it or not.
Empathy is the magic ability to imagine what it’s like to experience an innocent victim’s potentially deadly situation.
Let’s give it a horrific shot: imagine a sweaty jogger huffing and puffing through a happy forest. It’s a sunny day, of course. Birds chirp their new hit single. Bears nibble on blueberries. Oh no! Look over there! A masked maniac stumbles near an oak tree. He’s carrying something very, very sharp. The sweaty jogger trips over a branch and then somehow falls on top of the hungry machete. Oops. Accidents happen.
There’s a reason why you feel squishy when certain fictional characters bite the big one. And there’s also a reason why you don’t care if certain fictional characters become zombie snacks. You don’t know anything about the sweaty jogger…why should you care if he becomes worm food? Exactly.
Fictional characters (that you give a damn about) have real qualities. The more we learn about a character’s mundane intricacies, the more we see ourselves inside them—a reflection of true humanity which can’t be ignored.
We can see through cardboard cutouts and never shed a tear if they’re sheared by a hungry machete. If a relatable fictional character is sliced and diced by a machete, we feel their pain, and that’s when the true horror begins. Exploitative horror movies are a bloody example of what happens when cardboard cutouts are ripped apart. Gore can only go so far. Don’t rely on gross guts to provoke your innocent victims to wet their bed. Every character has guts, but not every character has, well…character. Think about it. Exploitative horror has its place, however, most sickos watch (or read) just to see some dark entertainment. A few individuals may get scared when they witness a babe wearing a sports bra run away from an undead butcher, but don’t you dare get it twisted, my evil friend. Most people won’t bat an eyelash, especially these days. If you want to scare your victims, use sophisticated tactics.
Cardboard Cutout: a disposable, undeveloped fictional character
All of us have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, bosses, bills to pay, problems to solve, revenge to seek…get the picture? No one exists inside a vacuum, and that’s why we can’t relate to cardboard cutouts.
A fictional cardboard cutout can be bisected by a chainsaw, however, particles of empathy will not be produced after the deadly deed is finished—even if there’s blood all over the walls. Sorry. If your victim (or readers) can nibble on tasty popcorn while reading or watching a character get tossed inside a blender, well…that’s a sharp problem.
Give your audience time to harvest empathy.
Fill in the details with mundane colors of life. Describe dysfunctional family dynamics, or perhaps why Little Jimmy is scared of the local bully. When the zombies start chowing down the entire town—details will tug on your audience’s heartstrings. They will cheer for Little Jimmy because many people know what it’s like to have their head slam-dunked inside a dirty toilet, or perhaps they’re currently deafened by a dysfunctional family orchestra. Pick your poison.
Nobody knows what it’s like to be the main course of a zombie buffet, but many people are familiar with bullies and that’s the true horror.
You can’t just start the story (or movie) with a damsel in distress being eaten alive by a hungry chainsaw. Slow your death roll. Take an easy. Chill out. Even a cheap pornographic flick takes time to create a shallow backstory, that way the viewer knows who’s being fucked. A horror story should take the time to develop a backstory, that way the reader knows who’s being killed. Think about it.
It’s the mundane things that bring everyone together.
Relatable characters often have real jobs, problems, goals—things which people experience during their daily lives. Must of us can’t relate to an unknown masked maniac who so happens to own a very, very sharp machete. Scary? Sure. Relatable? Hell no! What if the masked maniac is behind on his cell phone bill? Now we can begin to empathize with the monster behind the mask. Sort of.
People are not scared of faceless killers. People are scared of realistic motives.
The average person will never encounter a masked maniac, but there’s a great chance they’ll become the victim of someone’s revenge, especially if they happen to be a jerkwad. Little Jimmy shanked the mean bully with a dull pencil, and we understand why. There’s only so many times you can dunk someone’s head inside a toilet bowl…before they snap like a dull pencil. We also understand why Little Jimmy put on his favorite hockey mask and terrorized teens who were just havin’ a grand old time. Misery loves company, right?
If your audience can relate to the motive, they can also relate to the maniac behind the mask. Think about it.
The class is dismissed. Go scare somebody.