Horror Tips: The Forms of Antagonists, Part I: The Stranger
One of the key features of a strong horror story is a well-written antagonist. These particular antagonists take center stage when it comes to horror and come in various forms, from incorporeal ghosts and ghouls to masked madmen or the stranger next door. For our final week of October, and to get you fully in the spirit of Halloween, we’re going to do a two-part dive into the various forms horror antagonists assume and their different uses in storytelling. This post will be discussing “The Stranger.”
Numerous horror stories and even films rely on this particular theme for their classic bad guys. The stranger is introduced as a character unknown to the main character and usually has an unknown backstory. They are often solitary characters. They can start off as seemingly innocent characters only to reveal a sinister side later on (such as Norman Bates from Psycho). The stranger can take two forms: hiding in plain sight or concealing his identity with a mask. Antagonists that hide in plain sight have the advantage of keeping the reader in the dark as to their true identity. This is recommended if you want to play with stronger character development in making your antagonist appear normal. Such antagonists usually have an interesting backstory, like Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. This is a common trope in mystery/thrillers where murderers tend to pose as regular citizens or helpful neighbors.
Or the more sinister route is the classic masked antagonist. These villains stand out in a crowd and their purpose is sheerly to terrify. If you’re going for a more in-your-face villain with limited backstory, this is a recommended trope. Classic examples include Michael Myers from Halloween, Jason Vorhees in Friday the 13th, Gunnar Hansen, aka Leatherface, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the more recent nameless villain from Hush. The masked villain has the advantage of hiding an antagonist’s true identity and backstory (which in reality may be unimpressive or boring) by presenting a larger-than-life persona.
The Psychology of Fear
The stranger is an effective antagonist trope because as humans we are predisposed to fear, on a subconscious level, people we do not know. This is due to early human psychology passing on genes of fearing unknown members of other tribes who could be lethal enemies. Though there are far more dangerous things to be fearful of nowadays (guns, car wrecks, etc.), these fears have not been around long enough to become encoded genetically, something known as a biophobia. As mentioned at the beginning of the month, classic biophobias include the dark, dangerous animals like snakes and spiders, enclosed spaces, and strangers. Horror, particularly its villains, thrives on playing on people’s biophobias.
Next time, we’ll explore another popular trope called “the uncanny.”