Realism in Horror Fiction – Good or Bad?

I’m back. Did you miss me?

Hopefully you noticed my absence. I do have a legitimate excuse – I’ve been busy revising/editing one of my horror novels. I’m not going to divulge the story just yet; it may disrupt the creative process (pretentious or what?) But I’ll keep you informed. You’re dying to know, right? BTW you won’t sleep much after reading it, so rest up while you can.

So what shall we talk about instead? There is an issue or a question rather, that I want to tackle this evening. So please, stick around and we’ll look at it together. Maybe you’ll add your own thoughts later.

Does hard core realism belong in horror movies? Should writers and directors raise the bar and tackle more serious and controversial subject matter? Does it detract or add to a work of fiction?

Some would say that too much reality yanks the viewer out of the story, and thus spoils the escapist aspect of a form of media, which is, after all, meant purely for entertainment.

Is this true? Let’s investigate…

I’ve been pondering this question a lot since I began writing horror. When you start creating this stuff and something realistic creeps into the story, let’s say a rape scene for instance, it makes you stop and ask: Why am I doing this? And even should I be writing this? How will people react? But it is fiction after all…it’s a story, a what-if scenario. We have to keep things in perspective.

Before we go any further, let’s briefly explore the meaning of horror. Of course in real life, horror is highly visible and self explanatory. Scrolling through Facebook or even checking e-mail can completely ruin my day as I’m often bombarded with heartbreaking images and stories.

Last week one photograph on Facebook left an indelible imprint. In fact it prompted me to write this piece. The photo is called The Vulture and the Little Girl and you’re probably familiar with it. Just to recap, this photo was taken in 1993 by photojournalist Kevin Carter on a visit to South Sudan, a country devastated by civil war and struck by famine. Carter came across a starving little girl, a toddler, struggling to crawl to a feeding center set up by the United Nations. A vulture landed behind the little girl and he took a Pulitzer Prize winning shot of the macabre scene. Haunted by the image, he committed suicide not long after it was published in the New York Times. To me, as a mother, it’s certainly definitive of  horror and I can’t stop thinking about that poor child.

As a full time journalist and producer, I came across my fair share of upsetting material. I had to watch video footage of tortured greyhounds for a news magazine show, and create a photo montage of civilian casualties of war, (including children) for a short film I wrote and produced. I was on a police ride-along one night, and between arresting drug dealers and gang members, we stopped off at the precinct for pizza. One of the cops shoved a pile of photos in my face, saying “look at these.” They were crime scene photos of a man hanging out of a car with a gun shot wound to the head. The guy, obviously deceased, shot a cop in the face – one of their friends. I immediately lost my appetite.

So, yeah we’re exposed to real-life horror every day, some more than others, depending on your line of work and your living circumstances.

I don’t cover those type of stories any more. I did my share, but after a while it can take its toll on the individual regardless of the good intentions and ‘higher purpose’ of highlighting issues and exposing cruelty. I now deal mostly in fiction, straying into journalism for the odd article, like the one I wrote about the prevalence of ‘gritty realism’ in movies, such as Hotel Rwanda and Beyond Borders a few years back: 10 Movies With a Message

But what about realism in genre fiction? Let’s get back to that.

If people (like me) get so upset with horrific stories in reality (just watching the news can prove distressing) why on earth would we choose to watch horror movies for entertainment? Or God forbid, create this stuff for others to enjoy?

The answer is, of course, they’re not the same. Watching or reading horror fiction is a safe harbor and we know (or hope) that they’re not true, or at least not true for us, right?

I haven’t seen many good mainstream horror flicks lately. You know the type, a story so powerful it blows you away. For weeks after watching you can’t get it out of your head; you leave the hall light on at night, just in case. Getting home late you rush from your car in a blind panic, hoping you make it to the front door in time, fumbling with your keys, and praying that nothing grabs you before you get inside. And erring on the side of caution, you make a point of avoiding youth hostels in eastern Europe.

Some movies start out looking promising, with a great premise, but quickly disintegrate into nonsensical drivel. There are so many forgettable stories, weak plots, unbelievable characters and unnecessary gore. What happened folks? This stuff used to be good, even the B-movies were watchable. I think that maybe just a sprinkling of this realism element, (but not too much), might spice things up a bit.

But how would the mainstream horror fan react? Should we leave this type of stuff to obscure, eccentric French directors and the Independent Film Channel? After all disturbing stories have a tendency to eat their way into the subconscious mind and linger there indefinitely. Not everybody likes that. And there’s obviously an audience for this run of the mill stuff, just like there is for superhero movies. Some people actually thought Shyamalan’s movie The Visit was funny and scary. It’s one of the worst horror movies I’ve ever seen.

There are great ‘alternative’ films out there, some of them by female directors. It’s a pity they’re not more widely distributed and publicized in the mainstream. One exceptional movie that tackles a sensitive and controversial ‘real’ issue is Karen Lam’s Evangeline. This is a supernatural revenge fantasy about a young girl who is raped and killed by a group of sociopath frat boys and returns from the dead for justice. It’s beautifully filmed and tastefully done. The rape was an integral part of the story and not gratuitous.

It’s all a matter of taste and the genre is big and diverse enough to accommodate us all. For me my mood dictates what I watch. Sometimes I just want to veg out and watch something like Final Destination or Jeepers Creepers. I can just see horror purists shudder at this confession. Yes – they were aimed mostly at the teen dating crowd, but they scared and entertained me. At other times I want something a bit more thought provoking, like Frailty. As hard as it is for me to believe, several horror fans I know don’t like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Peter Straub. I know, shocking right? But then again, I couldn’t make it through even one episode of The Walking Dead. Shock, horror! So yes, our tastes differ.

You could say that fear is in the mind of the beholder, or is that borderline pretentious? Ah well, I thought it was quite clever.

The definition of horror is different for everybody. To me horror is what I’m afraid of when home alone at night. I’m terrified of waking up in the wee hours and seeing a dark figure standing in the doorway of my bedroom. I’m also afraid of waking up alone in the house to the quintessential ‘bump in the night’ and either venturing downstairs to encounter an intruder or cowering in my bedroom waiting for someone (or something) to enter the room. The thought of aliens coming in the night scares me, and a host of supernatural ‘what if’ scenarios also keep me up late. Generally we all fear the great unknown and all the nasty, creepy things that could be lurking down (or up) there.

We watch horror films for the same reason we go on roller coasters or 100 mph zip lines, for the sheer thrill of it. A safe thrill, with no unpleasant afterthoughts.

What disturbs me is a different story. For instance I can’t stomach seeing mothers and children suffering and I abhor cruelty to animals.

The original Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my all time favorite horror movies. I was traumatized for years after watching it. In a good, ‘I really love horror’ kind of way. Of course Freddie Kruger alone was bound to scare the crap out of any normal 80’s kid, but what did it for me was the concept that you’re not safe in your dreams. The remake was a good attempt and very well made. However they played so much on the child molester/killer angle that it ended up really disturbing me rather than scaring me. As a new mother you can imagine the subject matter was distasteful. In the original, this aspect of the story is glossed over and therefore it’s just a fun, but safe scare, no need to over think it.

Then there’s Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween where a young mother is faced with the unimaginable horror of discovering her 10 year old son is a psychopathic killer. In one scene he reaches out to her and says “help me mama!” And her response is just heartbreaking. Despite the fact he’s a sick, knife wielding, maniacal serial killer, he’s still her little boy. How would any mother feel? Again, the mother doesn’t appear in the original and it’s the better horror movie for that simple fact. We also don’t meet young Michael Myers either. I spent most of the movie thinking of that poor mother and quite frankly it spoiled it for me. On the other hand, it’s going to stick with me, more so than the original. So it did have more impact.

And speaking of mothers, especially new moms, Rosemary’s Baby is off the viewing list. You can’t blame Rosie for going along with it can you, it’s her little baby. She has maternal instincts. But would you bottle feed or breastfeed Satan’s spawn? Hmmm! I know which one I’d choose. Don’t little devils have sharp teeth? And how would you introduce the little darling to the local mother’s meetup group?

I must confess, ever since giving birth I just can’t bring myself to watch certain movies, horror or otherwise. Remember that horror movie called First Born which tackles postnatal depression? Where (spoiler alert) the mother gets confused between a doll and her baby, and ends up burying one of them? No prizes for guessing which one. Again, please if you’re a new mother, do NOT watch this.

So much for realism involving mothers.

But well made slashers, with good characters and story lines, can be awesome, although it’s not my favorite sub genre.  The original Hostel is an exception. It was awesome. Despite being a quasi teenybopper flick, this movie was so powerful it blew me away. And they say it’s based on a real website that offered the opportunity for people to kill someone for $10,000. After watching the movie it seems this could easily happen, although I think there would probably be some kind of investigation by Interpol. Well, you’d hope so. With the prevalence of human trafficking worldwide, something like this seems extremely plausible. A similar movie is Turistas about a group of backpackers in Brazil who find themselves in the clutches of an underground organ harvesting ring. Could it be true?
Some other movies purportedly based on true events or characters are: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, The Rite, and The Silence of the Lambs.

Watch this trailer if you dare! The article continues below…

If the purpose of horror is pure entertainment and to be safely, comfortably scared, having to witness something truly horrific, a real life topic or issue, could leave a bad aftertaste. It’s not so much fun when things get too deep and involved. Truth can be ugly. Horror fans didn’t sign up for that. We just want to sit back and enjoy a scary movie, pop open a beer, and stuff our faces with popcorn, while some poor unfortunate bugger onscreen gets their eye drilled out by a maniac in Slovakia.

So should there be more realism in movies? I think the answers are: maybe, perhaps, just a little bit. If it’s an event from way back when or something that happens in a faraway place, people feel more comfortable watching. As for sensitive issues like rape that can happen, well anywhere? Well, yes, again they have their place in the right movie and setting.

Is it a buzz kill? Sometimes, yes it can be. But it really depends on the movie, if it’s a remake or an original; and the topics that are tackled. Some things are taboo, no-go areas. Period. And some things depend on the watcher.

So a little dash of realism, tastefully and well presented, can definitely enhance horror. We all have our days when we can only handle mindless entertainment. But there’s other times when we thirst for more substance. A well made horror movie, with a combination of psychological twists, good plots and a dose of hard core reality can do the trick. And there’s plenty for all tastes.

But let’s not scare the mommies too much…

Happy viewing.


  1. Post
  2. Martyn Vaughan

    Horror has always seemed to me to be a suspect genre with people saying “yes a bit of this but no more.”
    If you are a true horror fan then surely realism should be part of it. If so, try “Eat Them Alive” by Pierce Nace, a mysterious figure who some believe is/was a woman.

  3. Post
  4. CIhXn6zN

    146420 550989I really like your article. Its evident that you have a lot knowledge on this topic. Your points are well made and relatable. Thanks for writing engaging and interesting material. 390048

  5. Post
  6. Post
  7. Dorothy Jones

    Brilliant! And the Castle looks so eerie. I know it is real – just down the road.
    Dorothy Jones

  8. Post
    Dark Ali

    I’m glad you enjoyed my article Don and that you found it useful! Good luck with the horror story. I’m intrigued to read it now…

  9. Don Vasicek

    The day I received your newsletter, I was hired by a woman to rewrite a horror story that she had written. Fortunately, I took time to read your latest article about horror writing. Thank you, Alison, for sharing your thoughts about horror writing. It is comprehensive and compelling. The examples you use to back up what you say, resonates more definitively with the reader. “Dissecting” the different kinds of horror was eye-opening to me. I have never taken time to “see” that horror occurs in many different scenarios like your example of the photo of the gunshot victim hanging out of a car window to a mother being taken in by Satan and his worshipers to introduce her baby to devil-worship to the slash and gore style of the “Texas Chainsaw” massacre. It opened up the horror spectrum for examination. Thank you very much for your help. I can rewrite the horror story for my client now with a better idea about how to write horror. Keep up the good work, Alison!!!

  10. Post
  11. Alisha

    Wow Alison! You outdid yourself with this post! You clearly love your horror and are knowledgeable to boot! I had no idea you’d witnessed such real life horrors. Liked how you teased us with your book at the beginning. You certainly are a wonderful writer and you care about giving your followers the goods in each article you write! Video clips make it even better! Ty

Comments are closed.