Writing Horror: The Cheese Factor

It's the evil washing machine that eats anyone unfortunate enough to stick their arm in. The presence of a silly song during a macabre and decidedly un-silly time. The plastic chattering-teeth toy that finds its revenge on the person who wronged its owner.

No matter how you like your horror, it's pretty undeniable that there exists a special little category that mixes the unexpected in with the scary: THE CHEESE. The cheesiest of cheese. I'm talking about animals that speak and possessed musical instruments and stories with what can only be described as having a borderline comedic element to them.

The question is, does the cheese add or take away from the horror? Distant observers of the genre may speculate that any and all cheese does nothing but spoil the creep factor, and less terrifying = less authentic 'horror,' right?

I don't think so, particularly, and looking back at certain classics only strengthens that opinion.

I personally am in a position where I am able to truly enjoy a certain level of cheesiness in my horror (Beware of the Purple Peanut Butter or Quitters, Inc., anybody?) but at the same time, I find myself striving to stay away from it in my own writing. But that isn't because I look down on it or think of it as lesser horror---actually, it's because I'm convinced that at this point I lack the skill to pull it off. 

Because, let's be honest, it takes a true baller to get people into a story in which a man hallucinates dancing cigarette ladies and a platter of deviled eggs with eyes.

Sigh. Maybe one day.

What do you guys think? No cheese at all? A little? A lot? A good example of a horror series that really masters this balance, in my opinion, is Tales from the Darkside.




8 comments:

  1. "It's the evil washing machine that eats anyone unfortunate enough to stick their arm in." Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this a Stephen King short story? I believe cheese can still be horror if it's done well, and Mr. King is the expert of that. And Christine, From a Buick 8, and Mile 81 are all examples that evil cars can be terrifying, no matter how cheesy the idea itself is. But you're right, there's definitely a fine line between King and Goosebumps, and I'm not even sure where that line is at times..:)

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    1. The chattering teeth toy and evil washing machine were both King references, as well as the mention of silly songs in strange places. I most definitely had him in mind while writing this entire post, lol! (Yeeeah he's totally not my favorite or anything.)

      I think King and Goosebumps were on to the same sort of thing though, as opposed to representing different levels of cheese. They are just further apart as far as the ages of the targeted audience goes.

      Whether middle grade or adult though, this cheese thing is a mystery to behold. How does one go through with it without feeling stupid while they write? I'm guessing the secret is to just forget about the feelings and have fun.

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  2. I believe adding cheese to horror helps make it scarier. The layer of comedy it brings never fails to relax readers to the point where, when something truly horrific does happen, it has more of an impact on them. Also, some of the cheesy elements can be so ridiculous, it makes total sense when no one believes the protagonist about what's happening. Characters become more easily isolated and hopeless that way, which just ups the scare-factor, since it lessens the chance of them surviving!

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    1. Heather- I LOVE your response, oh my. So well thought out and true, particularly about how when other elements seem cheesy, it may be easier to believe in the protag's action plan of choice (which is often quite the downfall for certain pieces of horror.) Excellent!

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  3. *Squee* Goosebumps! =D R.L Stine ruled my childhood along with Are You Afraid of the Dark?. I think the cheese brought terror to things you normally wouldn't be afraid of. Cameras that take pictures of terrible future events, novelty slime that becomes the blob, garden gnomes that come alive and worms out for revenge etc. Things that seem too ridiculous to be horrifying but can be just as scary as Freddy Kruger or Michael Myers when it actually happens. It was awesome! ^^

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  4. My 6th grade son LOVES Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, etc. but thinks any R.L. Stine book (or show) is way too immature (he'd say "cheesy" if he knew what that meant, I'm sure) for him. So I guess the old adage is true - nothing is for everyone. ;)
    erica
    (btw - I can never see the line above your posts that includes who wrote it and the "comments" link - I just click on the tiny white squiggles/words until the comments come up)

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  5. King is so good at that. I especially noticed a lot in IT. Fortune cookies, anyone?

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  6. Oh R. L. Stine, he was a master at the cheese/horror factor. King can also pull it off well, like Dawn mentioned. Personally, I steer clear of that in my own writing. I'm really not a naturally funny person so I don't think I could pull it off without ruining everything. I wouldn't pick up a book that I know for a fact is going to have cheese in it (except when I was young and obsessively read Stine). I like true horror that will give me nightmares and force me to leave my closet light. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just not my preference.

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