Writers on Genre at the WGAW: Writing Horror – Audience Expectations and Genre Techniques

Writing veteran Daniel Petrie Jr. moderated a WGA panel comprised of Hollywood’s hottest horror scribes to discuss audience expectations and genre techniques.

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Writers on Genre at the WGAW: Writing Horror - Audience Expectations and Genre Techniques

Would your significant other leave you if he or she read your stuff? It’s just another day at the office for these three gentlemen…

For an audience of anxious screenwriter-hopefuls, respected Hollywood veteran Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop) moderated a panel comprised of Hollywood’s hottest horror scribes: Scott Kosar (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003, The Machinist, The Crazies), Wesley Strick (Arachnophobia, Scorsese’s Cape Fear, Nightmare on Elm Street 2010), and Stephen Susco (The Grudge, The Grudge 2).

Audience Expectations

Early in the night, Petrie asked his panelists, “What are the expectations of the horror genre?” Strick’s immediate response: “Catharsis. You come out of it emboldened or exhilarated.”

Susco observed, “Young audiences are drawn to horror because it charges everything you’ve got; you’re hoping to get laid afterward!” Elaborating on that base truth, Susco then conveyed a gem gleaned from the Master of Horror himself: “Wes Craven once said to me, ‘Horror films are an exorcism: 90 minutes of fear and terror that is ritualistic, contained, and communal in a group of people.’”

Scowling and sighing, Kosar provided a more pragmatic answer: “Unfortunately the modern expectation is to see some gruesome deaths, but good horror is much more than interesting kills. A horror film is only as good as its victims. One of the differences between cheap horror and real horror is characterization. All writing, regardless of genre, comes down to the basics: characters, 3-act structure, opposing force for the protagonist,” and so on. Kosar went on to cite Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft as icons of psychological and supernatural horror, respectively, and that, with regard to dealing with life, death, existence, the afterlife, “Horror could be a very profound genre.”


Regarding the supernatural horror strain, Strick recommended, “It feels to me, when writing a supernatural film, it’s important you not use the supernatural as a crutch. The longer you can sustain [your story without resorting to a supernatural explanation], the more the audience enjoys that.”

Curious about the Hollywood studio development process? Giving a very Zen shrug, Susco said, “The studio development process is what’s working in theatres right now.”

One of the night’s highlights came when Strick revealed a bit about his writing process, saying, “It’s important to shock myself while I’m writing. Like, ‘my wife would pack her bags and leave me if she knew what I wrote on my laptop sitting across from her at the kitchen table’”— everybody laughed—“You want to dig into some area of your psyche that’s weird.”


On technique, Susco advised, “How do you scare someone when they’re reading? You slow…them…down…make the writing like tar…”

(Susco merely saying the phrase “make the writing like tar” freaked me out.)

On craft, Kosar warned, “Your ability to reinvent conventions will determine your career’s success in this genre.” However, as Strick encountered for his Nightmare remake, “As a writer you want to do something original, [but] you know the fanboys are out there waiting. You get a lot of shit for departing.” (Ironically, this film critic gave Strick “shit” in his review for not departing.)

But if you’re serious, if you really want to write a horror film, if you really want to terrify, to disturb, to freak the beejeesus out your reader, Susco counsels, “I encourage people to immerse themselves in their phobias: facing the thing you don’t want to face.”

His voice seething and quiet as dry ice, Strick whispered, “There’s a time in the night, when the id comes more to the surface, it bubbles up in your brain, the unconscious…”

Some in the audience knew what Strick meant. Some did not. Yet all had to shudder.

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One thought on “Writers on Genre at the WGAW: Writing Horror – Audience Expectations and Genre Techniques

  1. TheUndecidedStoryteller

    Horror and I have a love-hate relationship. I stopped watching them for many years because my psyche couldn’t handle them. It didn’t even have to be “good” horror, just the idea that something, anything could be lurking under my bed, in my closet (I still can’t sleep with closet doors open), or standing outside my bedroom completely sends my body into a panic. So it was terrifyingly shocking when one-day horror stories began creeping out of my inner thoughts. I began writing what scares me and I must say, I’ve horrified myself. In the past four years, I have been dabbling in horror writing and I Love it! How does this work? How does a woman who can’t even watch a horror film alone or before the sun goes down WRITE horror? As a possible horror screenwriter, how do I keep an audience engaged? Horror to me is nothing new under the sun. The Mummys, Frankensteins, Draculas, Werewolves, Freddy Kruegers, Jasons, and Michael Meyers of the past have all been done and very well. Then there are the haunted houses, cabins, boats, and islands. How can I engage an audience more devout than myself? I’m no expert on scary, so how can I convince people that are, that I may actually have what it takes to terrify them? I’d hate to walk into the den of the damned an imposter.