It’s only 5:30 on a Tuesday morning, but you’re already hopping off the train on the way to work. There’s a marketing meeting today at 9:00, and you want to synthesize the most recent social and site data you can find to help support your budget request for 2017 and propose some new ideas for telling your brand story. But it’s late fall now—the first of November, in fact—so the sun’s not quite ready to rise. You step out of the station into an inky morning that’s thick with fog, the streets still slick from an early rain.
The soft clicks of your footsteps and the deep whooshes of your breath disturb the otherwise silent city from its slumber, and you become acutely aware of your surroundings: that eclectic antique shop with the antique dolls whose eyes seem to follow as you pass by the window, the smoke pouring up from a blocked-off manhole cover on the sidewalk, the massive kits of pigeons flying in droves over your head to snag some of the day-old pizza crust you crushed beneath your heels.
But you make it into the office, up the elevator and over to your desk. You turn on your computer, pull up some reports on your marketing automation tool—and you scream.
No: it’s not because one of those creepy dolls followed you to work, nor is it that one of the children from the stock photo of a popup ad is climbing through your screen. It’s your pageviews, your click-through rates, your survey feedback—your engagement is a nightmare come to life, and you need a strategy to fix it. Fast.
Don’t panic: the answer lies in your content creation strategy. Or, more specifically, it lies in transforming your content into powerful stories that hook, empathize with, challenge, and motivate your readers.
Few genres are as renowned for their ability to captivate audiences quite as well as horror. Here’s a closer look at how they do what they do best. (Warning: The following may contain spoilers.)
First, let’s talk about why so many people enjoy being scared by horror movies and stories. The answer goes back to the Stone Age. Early man had to survive among mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and many other prehistoric terrors. If our ancestors acted nonchalantly when a predator was nearby, they wouldn’t have lasted long. Fear releases the adrenaline and endorphins that we need to act quickly—to fight or flee.
While we logically know the monsters in these stories aren’t going to hurt us, that taste of danger still activates those old instincts, said sociologist Margee Kerr in an interview with the Washington Post. Kerr discussed her experiences consulting haunted attractions, noting that she had witnessed haunt attendees jump up and yell in fear, but then break into laughter: “They know for certain that the monsters they’re facing aren’t real, so they can enjoy the rush. That jolt of fear that happens before the conscious brain catches up is real as can be, but then we can put it aside right away—we get the best of both worlds.”
Scary movies can be incredibly educational for your brand storytelling efforts. These are just a few lessons that some of the most famous (and infamous) horror films can teach you about good storytelling.
Find common ground with your audience so they can relate to the story. Consider the issues that your audience struggles with, and build a story around that. Many horror films are based on real-life stories, adding a while new layer of fear. For example, The Amityville Horror was inspired by the real-life haunting that terrified the Lutz family in the 1970s. Knowing that a real family had to endure the events of the film helps it carry more weight. Jaws and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while not directly inspired by one particular event, have their roots in bizarre and terrifying real-life occurrences as well.
While Hollywood epics can be three-plus hours long, you won’t be seeing many horror movies with that kind of run time. Horror filmmakers know that they need to hook viewers early, and use their remaining time wisely and efficiently. For example, Friday the 13th begins with a young couple meeting a gruesome fate in 1958, then cuts to the present day (then 1980) where we learn the mythology of Camp Crystal Lake—then witness a new killing. Horror films are all about building up tension and then releasing it at the appropriate point. If the films go on too long, tension dissipates, and the scares fall flat.
For your brand story to be effective, less is typically more. Why use unnecessary fluff just to boost word counts when you can introduce your audience to the story and get their interest quickly. Content marketers are battling for audience attention. Don’t waste it.
Tapping into fear, one of the most basic emotions human beings experience, is a great way to hold your audience’s interest. The Shining explores the helplessness our protagonists experience while stuck alone in a remote mountain resort. You can sense the isolation from the movie’s first shot—and the terror the family experiences as things start to go wrong.
Likewise, Paranormal Activity, the low-budget, found-footage film that became an overnight sensation, connected with its audience on a very basic level by asking a question: “Do you know what happens while you sleep?” The film centers on two main protagonists, Katie and Micah, who believe their house is haunted by a supernatural presence. In an effort to record some of the weird things that have been happening, the pair sets up cameras throughout their home. Naturally, when the lights go out and they go to bed, some creepy hijinks ensue. Anyone who’s every heard an old house creak at night, or noticed a strange shadow, can relate.
A good story needs a protagonist the audience cares about. Developing characters your readers will root for will get them invested. While many cliche slasher films throw out stereotypical teenagers as fodder, the scares (and therefore, the connections the audience makes) become more potent when the characters are developed.
For example, The Exorcist introduces you to Chris MacNeil, her daughter, Regan, and Father Karras. As you learn more about these characters, you become terrified by the things that start happening to the precocious and friendly Regan, and you’re moved by Father Karras’ crisis of faith after the death of his mother. Likewise, a brand story that makes you care about the major players will speak to you, and help you connect with its message.
In horror films, setting is always important because it helps establish the tone. The Blair Witch Project would not have been as successful if the film hadn’t been set in the dark Maryland woods. And while the creature effects and paranoia alone make John Carpenter’s The Thing worth watching, the setting—a research lab in Antarctica that’s lost all contact with the outside world—makes it a legendary film that resonates on multiple levels.
Likewise, in content creation, it’s crucial that you consider setting and geography while you craft your story’s atmosphere. Are you trying to reach people in a specific geographic location—or is your audience more widespread? Are you accurately conveying the mood of your story, and will it resonate with the audience you’re targeting? Remember: the setting of your story will affect how it’s told, so always keep those questions in mind.
Taking risks and trying something new can help connect with new audience members, and keep longtime audience members coming back for fresh content. Remakes come and go, but it’s the truly original horror films that grab audiences. Recent films like It Follows and The Babadook have thrilled audiences by breaking from the mold and telling original stories. Most notably, both of these films take tragic, real-life experience and interpret them in ways that trend toward magical realism. Experiment with your writing and images. Consider the issues of your audiences and how they might manifest in ways beyond the stereotypical. When you re-evaluate your engagement metrics next quarter, you’re sure to see a (positive) difference.
Sometimes, you may find yourself in a rut, telling the same story over and over because it’s worked in the past. When a brand story is too repetitive, or too predictable, the audience can lose interest. Remember, you’re competing for their attention—and if they already know what’s going to happen, they’re likely to get bored.
While you might not be looking to use your brand storytelling career as a platform to create the next Cujo, there’s a lot you can take from these horror films to make your next story your most compelling.
What’s your favorite horror story—and how what does it do that makes it so great? Share your thoughts in the comments below.