The one crucial element of horror stories is that the main characters are trapped. If characters can freely leave, then that eliminates much of the horror since being trapped is part of the horror. Think of every horror story and it all involves characters being trapped with no outside help and few resources of their own.
In “Alien,” everyone was trapped on a starship in the middle of space with no weapons.
In “Green Room,” a band is trapped in the green room (the room behind the stage) of an isolated bar run by white supremacists.
In “Don’t Breathe,” would-be burglars are trapped inside the home of a blind man.
Horror comes from three elements:
- Being trapped
- Having no outside help
- Having few resources
Think of bad horror films and you can see they violate one or more of these principles. In “Cell,” anyone uses a cell phone gets turned into a raging killer, but the main characters can freely run around while avoiding these zombie-like creatures. Every time the main characters get to a new location, there’s suddenly more people to help them out, and they have plenty of guns to shoot any zombies that threaten them.
Another bad horror film (also based on a Stephen King story) was “Maximum Overdrive,” which is about a bunch of people trapped in a truck stop when machines start killing people. Here the main characters are trapped and don’t have outside help, but they also have an arsenal of weapons that they mysteriously use once or twice to blow up the circling killer trucks.
Why don’t the main characters use their arsenal against all the trucks, especially when their weapons show they can take out trucks easily? The main reason the characters don’t do this is sheer stupidity and a gaping plot hole. If the characters did use their arsenal, there wouldn’t be any suspense or horror. (As it turns out, “Maximum Overdrive” severely lacks any horror whatsoever and simply shows people dying in gory ways as a replacement for real horror.)
In the better Stephen King adaptations, these three principles of horror still remain. In “Misery,” the hero is trapped in the house of a psychotic nurse. He has no outside help and few resources to fight back. In “The Shining,” the hero is trapped in an isolated hotel in the mountains with few weapons.
Horror movies are cheap and easy to make, so horror screenplays are in much higher demand than other screenplays such as historical drama pieces. If you want to maximize your chances of selling a screenplay, try writing a horror script, and make sure you follow the three principles of keeping characters trapped, denying them outside help, and forcing them to fight with limited resources. That’s real horror.