Last month we talked about the importance of location in horror, and this time I want to talk about characters. Not ALL characters – horror has a certain set of ‘rules’ about its characters, so I want to break it down to talk about a very specific type of character; The Antagonist.
There are different types of antagonist within horror. You have some, like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, who are the antagonist within the crime to be solved, but the true ‘monster’ of the piece is Hannibal Lecter. Then there’s Patrick Bateman, the narrator who is both protagonist AND antagonist in American Psycho. Obviously the type of antagonist is in some ways dictated by the type of horror, but these are some of the villains you might like to pit your hero against.
The Monster – Bad to the Bone
The good old-fashioned monster. Dracula. Mr Hyde. Jason Voorhees. Freddie Krueger. These are the monsters who are either bad and they know it (but they don’t care), or they’re just plain out to get you. There can be no sympathizing with these monsters – we might think they’re cool, but we can’t justify what they do, or understand them on any level. They’ll either kill or be killed, and your plot will arise out of a) how the body count rises while the hero evades them and b) how the hero discovers how to destroy them. In some cases your hero will just simply contain them, rather than outright destroy them, but either way your hero will save the day, albeit temporarily. Be careful that your monster isn’t cooler than your hero – while it’s difficult to root for the Woman in Black compared to Arthur Kipps, the kids in the Nightmare on Elm Street films were so nondescript that it was easy to prefer wise-cracking Freddie.
The Monster – Misunderstood
You’ve always got the other type of monster – the one who’s monstrous, but through no fault of their own. Think Frankenstein’s Creature, or Karloff’s Imhotep from The Mummy. There’s something oddly appealing about these characters, who are both deadly, but desperate to be loved or understood. There is a lot more pathos in their stories, as the plot may see the hero destroy them (while not really wanting to), and we often end up rooting for them because they’re in such a horrid situation. Take Imhotep – he simply wants to be reunited with his love, and he’s a far more interesting character than the wet ‘hero’ who is set up to save her. These monsters often do generate sympathy, which is what makes their end more tragic than triumphant.
The Serial Killer
Serial killers are considered a form of monster, but the distinction usually arises from the fact that while monsters may have once been human, they are now monstrous in their form, while serial killers are humans who are monstrous through their deeds. Cinema in particular is full of interesting, complicated and utterly chilling serial killers, and horror fiction is much the same. Just make sure you give your serial killer some kind of reason or justification beyond general madness, otherwise the randomness of their acts turns them into little more than zombies, driven only by bloodlust. Serial killers also let you play with the conventions of the police procedural, as there has to be some form of investigation to uncover exactly who they are, and what they want.
The Ghost/Supernatural Presence
Ghosts are wonderful antagonists because they tick so many boxes. Like the room in 1408, they can be simply evil for the sake of it, or like the Woman in Black, they can be driven to dark deeds through a need for revenge, or because they become trapped in an eternal cycle of killing and re-enactment of the original crime. Ghost narratives also require an investigation by the hero into the past of the story’s location in order to explain the ghost’s motivations, and possible weaknesses, but because ghosts are already dead, they hold a lot more cards than your vulnerable, human hero. Fire is usually a good way to make a point.
Survival horror continues, and you can easily pit your unwary humans against bees, wolves, zombies, or even killer frogs. Revenge-of-nature films pit nature itself in the role of the monster – look at Jaws – but if you look again, you’ll often find that the problem occurs as a result of human intervention in the first place. Still, with nature’s arsenal at your disposal, you can come up with some interesting secondary antagonists along the way, particularly those humans who want to blast in with firepower or nukes, where simple containment or appeasement will do. In these cases, the ‘good’ humans need ‘bad’ humans to fight while trying to subdue nature, since nature can never truly be conquered.
Can you think of any others?