Genre is one of the overriding reasons why people return to the cinema – they are looking for something new, something fresh, something they haven’t seen before. So, too, are film producers, readers and agents. Consequently, the biggest challenge writers face is to deliver those fresh ideas and new twists on popular genres.
Take haunted house scripts, for instance; they’re ten a penny – Mama, Dark Skies, Insidious ad nausea. If you want to write a haunted house script (and my advice is don’t; this sub-genre has just about run its course for now), then you need to approach it from a new or unusual angle.
“Subvert the conventions of any genre and you just might create cinema gold.”
For instance, the greatest haunted house film I’ve ever seen is Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett took the haunted house conventions and packed them into a spaceship, replacing the invisible entity with an aggressive alien (which was just as invisible for much of the film). Subvert the conventions of any genre and you just might create cinema gold.
In The Conjuring, screenwriting siblings Chad and Carey Hayes try to subvert the conventions by focusing much of the story not on the haunted family, but on the paranormal investigators. The real life consensus was that the Warrens were hacks with eyes set firmly on their bank accounts, but the Hayes brothers approached their screenplay from the opposite angle and turned them into devote professionals who, for the sake of their own souls and their young daughter, want nothing more than to turn their backs on the paranormal world. This grounds the characters in a believable world and submerges the story in much needed emotion (sympathy and empathy is what it’s all about, darlings), something many of the most recent haunted house films have been lacking. Although their approach here doesn’t entirely work, the lesson to learn is make your characters just as important as the scares in a horror script. This will result in far more effective horror and suspense because your reader will care more about what happens to your characters.