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The Horror Protagonist

The core of the tragic character is, despite their hubris, rational. In fact, it is this rationality that allows the audience to empathize with their plight. If hardships befall a fool, or if the protagonist willingly walks into their own doom without forethought, the audience may cheer their dissolution, and will very likely be bored. The character's actions and motivations are understandable, and therein lies the pathos. If a character finds themselves in a horrible situation, even by their own hand, the audience must feel that they'd be in the same situation given the same circumstances.

The horror protagonist must be self-propelled towards their doom, and those choices must ring true. This is almost self-evident, but think to all of the cheap and lazy horror stories that depend on the main character's intense stupidity and stubborn refusal to acknowledge anything like danger. Without the protagonist's rationality (and note that I do not mean that each choice they make follows the rules of logic; the choices must simply follow from their understanding of the world), there is no tragedy. The horror movie becomes little more than victim porn, and while the imagery of victimization is powerful and visceral, it's fragile unto itself. Consider that if the character chooses a path that is explicit in it's danger or likely to end in the protagonist's death, they must have a powerful motivation to do so. Otherwise, the suspension of disbelief is ruined and the audience turns on the protagonist. The entirety of the Slasher genre is based around this phenomenon.

However, neither can the doom be secreted from the audience. If the protagonist is struck down by a random bullet, we may say it is horrifying, but we really mean it is shocking. Shock had a very short shelf life, and is only good for one use. The point of no return must be the most necessary action at the time-- and the audience must understand that action.

As a specific example, consider the British movie "The Descent". In it, a group of spelunkers head into a cave system where they are terrorized by the morlock-like creatures that live there. In the hands of a poor writer, this could be a disaster. Exploring an unknown cave is dangerous, and doing so without proper equipment is criminally stupid. But "The Descent" succeeds in placing the audience in the skins of the characters to such an extent that while we may wish they didn't engage in such a dangerous move. We know that circumstance has aligned against them, rather than them inviting disaster.

Many horror writers focus on the scenario above the characters, and to shoehorn the characters into that situation they force all manner of stupid choices down their throat. For example, in the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the heroine is confronted with a choice: flee down the deserted highway and hope for rescue, or run into the abandoned meat packing plant. Any sane person would find level ground, run their ass off, and put miles between the mutant family and themselves. Jessica Biel opts for the slaughterhouse, because the writer wanted a set piece there. It's lazy writing, and as a result, the audience turned against the hero.

Up Next: The Theory of Narrative Gestalt

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