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Build A Better Horror Screenplay



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No matter how much experience you have, there’s always a point (maybe several) in the process of developing a new screenplay idea where you start to question your assumptions.

This examination is a good thing. Why? If you’re questioning conventional wisdom, you’re making sure the unique demands of your story are being served. You’re not just doing what everyone else does because you heard it was the “right” way. You’re shaking that Jenga tower of a story you’re building and making sure it’s solid.

And even though it can feel really uncomfortable while you’re going through it, I secretly love this part. Because poking the soft spots of what you already “know” often leads to new discoveries and deeper understanding.

Get to the horror movies already! Okay, I hear you.

Mike, a screenwriter client of mine, is working on a new horror screenplay and one of our consultations led to a discussion about the horror genre in general. Specifically how certain horror movie elements have to work together. Or do they?

horror screenplay screenwriting

Horror movies aren’t just about scares

Horror is one of those genres that never seems to die. (Ha!) It’s often budget-friendly and proves to be a sound investment. So there’s a good market for horror scripts, with more potential buyers.

And with the recent “resurgence in imaginative, brainy and – most importantly – frightening fare”It Follows, The Babadook, Green Room, Raw, Get Out, It Comes At Night — there’s even more interest in finding that next great, elevated horror movie.

If you’re so inclined, writing a horror script can be a smart way to open some doors.

The caveat here is that a lot of other aspiring writers have the same idea. I’ve read a lot of horror screenplays.

One noticeable trend is the “basic” horror script. That’s the one that relies a little too heavily on flashy scares, but doesn’t have the substance to make it emotionally engaging. And yes – even silly horror movies need to grab us somewhere deeper. That’s what makes one stand out from the rest.

Understanding how the basic elements of the genre work equips you to play on those expectations, and elevate the genre.

What is a MITH?

A lot of horror movies – including Mike’s, the one that started this whole discussion — fall into the Monster in the House (MITH) genre.

If you’re not familiar, don’t worry. In short, “Monster in the House” is a label that comes from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. (Full disclosure: I worked on this book with Blake).

In this book, Blake lays out his 10 “genres” — which is really a way of grouping story types, rather than the usual industry use of the word. So these “genre” categories are determined by the story elements, not by the tone or marketing hook of the movie.

Not every MITH movie is a horror movie, and not every horror is a MITH. But there is a lot of crossover, so for today we’re going to focus on horror movies that do fall into the MITH category.

What are the elements of a MITH?

For the MITH genre, which includes such diverse movies as Jaws, Alien, Tremors, Jurassic Park, The Ring, The Cable Guy, and Fatal Attraction, Blake lays out three essential elements:

  1. A “monster” which appears to be unstoppable.
  2. A “house”, which can encompass a range of physical spaces and settings, though the more isolated our heroes, the better.
  3. A “sin” which indicates someone is guilty of bringing the monster in the house.

To illustrate, in Fatal Attraction:

  1. The monster is the woman scorned (Glenn Close).
  2. The house is the family unit that she invades.
  3. And the sin is infidelity; if Michael Douglas’s character hadn’t slept with her, she wouldn’t be a threat to him / the family.

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

How MITH elements interact with other story components

The discussion I had with Mike started around the idea of the “sin.”

  • How does the sin function in the story? Is it truly necessary?
  • Is the sin the same thing as the protagonist’s flaw?
  • Is the monster connected to the sin? Or to the protagonist’s flaw? Or both?

These are all questions that try to get at the heart of the matter: how do the elements work together to create an effective story?

In search of patterns, we looked at many MITH horror movie examples. You’ll see some below.

From these examples it seemed the “monster” should challenge some internal deficit in the main character in order create a more cohesive story. That makes sense. That’s simply a horror-specific way of saying that coming up against the antagonist of the story is what forces the protagonist to grow.

The monster should challenge the protagonist’s flaw or internal struggle.

But we noticed the story’s “sin” doesn’t always belong to the protagonist.

The “sin” element is not the same thing as the character’s flaw.

So even if the “monster” is related to the protagonist’s flaw (as in, a direct challenge to it), that doesn’t mean that the monster has to be related to the “sin” because the sin might belong to a character other than the protagonist.

But if sin and character flaw aren’t the same thing, then what is the “sin”?

Sin vs. Character Flaw

In his book, Blake says that someone does something to let the monster in, and that’s part of the terror, because the monster entering is our own fault. That it’s our guilt over a sin committed — and the dread of being punished for it — that helps make MITH stories effective.

But is that the case, if the protagonist isn’t the one whose sin brings the monster in? Let’s refer to our examples:

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

Jaws. Monster: A man-eating, great white shark. House: The beachside tourist town of Amity. Sin: Greed. When the city officials refuse to close down the beaches during the busy tourist season, they invite the monster into the house.

Alien. Monster: A metamorphic creature with acid for blood and an uncanny ability to hide. House: The Nostromo spacecraft. Sin: Greed again. The company sends the crew out to collect these specimens, and whether they survive or not is almost inconsequential to the bottom line.

The Exorcist. Monster: A powerful demon. House: A teenaged girl’s body. Sin: Disbelief. Doubt and a faltering of faith between Fathers Karras and Merrin invite the dark spirit into the child.

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

From these examples, it’s clear the sin isn’t always something done by the story’s protagonist. Meaning, it doesn’t have to be something that demonstrates the main character’s flaw.

So the sin isn’t necessarily reflective of or related to the character’s arc. Rather, it seems like the sin’s function is to create a sense of dread in the audience. If we think the group that’s being targeted by the monster kind of deserves it, we anticipate that they might just get what’s coming to them. Even as we hope they don’t. Even as we understand movie protagonists usually make it out alright.

It’s the constant push-pull of hope and dread (or fear) that keeps us invested in a story. If we identify with the character(s), we hope for the best outcome for their sake. But the circumstances of the plot and the forces of antagonism make us fear the worst. We hope this will happen, but we fear that will happen. We keep watching (or reading) to see which it is, which will win out.

And the “sin” can help establish that fear.

How does “sin” relate to “monster”, if at all?

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

So a “monster” like the alien in Alien, which takes out members of the group indiscriminately, may challenge a main character who needs to come into her own and stand up for herself.

But that doesn’t relate to the “sin” of greed, which put the group in that dangerous position in the first place.

And that’s okay.

Because the sin is an important factor in creating our sense of dread, which helps get us hooked into the story. But watching a character put through a specific kind of hell, seemingly created to challenge her exact flaw or deficit, helps keep us invested in the story. It will make us hope for the best, and fear the worst.

How does the “monster” relate to character flaw?

As mentioned above, stories gain a sense of cohesiveness when the “monster” does relate in some way to the main character’s flaw. The same way that an antagonist and a protagonist often feel like two sides of the same coin. It gives the story a sense of purpose. This character must experience this story right now.

It Follows is a good one to look at, as is The Babadook. In It Follows, the main character is grappling with the issue of how to have intimate relationships and the monster speaks directly to that. It is passed via sexual interactions.

In The Babadook, the main character is dealing with depression and grief, and the monster is a direct representation of that. It forces the main character to deal with her grief and the effect that grief is having on her life.

screenwriting horror movie screenplay

If you look at The Ring, the main character is dealing with balancing motherhood and career. The monster comes in and challenges her on that point. She has to make a real choice between the two.

Fatal Attraction takes this strategy too — the monster of the scorned woman is a direct challenge to the hero’s deficit. He needs to appreciate his wife/family and not wish for greener grass, and his dealings with Alex make him see that.

In Alien, the monster attacks and kills members of the crew indiscriminately. No one is safe, so Ripley needs to come into her own, become her own hero. This ties into her need to grow up or become her own hero in life, as she’s just learned she’s been deceived/betrayed by the parental figure of the corporation.

However, we started this article talking about questioning our assumptions. So it only makes sense to ask:

Does the “monster” always have to relate to the character’s flaw?

And the short answer is No. Of course not.

There’s no one right way to build a story. Think of this monster / character arc connection as a spectrum. Some stories are more obvious metaphors. Others are more subtle.

I’d say Alien falls in the latter category, while something like It Follows lands in the former.

In the end, this is a good reminder to focus on tools, not rules.

Rather than getting caught up in the rules of how a horror screenplay must work, to build a truly effective screenplay let’s focus on the unique needs of your story and build the screenplay to best serve it.








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