*** FYI – SPOILERS FOR “WIND CHILL” ***
One inevitable element that always comes up with my Bang2writers is, “What is the difference between Horror and Thriller?” Though I touch on this issue in my book, WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS, I think it’s worthwhile to go into more detail on this element, especially since I’ve had so many recent questions about it via Twitter and my various other social media channels.
I see LOTS of spec screenplays that call themselves “Thriller/Horrors” and this is nearly always a mistake. Not only does it wind up the people you’re pitching to who think you’re trying to cover all the bases, it actually shows you don’t really understand who your audience is. Remember, if you don’t nail who your audience is, then your screenplay probably doesn’t demonstrate this either. In other words, there’s a stronger than average chance you’re sabotaging your chances of getting a read, big style.
So, why the confusion? Well, here are my thoughts on the matter:
- Horror and Thriller DO overlap. Let’s start with the obvious: whilst Horror can be thrilling, Thriller can be horrifying. This is never more obvious to writers than in the Supernatural Thriller and Supernatural Horror subgenres, but this does NOT mean the two are the same. [Hold that thought, because we’ll return to it in a second].
- Dramatic context (part 1). The reason Horror & Thriller overlap is because they share the dramatic context of “flight versus fight”. In other words, in the first half or even two thirds, characters are confronted by an issue of some kind and usually flee or attempt to flee from it in the first instance, often literally; they are then forced to engage with that issue in the second half or last third.
- Characters. The key (general) elements that mark out the differences between Horrors and Thrillers are frequently down to the characterisation. In Horror, characters frequently make active decisions that take them directly into the monster’s literal or metaphorical lair. In contrast, a thriller protagonist is frequently drawn against his/her will into the antagonist’s EVIL PLAN. In other words, the antagonist drives the action in the Thriller genre; the protagonist is generally unsuspecting and would have lived a “normal life” had the antagonist not kicked everything off.
- Dramatic Context (part 2). This is where knowing your audience and what they want REALLY comes into play. Audiences sign up for DIFFERENT THINGS with the two genres: Horror, they want the scares. They are principally voyeurs, seeing how the situation basically fucks people up/gets them killed. Frequently there “just is” a monster, a killer or a haunting and we’re essentially watching the characters’ response to this. In contrast, Thrillers are frequently about MYSTERY and solving some kind of problem, often as part of a “race against time”. In short:
Horror = scares
Thriller = chase
So, now let’s return to that notion of the Supernatural Horror versus Supernatural Thriller, probably the two most troublesome genres for spec screenwriters to get right:
If Horror is about being a voyeur and Thriller about mystery, then yes of course it in principle it’s *possible* to pull both off, but this rarely works and I will use the 2007 film WIND CHILL to illustrate why. This movie is about two college students, known only as “Boy” and “Girl”, who share a lift when returning home at Christmas. When the car comes off the road, they’re forced to try and survive in arctic conditions at the roadside, as well as deal with a haunting.
Now, I should mention there’s LOADS I really like about WIND CHILL, not least Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes, who both put in great performances. There’s some great make up and effects, great photography and great dialogue. I also love the characterisation, which is for once is both complex and refreshingly simple, which is no mean feat at all. It’s definitely my type of film at grass roots level and I like what the filmmakers and writers tried to do here.
However, in my opinion WIND CHILL demonstrates superbly how attempting to be both a Supernatural Horror and Supernatural Thriller impacts on potential dramatic satisfaction for its audience, for the following reasons:
1) I didn’t know what the mission was … So Boy and Girl are in a car that crashes in the snow and must survive until morning, with loads of ghostly stuff being thrown at them in the hours between. Great! I love it. That’s a brilliant Horror concept: “frozen haunted car”. Why not? BUT WAIT … that’s not just it: there’s the whole “psychic bubble Nietsche” thing thrown in, giving in a non linear element more in keeping with a Thriller, but I’m not really sure why or what it really means in terms of the jeopardy they face at the hands of the so-called “Bad Cop”. More on this, next.
2) … So I didn’t know what was at stake or why. The notion there was a Bad Cop from 1953 ambushing unsuspecting motorists and killing them is excellent. We don’t need to know his motives either: the guy’s a serial killer; serials killers like killing. And sure, a serial killer ghost is going to keep killing people forever. Why not, especially if WIND CHILL is a Horror. My concern then was not WHY the Bad Cop was killing people beyond his *own* grave, but HOW, especially if WIND CHILL is supposed to be a Thriller: after all, if they stay in the car, he apparently can’t get them (though they may freeze to death) and even if he is able to get them, that psychic bubble may move everything forwards anyway and suddenly they’re back in the car and away from him regardless. More on this in a minute, but first: our Girl is able to repel the Bad Cop on a number of occasions, yet the van driver who picks her up gets frozen pretty much straight away when he sees the “echo” of the Bad Cop being burned by the priests. Why? Either somewhere along the way my own brain froze, or it all this psychic bubble/repetition stuff just got either waaaaaaay too convoluted or the filmmakers suddenly remembered our Girl was supposed to be isolated. More, next.
3) The rules of this storyworld are not clear. To be clear: I absolutely love the notion of the “psychic bubble” and accept they talk about this idea of Nietsche’s in the car in Act 1, but when it actually comes into play, it still seems to come out of the left field for me. Yes, yes, I understood it was “supposed” to jar, especially with regard to the metal bar, the Bad Cop and Boy’s resulting frost bite, but if WIND CHILL is a Thriller, we needed a some kind of anchor to set up this non linear device so we could understand what was going on and what kind of timeframe/space we’re operating in (I don’t believe non linear stories necessarily need an explanation of why they’re non linear btw, but we DO need to be able to follow). And if it was a Horror? Then probably we didn’t need that psychic bubble at all, as interesting an element as it was, as it was superfluous. In addition, I didn’t know why simply staying in the car meant Bad Cop couldn’t get them and what significance the radio had in announcing his arrival other than giving a warning, especially when Boy and Girl could apparently bounce from one bit of reality (outside the car) to another (back inside the car).
4) Exposition. If we consider a Supernatural Horror like INSIDIOUS, much of the exposition is “given” to the characters through dreams and confessions, especially via the Mother-In-Law character. Remember, audiences are principally interested in the scares in Horror, so this kind of spoon feeding exposition is fine and part of the genre, as long as it’s done well, especially within the context of good characterisation. However, in the Supernatural Thriller, this is NOT an effective device because the audience wants to help unravel the mystery, so being handed it all on a plate is an anticlimax. WIND CHILL then gives us far too much of the exposition, resulting in the characters waiting in the car for extended periods, with only a few moments of real action, like when she has to climb the telegraph pole.
5) I wasn’t sure what was going on with the other ghosts. Whilst it’s clear both the Boy and Girl are seeing “echoes” of the past and it’s also clear the priests, the dead woman and the guy with the bound hands and rotten face can’t hurt them, I wasn’t sure if the ghosts wanted anything from Boy and Girl. If WIND CHILL is a supernatural thriller, usually the ghosts want some kind of assistance from mortals. Consider one of the most famous supernatural thrillers, THE SIXTH SENSE: Cole is asked to help the ghosts send messages to the living, such as grandmother and the bumblebee pendant, or the girl whose stepmother murdered her. This lead me to believe that WIND CHILL was a Horror in this regard, because the ghosts “just were” there, with Boy and Girl powerless to intervene as the ghosts shuffled past or killed The Bad Cop all over again. This was really interesting, but meant Boy and Girl ended up essentially quite passive, having to wait in the car until morning, which we were not sure was ever going to come because of the psychic bubble thing, which then ended up feeling like an own goal.
6) The boy’s death does not catapult the girl into worse problems … As mentioned there’s some great characterisation in WIND CHILL: I love the fact Girl is so difficult and defensive, like so many young people can be when they’ve been endlessly disappointed. I also love the fact that Boy tries so hard but ends up coming off as a borderline stalker. In short, they feel authentic and plausible, so we can see how they end up in the position they do. Best of all, however, is that powerful moment when Girl returns to the car to find Boy has died. Blunt’s understated acting here is fantastic and we really do expect her to find a pulse after all, as is the custom in Thrillers. Like a Horror however, she is left decidedly “Final Girl” and I felt certain she would engage directly with Bad Cop on his next return, so was disappointed when she was picked up by the Van Driver and even more so, when he effectively filled in any remaining blanks about the Bad Cop (which also begs the question of why the hell Van Driver was driving around at that time on such dangerous roads!). It was inevitable something would happen to that Van Driver of course, but still Girl doesn’t actually really get into a major showdown with Bad Cop: instead we see what really happened to Bad Cop in the past and even though this crosses over into the present with the subsequent killing of Van Driver, Girl just kind of runs off into the forest. We also feel like we already know Bad Cop’s past really because of the endless repetitions of the ghosts (especially the priests) earlier anyway, so again that psychic bubble thing effectively undermines the story.
7) … So the ending simply “happens”. The notion the dead Boy will guide the alive Girl to safety is another GREAT idea and is NOT a deus ex machina because it was set up by his death earlier and the fact that ghosts exist in this storyworld. However, because the girl simply accepts his ghost’s help AND hasn’t really “vanquished the beast” re: Bad Cop in the classic Horror sense, it feels rather anticlimactic. As a result, when she’s finally found by the paramedics and we join her sitting on the ambulance steps, instead of relief, we feel like, “Well why didn’t she walk off to safety in the first place??” This seems a shame when there’s so much good stuff in the movie.
If I was script editing a genre-confused project like WIND CHILL, my notes would be insistent the boundaries between Horror and Thriller need defining, so whichever was decided, the target audience can really get their teeth into the story:
If it was decided then that WIND CHILL was a Horror? I would recommend ditching the whole psychic bubble thing and having Boy and Girl pitched into a battle with the ghost of Bad Cop, who ambushes people every year on a backwater road, every time the temperature goes below freezing and it snows. Up against both the elements and the serial killer ghost, I would have the couple having to stay alive until morning, but having to leave the car *for some reason* to try and make it to safety through the forest. This would be when they would encounter the other ghosts – victims of the Bad Cop too – and work out who he is and what he is … and how they can defeat him, thus “vanquishing the beast”.
In contrast, if it was decided that WIND CHILL was a Thriller? I would set the psychic bubble thing up very quickly in a “hit the ground running” way, perhaps in the quick style of MEMENTO or more “slow burn” like PREMONITION. Whatever the case, I would ensure there was some kind of anchor or throughline that ensured the characters were ACTIVELY involved in unpicking the mystery of HOW they had a) become embroiled in the phenomenon and b) what the Bad Cop’s story/problem was, without it being fed to them, so the mystery could be unravelled piece by piece by Girl over the course of the whole narrative. This would then mean her standing at the car bonfire at the end would have the most impact, especially when Bad Cop jumps out of the flames again.
It is my belief with the above tackled, the dramatic satisfaction of the target audience for WIND CHILL would increase tenfold.
Check out your favourite supernatural movies … Are they Horror or Thriller? If they’re somewhere in the middle, do they work? As mentioned, I really liked WIND CHILL, but I reckon I could have loved it if it had come down on one side of Horror OR Thriller, instead of attempting both.
WIND CHILL screenplay (PDF) – NB. found freely available via Googling “Wind Chill screenplay”.
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