Happy Halloween! Today’s blog post is about character dynamics and status of characters in horror films. I’ve made a video that covers this topic and this is the accompanying blog post! In this post, we’re going to unpack some of those archetypal roles and talk about how they’re not as obviously distinguished from one another when you analyse it. What I mean by this is, you typically get stereotypical victims and villains in horror; maybe there’s a monster and someone scared of the monster; a ghost wanting revenge and an unfortunate resident in a haunted house; a poltergeist and a possessed victim, and so on. However, as you’re about to find out, sometimes the archetypal victim character has villainous characteristics and vice versa: often the archetypal villain is a victim of something else. There’s a reason for why they are doing what they are doing, basically.
Archetypes in Horror
If you think about it, the stereotypical, or archetypal, roles of victim and villain tend to be a crucial underpinning to quite a lot of narratives in Horror. There also tends to be a stark contrast in power dynamics – or status – between the archetypal victim and villain characters, and this power dynamic shifts dramatically throughout the film. As a starting point, the victims tend to have a low status whereas the villain has a high status, but of course this status changes throughout the film. The shift in status adds to the drama and horror of the genre and incorporates a thrill during chase scenes for instance, or when the victim character is fighting back and winning against the monster or ghost or whoever.
Archetypes Defined in Relation to One Another
Often, the archetypal roles are defined in relation to one another: the victim is a victim in relation to the villain. In other words, by the very nature of there being a victim character there has to be a villain. This victim might be a villain in other parts of their life (think of Scrooge haunted by the three ghosts), but in that particular relationship they are the victim with lower status. Thinking about the relationship between these two seemingly polar opposites is also quite interesting, more so than thinking of them as mere polar opposites.
Character Dynamics & Status
I always find a good way to approach any roles that involve two opposing energies (such as victim and villain, scared and scary, etc.) is to think about the status of these characters. This forces me to think about their relationship,not just the individual roles alienated from anything else. Yes, the victim in horror is scared, but they’re scared of that scary thing the viewer is scared of too. As an actor, I don’t focus solely on the victim character themselves, but on the relationship they have with the person making them the victim. That relationship is an integral part of playing the victim.
The Status of Body Language
Status is something that can be physically obvious in body language. For instance, someone feeling nervous would fidget and maybe have tensed muscles. Someone relaxed and confident would have a softer brow and maybe relaxed shoulders. Even in the way a high-status character sits is different from that of a low status character. Generally, a character of lower status would not initiate contact easily (this could be eye contact, physical contact, or verbal contact). Their body is physically closed off or protected. They could touch their hair, clothes or face while they talk. Very low-status characters or those playing the victim in a scene tend to demonstrate incomplete thoughts. For instance, they’ll rarely finish sentences in a complete thought and breath. They also move a lot more erratically than the person of higher status. Regarding a higher-status character, their body is physically open. Their movement is controlled. They don’t rush. High status characters are not afraid to initiate contact (whether that be eye contact, physical contact, or verbal contact). High Status characters seem calmer than the person of low status, even when they’re not calm.
When Archetypes Merge
As I’ve already mentioned, there’s a basic opposition of archetypes in Horror: the victim and the villain, or the scared and the scary. I’ve also mentioned that these archetypal roles are distinguished by their status (as well as their actions of course): the victim is typically lower status whereas the villain is typically higher status, and this status shifts at pivotal points during a horror film. However, these roles are not so distinct when you think about it: sometimes those playing the victim are actually the villain and vice versa. In other words, these archetypal characteristics can merge within a single role. Often, the villain has been the victim in some way and are doing what they think is right. Think of those clichéd films where a ghost is haunting the people of a town because they burned her as a witch in the past. Maybe her soul can’t rest and she wants everyone to see her side, how wronged she was.
In one of my horror films I played a character who was murdered for wanting the villagers to stop all their sinning, and when they didn’t and had to pay the consequences of their actions, they blamed my character and burned her in a field.
She now haunts all the sinners in the present day. These present-day sinners lie, engage in incest, all sorts, but they’re also victims in this film, tortured by a ghost who is in turn tortured by their wicked ways. The misunderstandings go on and on in a battle between high and low status. It seems that no one is inherently good or bad.