Oedipus Rex tears his eyes from their sockets, self inflicted punishment for his inability to see clearly. In Antigone, the heroine (Oedipus's exiled daughter, for those fans of continuity) is surrounded by the suicides of her friends and family. In Sophocles version, these horrors are piled on with the aloof air of a divine insurgency. When Seneca the Younger remade the plays (because there is nothing new in show business) he ramped the violence and occultism up, turning tales of hubris into tales of revenge. It's grim stuff. The tension builds, the stakes raise, and the hero, despite his best intentions and honorable actions, finds every avenue of action closed to him. By the end of the play the audience is begging for some release and all too wise to the hero's doom. They want only a cessation of the tension, and exhale only as Oedipus laments his blindness, or when the villainous Clytaemenstra stands over the butchered bodies of brave Agamemnon and unheard Cassandra. Aristotle called this catharsis. It means 'a purging'. Horror attempts the same thing.
The modern Horror story, so often the maligned step child of the arts, is in fact the spiritual descendant of these ancient tragedians. The tools are the same, the intent is the same, but few horror writers make use of them. These techniques are just as cogent for other mediums. Whether a comic book, videogame, or role playing session, the structures are the same, only their applications differ. I'm hoping that by showing how to use these tools I can show the difference between a film that horrifies and a horror film.
Up next: The Horror Protagonist