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Horror Tips: The Forms of Antagonists, Part II: The Uncanny

Continuing our conversation from last time on the different forms horror antagonists take, we’re going to explore another common trope known as the uncanny.

The Uncanny

Have you ever wondered what makes innocent-looking things like dolls and clowns so terrifying? We know they can’t hurt us, yet they often take center stage in some of horror’s scariest stories and films. Both of these fall into the category of the uncanny. An uncanny antagonist has human features but they are slightly off. Whether it’s a doll’s dead eyes, a clown’s concealing face paint, a puppet’s stringed limbs, or even an apparition’s distorted and transparent appearance, these unnatural beings can strike terror unlike any other. Why is that? This also dates back to early human psychology when members of a tribe that appeared disabled or “not right” could signify disease that could kill the rest of the tribe. Though we have advanced into an age of medical enlightenment and treatment, the fear was strong enough to become a biophobia. Being unable to see a villain’s facial expressions is also a predisposed fear, as humans rely heavily on facial cues to determine motives and if someone poses a threat. The hiding of such facial expressions causes an instinctual uneasiness, something our last post’s masked strangers employ so well. This is why characters facing corners with their faces hidden (like the end of The Blair Witch Project) or using natural features like their hair to conceal their faces (as Samara does in The Ring) is so terrifying. It preys on an instinctual fear.

Which to Use?

The uncanny antagonist, as well as the masked stranger, are best used in stories that don’t require strong character development or a backstory for the antagonist but simply want to instill terror. Whereas the stranger that hides in plain sight is useful for more subtle stories, or mystery/thrillers, that instead explore the character development of villains who look just like us. In the end, choosing the form of your horror antagonist depends on your comfort level of character development. It also depends on whether you want an in-your-face kind of villain with a limited backstory or a blends-in-with-the-crowd antagonist that is more subtle and requires stronger character development to establish his/her backstory. Typically, mystery thrillers rely on the subtler stranger, the antagonist who blends into the crowd, because these stories’ settings are more realistic. Horror has the advantage of bending the rules of reality and can employ more unnatural and larger-than-life antagonists like killer clowns, dolls, ghosts, demons, zombies, or masked madmen. Before writing your antagonist, evaluate how comfortable you are delving into your bad guy’s backstory and then decide if you want a more “real life” setting for your story or one that’s more fanciful and plays with the rules of reality. This will help you determine which kind of antagonist best suits your horror story.

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