Is Horror Always ‘Monster in the House’?
It’s almost Halloween. Let’s talk monsters!!! Or more specifically… the Monster in the House genre.
I practically live in this genre. I’ve worked on a dozen produced horror movies at this point. I’ve probably written another 20 scripts. ALL OF THEM are Monster in the House stories.
Halloween, Friday the 13th, Saw, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Alien, Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, IT, Scream, The Thing, A Quiet Place, Candyman, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, etc, etc.—all of the horror movies I’ve taken the time to analyze or have seen broken down into beat sheets fall into the MITH box with its 3 elements: Monster, Sin, and House.
This week alone, I watched My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Hellraiser (2022), The Watcher, X, and Scream (2022)… all Monster in the House!
(And yes, I watch a ton of horror.)
So every horror movie is a Monster in the House… right?
That’s what I used to think.
Until, one dark and stormy night…
I do a regular podcast where we break down movies to find screenwriting lessons. It’s on the Thunder Grunt Network and it’s called “Writers/Blockbusters”—you should check it out, it’s a Save the Cat! lovefest over there.
Recently, we broke down Jordan Peele’s Nope.
Nope is a horror movie. It’s scary. It’s got a monster. There’s a battle for survival and lots of terrifying set pieces and creepy weirdness.
Monster in the House, right?
Whenever I analyze movies, the first question I ask is “What’s the pitch?” Who is the hero? What’s their goal? What’s the big obstacle in their way? What are the stakes (if they fail, what happens)?
In Nope, it’s as follows:
Hero: A down-on-his-luck horse trainer
Goal: To get photographic evidence — “The Oprah Shot” — of a UFO that’s menacing his ranch
Obstacle: The UFO and the difficulty of capturing a UFO on film
Stakes: Financial mostly. He’s in danger of losing the ranch that’s been the pride of the family for years.
Is this a Monster in the House?
It has a monster, for sure.
It has a house: the UFO seems confined to an area around the ranch.
It even has a sin: exploiting creatures and even terrible events for spectacle is a theme that runs throughout the movie.
But here’s the addendum I think Monster in the House needs… the people should be trapped in the house. It’s this absence of being able to walk away which really is the hallmark of Horror and is key to Monster in the House. If you can “just walk away,” it’s no longer a story about survival. If the hero chooses to run toward the monster or if the monster is actually “the goal”—is the story a Monster in the House?
I think Nope leans toward the Golden Fleece genre with its 3 elements of road, team, and prize. The characters are chasing a prize: the picture. There’s a team. The journey is the process to get it, the quest. The plot is closer to a heist movie.
Another movie I recently watched was the original Hellraiser. The pitch for that movie could be summarized with the following Story DNA:
Hero: An unfaithful wife.
Goal: To return her lover to flesh and blood by offering sacrifices
Obstacle: She’s not a killer by nature but needs to lure the sacrifices in without her husband or daughter-in-law knowing what she’s doing
Stakes: Being without her lover
The movie does some weird twists switching protagonists in the middle and becoming a more conventional MITH movie in the movie’s second half. But the story’s premise is really about this woman trying to resurrect her lover.
Again, this heroine isn’t trapped. She could move or let her lover stay dead. The house is in no way a prison and this is not a story about survival. If anything, she’s teaming up with the monster, becoming the monster herself. She’s the one that “brings the horror.” The story is probably more of a Golden Fleece or Dude With a Problem genre.
Marvel’s recent Werewolf By Night special is the same. A group of monster hunters is invited to hunt a creature in a winner-takes-all competition for a precious prize. Competitions to win trophies are the stuff of Golden Fleece stories. But again, the story has a monster (a couple in this case), a sin, and a house.
While these discussions are fun, I think there’s a big lesson here for writers. STC! Genres help us figure out the story we’re telling and hint at important traits of plot and character, and even though I think the plots of these movies fall into Golden Fleece or Dude With a Problem genres, I still think if you’re writing a horror movie, it should have all the elements of a Monster in the House.
While you can have a Monster in the House that’s not horror (I think of movies like Cable Guy or What About Bob? as extreme examples), horror movies need monsters, the monsters need rules (the house), and the audience must think there’s some culpable reason to possibly kill the heroes (the sin is sort of movie karma).
Nope, Hellraiser, and Werewolf by Night check all these boxes. They also have that other commonly seen trait of MITH stories: the half-man. In Nope, it’s the documentary cameraman they enlist to shoot the UFO on a big old Imax camera. In Hellraiser, it’s the lover locked up in the closet who’s faced the ultimate limits of pleasure and pain and been ripped apart by Pinhead and the creepy gang of Cenobites. In Werewolf by Night, practically all the characters serve as half-men.
And there’s something else to consider: all horror movies ultimately devolve into battles of survival. So even though these three start out as contests or quests or missions and they still have some freedom of choice in the matter… by the Finale, the heroes of these stories are indeed trapped with a monster and must 100% focus on staying alive.
If you’re writing a Horror story, it’s most likely a pure Monster in the House. But even if it isn’t—even if your horror film seems like one of these other genres—if it’s a horror movie, give it a monster, a house, and a sin. And make sure by the end, your heroes are fighting for their very lives.
By the way, if you’d like to listen to the screenwriting podcast I mentioned above, including episodes on Hellraiser and Nope and lots lots more horror and other genre films, check out Writers/Blockbusters here.
And by the way #2, Save the Cat!, in partnership with the Austin Film Festival, is presenting a workshop that I’m leading: Save the Cat! Writes for TV: Tools to Crack Your TV Pilot on Saturday, October 29. If you’re going to be in Austin, sign on up and be sure to stop by and say hi—if not at the workshop, at the STC! exhibit!
And don’t forget to check out dozens of MITH beat sheets on this site, including many of the titles listed at the top of this post!