What we can learn from ‘The Northern Incident’

 

Is there such a thing as a perfect horror story? A few months ago, I took a look at one of the best written examples, and today I want a look at one of the best animated examples: A 2011 animation titled, ‘The Northern Incident’ that freaked me out the first time I saw it, and has remained with me ever since as one of the scariest horror shorts I’ve ever seen… up until the last minute. But before we get to that minute, let’s take a look at what this short does so well.

In a horror story, the more remote and more isolated your setting, the better

In the grand tradition of horror stories being set in remote, hard-to-reach locations, ‘The Northern Incident’ takes place at a cabin in the remote, snow-covered forest far from civilization. In a nice twist, though, the cabin’s just close enough that the man has access to a television and a phone so he can call for help… but when the phone line is cut, he might as well be on a different planet. He has a way back to civilization, but no way to get there without freezing to death. There’s nothing worse, after all, than being in sight of safety, but being unable to get to it.

Consider making your audience hear your monster more than they see it

It might be a cliche, but keeping the monster/threat in a horror story out of sight is one of the best things writers can do. Without knowing what the threat looks like, audiences are forced to use their imagination to create the threat, coming up with horrors more terrifying than anything any writer or concept artist could create. Before they’re fully revealed, all we know about the monsters in ‘The Northern Incident’ is that they’re roughly human-sized, intelligent, and can move with astonishing speed.

While ‘The Northern Incident’ follows this trope perfectly, it masterfully uses another aspect to enhance it: Using sound to show where the creatures are. We hear them knocking at the cabin’s door, walls, ceiling, and even driving a car. It’s one thing to see a terrifying monster, but it’s even more terrifying to know that it’s close by, but only being able to hear it.

Consider making your monster smart and sadistic

While the unseen and the unknown is terrifying, it becomes even more frightening when your audience realizes that the monster isn’t some mindless beast, but something that’s smart. The creatures in ‘The Northern Incident’ are smart enough to know how to hotwire and drive a car, as well as knowing how to disable a phone, but there’s a more subtle horror that’s not easily noticeable at first: The creatures toy with the man. They want to make him afraid, and are holding back on killing him (or whatever they plan to do) to try and drive him mad. They’re sadists, and there are few things as frightening as having your characters deal with something that’s human, smart, and loves inflicting misery on others.

Be very careful revealing that your monster is a joke character

Years ago, my father made an observation that’s stuck with me ever since: ‘The closer you get to perfection, the more obvious a flaw becomes.’ ‘The Northern Incident,’ regrettably, becomes a perfect example of this saying. The first 90% of the story is a masterpiece of pacing, animation, sound design, and horror. Then, in the final minute, we finally see what has been stalking the man and his dog… Furries.

The first time I saw ‘The Northern Incident’, I was shocked at the ending, and not in a good way. All the horror, the tension, and the scares were forgotten as I realized that all of it had been the setup for a joke, retroactively ruining everything that had come before.

For years, I’ve thought about why I find the ending to ‘The Northern Incident’ to be such a disappointment; other films effectively blend horror and comedy, so why does this one fail? I think it’s because the tone isn’t consistent with what comes before. By the end of the short, we – the audience – have been conditioned to expect a serious horror story, and the revelation that the man was attacked by furries retroactively makes us realize that everything that came before was a lie to throw us off guard. Had there been more comedic elements earlier, or hints about the creature’s true identity, the ending would have been easier to accept. As it is, it’s proof that while out-of-nowhere endings are memorable, they should at least fit with the tone of what came before.

The Takeaway

When doing a horror story, set it in a location far away from help (or have it so that characters can see help, but can’t get to it) and consider keeping the intelligent and sadistic monster hidden, with the audience hearing it instead of seeing it. When it comes time to do the ending, it’s okay to try something different, but keep the tone of it consistent with what came before.

What we can learn from the scariest short story I’ve ever read

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Is there such a thing as the perfect horror story? One so tight, so focused, and so scary that it cannot be improved upon? Probably… but I haven’t found it. ‘Masterpiece’, comes close, though.

There are several versions of this story online, but this is the first one I read a few years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since, becoming one of my favorite horror stories; it’s short, concise, to the point, and haunts you long after its over with. But more than any other monster story, or tale where a ghoul or alien chases people around, ‘Masterpiece’ sticks with me not from the blood or gore, but from the way it so effectively uses sadism and the fear of inevitable pain. So in honor of Halloween, let’s see what we can learn from this short and chilling tale:

Consider starting your story in media res

What’s in media res, you ask? It’s when you start the story not at the beginning, but at the halfway point or later, before cutting back to the beginning, which is almost guaranteed to get your audience’s attention and curiosity immediately. ‘Masterpiece’ does so by starting with our unnamed narrator alone in his bedroom at night, staring at the dead bodies of his parents, leaving us to wonder how on earth he got there. Yikes.

Consider having something awful happen to your loved ones in a horror story

We often like to imagine ourselves in stories, taking the place of the protagonist as they go on adventures, save the day, etc. But when it comes to horror movies, that imagination can backfire. While we learn nothing about the narrator’s parents, that’s not necessary to feel the horror of them being murdered and defiled. It’s all to easy to imagine our own parents going through such horrific treatment, and while that would be enough to make some people close the page and walk away, it does serve as an effective way to suck readers deeper into the story. And it doesn’t have to be parents, either: it could be a beloved aunt, grandparent, or pet.

Consider having your antagonist be an intelligent, non-human being who psychologically torments its prey

It’s a bit cliché, but having your non-human monster be intelligent is a surefire way to ratchet up the creepy factory in a horror story. By going with something that can think, plan, and outwit the protagonist/s, or worse, torments its prey with tricks and mental torture, you make your protagonist’s predicament all the more dangerous and gripping, as cruelty can be more frightening than the raw power of a simple-minded beast. The monster in ‘Masterpiece’ is memorable not because it kills the protagonist’s parents, but because it toys with the narrator and letting them know they’re screwed no matter what they do, and presumably taking great pleasure in such a fact.

Consider having your protagonist be truly helpless in a horror story

It’s common for heroes to be initially helpless against a monster in a horror story, but as they learn more about their opponent, they’re able to fight back, either by getting a weapon, creating one, or exploiting a weakness of the beast. The narrator in ‘Masterpiece’ has no such hope. He/she is in a bedroom with a monster under their bed, and the moment they try to get out or run, they’re dead. That feeling of helplessness, of not being able to fight back or inflict any harm on a tormentor, is one of the most visceral and effective feelings in horror, and arguably the bedrock of the entire genre.

Consider ending your horror story with the promise of pain

Of all the ways to end a horror story, there’s perhaps none more chilling than letting the reader/protagonists know that the only thing they have to look forward to is pain and suffering. ‘Masterpiece’ ends not with the monster ripping the narrator apart, but the simple act of telling him/her that it knows that they’re awake. With the monster less than three feet away, it’s easy to imagine it smiling and waiting for the helpless narrator to just try and run, and that they have no chance of escaping. The narrator is going to die, no matter what.

What’s so good about this type of ending is that it’s a perfect example of the mind being more effective than anything the author can create. There doesn’t need to be any bloodshed, shots of mutilated flesh, or limbs being cut off because our imaginations are so much more effective. If you end a story with a scene of a person being dragged into a dungeon and seeing a tray holding an ice cream scoop just the right size for a human eyeball… well, you can guess what happens next.

Sometimes, not showing what’s going to happen, and leaving the details to the imagination, are far more effective than showing it.

The Takeaway

For a really effective horror story, have an intelligent, sentient monster do something horrifying happen to a helpless protagonist’s loved ones and then trap them in a situation where they can’t escape or fight. But to take the story to the next level (and freak out your audience), have the monster psychologically torture the protagonist.

Wow. That was intense. Here’s a video of someone being a goofball cop in 1940’s Los Angeles

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the film)

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Last week, we took a look at the book version of ‘The Ritual.’ Today, let’s take a look at the film adaptation and see what writers can learn from the big (small?) screen version of the novel:

Consider starting your story with a lighthearted touch, then immediately shifting to horror

‘The Ritual’ begins with Luke and the others (and newcomer Rob) having a typical guy’s night out with drinks, joking, and taking in a city’s nightlife. I first thought it was going to be a predictable scene of the group wanting to get away from their boring lives, but was quickly proven wrong when Luke and Rob stumble into a robbery, and Rob is killed. Only then does the film cut to the outskirts of Sweden’s Forest of Death six months later.

The brilliance of this sequence is how it plays with our expectations: We expect it to be another buddy-movie opening, but by then shifting into horror, it grabs our attention like a slap to the face. Consider doing the same subversion in your story: while the first part risks having the viewer say, ‘Oh great, not another cliched opening,’ the unexpected always gets their attention, letting them know that this isn’t going to turn out the way they think.

Consider having your characters learn to overcome fear

It’s standard advice for writers to have characters change and grow throughout their stories, giving readers the sense that their heroes are capable of learning and growing from both triumph and failure. But what kind of arc should they have? Here, Luke’s arc takes him from being a coward (not helping Rob when he’s being beaten by thugs), to learning to face fear (in this instance, a forest god who will turn you into a flayed flesh-flag if you don’t worship her).

One advantage of having your character learning to stand up for themselves is that everyone can relate to it. Who among us hasn’t felt small and afraid when faced with bullies, angry parents, or enraged employers? And who hasn’t felt the elation of finally standing your ground and fighting back? Having your characters do the same is almost guaranteed to be a fist-pumping, ‘hell yeah!’ moment because we know the struggle it takes to get to that point.

(In all fairness, though, you can’t blame Luke for not stepping in to help in the market; a glass bottle wouldn’t do much against two thugs who aren’t afraid to kill to get what they want.)

Consider having the victim make everything worse for everyone else

After injuring his knee early in the hike, Dom wants nothing more than to get out of the forest. But while his pig-headed stubbornness to get out as quickly as possible is understandable and relatable, it has the side effect of leading almost everyone else to their doom. Had the group just turned back, they probably would have gotten out of the forest alive. Such a contrast creates mixed emotions for your audience: they can sympathize with the victim who just wants to live, but also be angry at him/her for making things worse for everyone else by refusing to listen to reason.

Consider having a small mystery that’s never solved

About halfway through ‘The Ritual,’ Luke and the others find an abandoned tent that belonged to Anna Erikson, a woman who went missing in 1984. While this mystery is never solved, it does engage our imagination: What happened to Anna? Did she escape the forest? Did Moder kill her? Or did she join the cult and worship Moder? It may be possible that the villager who explains to Luke who Moder is Anna. Either way, the ambiguity behind the mystery helps reinforce the fact that Moder has been active for a very long time.

It’s important to note that this mystery is a small one, and not important to the plot. Had it been the main focus of the story, where Luke and the others heading to the forest to find this woman, then it would need to be solved.

Consider hearing something horrible instead of seeing it

It’s common to hear a monster in a creature feature long before it’s seen, and for good reason: Hearing an unearthly beast allows the reader’s/viewer’s imaginations to run wild, and making them lean close the screen or the page in hopes of catching even the smallest glimpse of the monster. However, using sound instead of visuals can also be effective in many other situations. In ‘The Ritual,’ it’s used to chilling effect when Phil is dragged upstairs where we hear him shrieking. We don’t see what’s going on, which makes us wonder what’s terrifying him so much. Torture devices? Other captives who fought back and were mutilated? A big, fat, naked man trying to seduce him?

By leaving something unseen, even if it’s not a monster, you can turbocharge your audience’s imagination… and make their skin crawl as they debate whether they want to see the unseen horror or not.

Consider having your characters sacrifice something for their freedom

In many stories where a character has to escape a location (a cell, a locked room, etc.) they manage to get out of their restraints without any pain. But if you want to turn up the tension, and make your audience squirm, consider having your characters sacrifice something to achieve that freedom. Here, Luke has to sacrifice his thumb by breaking it in order to free himself from his bindings.

Part of fiction’s appeal is imagining ourselves in the place of our heroes and imagining us accomplishing what they do, escaping from impossible situations included. Why not make them squirm by having them wonder if they’d be able to sacrifice a body part to escape. Would they be willing to break their arm? Lose an ear? How about an eye?

Consider having your final confrontation be a battle of wills, not physical strength

In my opinion, the most interesting thing ‘The Ritual’ changes from the book is the final showdown between Luke and Moder. In the book’s climax, the two collide in a van, and Luke drives her off with a pocketknife. Here, however, Moder tries to force Luke to worship her, presumably so she can continue to live from the strength of his prayers. In a physical fight, Luke is no match for Moder, but she’s in a difficult situation: if she kills Luke, she loses her last chance of getting a follower. Thus, Luke finally gains his resolve and refuses to kneel. And thanks to an axe-to-the-face moment, he manages to defeat Moder: not by killing her, but by leaving her powerless, alone, and trapped in a prison she cannot leave.

It’s a fascinating twist on the standard climax of having hero and monster fight in a duel to the death. Here, both parties survive, but Luke is still the winner. ‘The Ritual’ is proof that not every confrontation needs to involve weapons, fists, and pitting strength against strength. Sometimes the most amazing duels are fought with words and wills, where even the weakest in body can stand up to the biggest of bullies.

The takeaway

When writing a story about monsters, a good way to quickly suck viewers in is to start off with a familiar plot, only to quickly swerve into horror territory, setting up a story where the main character has to learn to stand up for himself and face his fears while dealing with injured companions who make things worse for everyone due to their stubbornness, creepy mysteries that they’ll never solve, unseen horrors that he doesn’t want to face, enduring great pain to gain freedom from captivity, and facing the beast and defeating it with courage and their will instead of weapons and strength.

BONUS: When all else fails, punch the evil old woman

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the Book)

The Ritual Book Cover

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:

      1. Not getting anything out of life

      2. Being overweight

      3. About to loose everything in divorces

      4. Trying to restore old friendships that have clearly run their course

      5. Being dirt-poor

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.

The takeaway

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.