Monster horror stories are everywhere these days, and for good reason: There may be no better way to get the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing than knowing that you’re being hunted by a unseen creature, and ‘The Ritual’, by Adam Nevill, joins those ranks.
‘The Ritual’ made quite a splash when Netflix aired its adaptation of the book last year, with acclaim given to the design of Moder, the story’s monster. I wanted to read the book before seeing the film, so let’s see what writers can learn from this tale of horror in Sweden’s forests.
Consider making your protagonists anything other than hot teenagers
Unlike so many horror victims, the protagonists of ‘The Ritual’ aren’t attractive youngsters in their 20’s with fantastic bodies, but middle-aged men, two of whom are in poor physical shape. Furthermore, they’re not out to get laid or do drugs; they’re on a hiking trip to try and rekindle their friendships that have been fading with time, and dealing with various problems:
Not getting anything out of life
About to loose everything in divorces
Trying to restore old friendships that have clearly run their course
These out of shape, depressed underdogs are far more interesting to follow than young people who are having pretty radical lives. Even Luke, the youngest and most carefree, has to endure the silent scorn of his companions for refusing to take any initiative with his life (to the point that he realizes that if he went missing, it’d be months before anyone would bother to look for him, which makes us wonder if he even has a future to look forward to if he escapes), and it isn’t long before all four are at each other’s throats.
These are not happy campers, and their struggle to deal with depressing lives while tying not to become gutted flesh-flags hanging from trees makes for gripping reading. In our own stories, consider making your protagonists the last kind of people who should be dealing with monsters. Why not try released inmates who can’t get a job or acceptance? Or try senior citizens who’s tour bus broke down in the middle of an abandoned city. (Admit it: You’d pay to go see the Golden Girls fight zombies.)
Make your environment an antagonist
Much like the Moder, the forest our protagonists stumble into is a threat as well. While many horror locations are far from help (Space, the ocean, or a crumbling mansion in the center of a forest far from civilization), the forest seems to have a malevolence to it, as if it’s working with Moder to disorient our protagonists and making it impossible for them to just turn around and leave the forest, as any sane person would do.
It’s left ambiguous if the forest is malevolent, but having an environment seemingly working with the monster is a great way to make survival even more challenging for our characters.
Have your characters face ethical decisions when it comes to survival
The forest our heroes find themselves trapped in strips away all the niceties and rules of civilization, reducing everything to a simple formula: Survive or die. In the first half of the story, Luke has to decide whether to abandon his out-of-shape companions so he can make a break for safety. Then, in the second half, he faces an even worse dilemma: Does he kill the teenagers who have taken him captive so that he can survive?
In the former example, Luke comes very close to abandoning Phil and Dom, but ultimately doesn’t. However, he does end up killing two of the three teenagers, but not before debating whether he should or not. The teens are cruel vagrants who are willing to torture and sacrifice Luke for their own pleasure, but their gung-ho toughness vanishes when they have a gun pointed at them.
Putting these dilemmas in our stories is a smart move for two reasons:
1. They reveal what a character’s true personality. What do they do when all their defenses have been taken away and they have to make a hard decision? Do they choose to spare others? Do they save themselves? Or do they try a third option? Furthermore, how do they deal with their choice after it’s been made?
2. They make the reader ponder what they would do in such a situation. Would you have it in you to kill teenagers who would otherwise kill you?
It’s a sign of good writing when dilemmas stay with the reader long after your story has been finished.
Consider having your characters made amends in the face of death
Though they’re trying to mend their old friendships, it’s clear from the beginning that Luke and the others just aren’t a good fit anymore, and that their hiking trip was an exercise in futility before it even began. What few connections they have are strained and then shattered when stress makes them snap at each other and permanently destroy their relationships. But, in a smart move, Mr. Nevill makes it so that they still have to work together to get out of the forest alive, even if they hate each other, which only adds more tension.
Then, in an even better twist, Luke and Phil, the last two survivors, realize that they’re almost certainly going to die and try to make amends to each other in the book’s most heartwarming moment. Death, in fiction and in real life, has a way of cutting through all our anger and self-righteousness and makes us realize what truly matters: each other. After all, when faced with a horror beyond human comprehension, we all want someone by our side, even if it’s just to hold our hand when the end comes.
In our own works, we should consider giving our characters the chance to make amends and heal any hurts they’ve had with other characters. While Phil dies in ‘The Ritual’, you could make it so that your characters survive, giving them a chance to go on in life with a newfound appreciation and respect for one another.
Be careful when stopping your story halfway through
‘The Ritual’ is a gripping read (I read through all of it in one afternoon), but I was caught off guard at the halfway mark, when the story shifts from Luke surviving against an unseen evil to Luke being kidnapped by homicidal teenagers and trying to escape becoming a human sacrifice. It was as if in ‘Jaws’, Chief Brody and his companions went out to hunt the shark, only to run out of supplies and food and pass out, then wake up on a deserted island with natives who worship the shark and want to sacrifice them to it. While Brody would still end up killing the shark, the straightforward story of three men vs a really big shark would become needlessly expanded.
In a way, ‘The Ritual’ is like a roller coaster ride: it’s a fast, gripping adrenaline rush, but suddenly stops halfway through before starting up again. And while we do learn more about Moder during the slower-paced second half, it takes a long time for the gripping survival story to come back to the forefront.
In our own work, it’s understandable if we want the audience to have some breathing room. How that’s implemented, though, is vital. If, for example, we want to have protagonists in a survival story to get a break from a monster, we can try the following:
*Have our characters be captured by natives, but make them as threatening and alien as the monster: They don’t speak a language anyone can understand, have customs that make no sense, etc.
*Have our characters stumble into the village of cult members, who are all long gone, but there are clues left to be found that will help our protagonist realize what they’re going up against. For bonus points, you can have the village only seem to be deserted, and then have the locals come back. (Walt Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ did this well with the crew of the Nautilus.)
*Have our characters meet the villagers, but they’re as terrified of the monster as our characters are, and a constant life of fear makes them lash out at anyone and anything they don’t recognize (like the tribe in the 2005 King Kong film).
Consider having a morally ambiguous ‘ally’ help your characters
One of the most interesting characters in ‘The Ritual’ is the old woman in the house where Luke is kept captive. Seemingly helpless and useless throughout the story’s second half, it’s gradually revealed that she’s the only one who can summon Moder (who is secretly her mother), and while she’s kind to Luke, we learn that’s only an act, as she intends to sacrifice him after he helps her by getting rid of the teenagers (and all without her saying a word we, the reader, can understand).
Such moral ambiguity keeps readers invested in a character, as they will want to figure out if he or she is a hero, a villain, or someone who’s neutral. A good example of this is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, who kept people wondering for years just who’s side he was on.
Be cautious when your protagonist fights the monster
Moder, like all great monsters, is only glimpsed and heard throughout the story, not making her full appearance until the very end. And like so many other great monsters, Luke finally faces her at the climax. However, Moder’s buildup is popped when, for all of her speed, strength, and cunning, this ancient god of the forest is driven off by a pocket knife to the throat. While she’s in rough shape at the time (tangled up in the wreckage of a van after ramming it head-on), it feels almost anti-climactic to have her defeated (but not killed) by such a tiny weapon.
If our character/s are finally facing the monster, how they are defeated should be relative to how powerful they are. If your character is fighting a T-rex, have them use a spear or an axe. For a large monster like Moder, a shotgun, machete, or other large weapon is appropriate. Or, if our character doesn’t have any weapons, have them resort to traps, similar to Dutch during the climax of ‘Predator,’ or Nancy in ‘The Shallows’. And even then, the trap doesn’t have to kill the beast; it can just slow the monster down enough for our protagonist to get away.
Consider having an uncertain, but hopeful ending
‘The Ritual’ doesn’t have a happy ending: Luke has managed to escape Moder and kill all her followers, but he’s naked and far from civilization, with a low likelihood of survival. But even in his lowest moment, he realizes that all the labels he has, all the things that he has – his job, his check, his living spaces – don’t matter. All that matters is being alive, and free to do what he wants.
It’s not a clear-cut, happy ending, but there is still a glimmer of hope, leaving us to imagine what happens to Luke. When doing horror stories, pulling off a happy ending can be very difficult, as it’s easy to make it sappy or unearned. Bittersweet ending, however, feel more logical: Things can be bad for our protagonist/s, but there’s still hope that things can or will get better. And as a bonus, leaving it open-ended allows the viewer to imagine for themselves what happens next. Personally, I like to think that, against all odds, Luke does make it to safety, and returns home.
When doing a monster horror story, try having the victims be down on their luck underdogs who have to make brutally difficult choices when trying to survive, but be careful not to interrupt the flow of the story to introduce a new plot idea, nor make the monster easy to drive off or defeat at the end before having an uncertain but hopeful ending.