Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Horror Fiction Set in Winter

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Frozen (2010)

It’s rare these days to come upon a truly terrifying American horror film, but Frozen (not to be confused with the 2013 Disney film) is all that and more. This is one of those movies that’s scary because what happens to the three main characters is something that — on a bad day — could happen to any snow skier. If you’ve never skied before, the movie not might be as effective, but for those who have braved those intimidating mountains on those rickety chairlifts, Frozen is one tense ride into a freezing cold Hell.

The plot is simple. Two friends and one of the friend’s girlfriend take a ski trip for the day on Sunday and decide at closing time to do one more run. They plead with the guy at the lift forever until he finally agrees to let them on. Some confusion occurs in the next five minutes and suddenly the three college students find themselves stuck on the lift, in the dark, all alone at the highest peak of the mountain. The film asks: What would you do?

In a talkier horror piece like this that relies more on character development than a madman wielding a chainsaw, it’s important to have a group of really strong actors. Director Adam Green wisely chose three skilled actors who bring a lot of depth to the characters that might not have necessarily been in the screenplay. By the time the ski lift shuts downs, you have come to know these three people and desire, despite their idiocy in trying to go for one last ski run in the first place, for them to get off that lift and down the mountain. Kevin Zegers gave a terrific breakthrough performance in Transamerica and here gives another strong performance. Shawn Ashmore is believable and relatable. And Emma Bell makes a strong debut performance.

But the coolest part of this movie has to be that Green and his crew didn’t shoot it all on a green screen in some air-conditioned studio somewhere. No, these guys actually went way up a Utah mountain, in the winter, day after day, shooting the actors up on a real chair lift. In some movies it’s hard to tell just what is practical and what isn’t, but in Frozen, it’s clear in many shots that those actors are really up high in the freezing cold. This quality makes a huge difference in the film, because you as the viewer feel like you’re right there.

Films like Frozen don’t come around very often. Many recent big-budget horror feels too Hollywood-ized to be scary, while so many independent horror movies remove story and character development for more in-your-face gore effects and shock value. Frozen makes you want to take a hot shower afterword. It’s great horror filmmaking worth checking out.

Watching Like a Writer

I’ve always been pulled to the winter season to set my horror stories and novels. There’s something about the cold and the snow that just makes the material scarier. I guess you could set your latest terrifying tale on the 4th of July weekend, but how much better will your story be if it’s set at the heart of winter, when snow is piled up and there’s nobody around for miles? Two of my three recent horror novels take place right around Christmas, with snow playing a huge role in the setting for the third acts of both stories. Why have my characters go into the woods at just any time of the year? Why not make them go into the woods, in the middle of the night, when snow is dumping from the sky? When you’re writing a scary story, you want to think hard about your setting — not just the city the story takes place in, but what season it’s in. When in doubt, go with winter. There’s so much about the coldest season of the year to help enhance the terror of your horror writing.

Exercise!

Think of a horror story concept, then set it on 4th of July weekend and then again at Christmas. What changes about the concept? Which time of year works better for the story?

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