Take your generic horror story: an Average Joe, presumed to be relatively intelligent, finds himself (or herself) in the middle of some awful and very probably supernatural danger. Average Joe must then find a solution and/or fight through the situation to either defeat it or simply survive.
Throughout the story, most authors rely on 2 basic tactics for frightening the reader:
- Surprise: An example would be a shock shot like a monster jumping out at the characters or someone turning around and finding the axe murderer right there. It’s harder to do in books because you can’t control the speed of the read, but I think sudden/unexpected twists count.
- Psych: This is where the author plays with your mind, usually by leaving something unexplained or un-named. Wondering exactly what is out in the darkness to get you, what happened to the characters who disappeared, or how to possibly fight the thing. With a little suspension of disbelief, you can even find yourself imagining the antagonist existing in the real world (like a girl coming out of your television or a ghost in your kitchen…).
So where does the stupidity come in? Well, think about the horror stereotypes that people love to make fun of:
- Going down into a dark basement
- Entering the woods alone to look for it (whatever it is)
- Splitting up
- Talking so loudly you can’t hear them sneak up on you
- Turning your back on the stranger who appears suddenly to help you in this isolated place where no one lives (or letting him/her in your house)
Oh, there are more. Personally, I enjoy Eddie Izzard’s description of characters and plots in B horror films:
The problem with those stereotypically foolish actions is that it makes it harder to empathize with the characters, and it makes it harder to suspend your disbelief.
For example, let’s say that Average Joe seems to be going out of his way to get himself killed by whatever it is that’s out there. He goes into the woods alone to find it (taking a thimble with him) but is narrowly saved by a stranger passing by who distracts the killer and dies in A.J.’s place. A.J. then becomes lost in the woods and only finds his way back due to the help of a clever agent who has been hunting the killer for years. They stop for shelter at a nearby farmhouse, and against the agent’s advice, A.J. follows the owner down into the dark basement to check the breaker. He’s saved only because the killer slips on the cat. After a long struggle to reunite with his friends and be sure they’re safe, A.J. immediately convinces everyone to split up to find the guy and, again, lives only because of some freak accident or because someone else saves him.
Really, A.J.? Is that the best you can do?
When the main character(s) continually makes decisions that are contrary to all common sense, you almost start rooting against them. People start yelling things at the movie screen like, “Oh, just kill him already!” (And, believe me, they are not talking about the axe murderer.) Either that or it gets funny: “Ten says he follows the guy into the basement… Ha! Pay up!”
If the character has to act stupid repeatedly in order to be put in danger, then you need to go back to the plotting board. Unless you’re deliberately going for comedy rather than fright, come up with a better solution. A series of stupid choices is going to take all the scare out of your story – at least all of the mental kind. You might get away with some shock shots, but it’s definitely not going to be as scary as it could be.
Because the scariest stories are the ones where you can’t find a loophole. The ones where the main characters are smart, brave, and talented and do everything in their power to defeat whatever it is.
And they still get outsmarted.
That’s what freaks you out. When you feel smarter than the characters, when there’s an obvious flaw in what they’re trying to do, it makes you feel more secure. You wouldn’t fall for that. Therefore, you don’t need to be afraid. When you can’t think of anything better, oh, that’ll send that chills down your spine. That’s when the idea slips into your psyche like a delay-release acid (and, no, I don’t mean the drug).
The only time your characters can be stupid without thinning suspension of disbelief is if they’re caught up and making instant decisions. If they have time to talk it through for the benefit of the audience, they can make very minor errors (like things people could easily overlook normally) but not big ones. For really big oversights, they have to be either pretty dumb already or in a panic and making decisions before they can calm down enough to string together an intelligible sentence.
In other words, it has to be justified and believable characterization. You can’t just throw any stupid action in there to put them in danger. It has to be believable if you want scare anybody – otherwise, stupidity takes the fright out of horror and makes it funny.