The Strangers, Tension, and Dead Protagonists

The Strangers is an absolutely terrifying film for about an hour, but it also created an almost unbearable experience in the theater: people laughing during quiet and frightening scenes, audience members shouting comments.

It was annoying and rude, sure, but regardless of what any of these idiots would tell you about why they were laughing or shouting comments, the reason behind the stupid behavior is simple: tension relief. You crack a joke because you can’t handle the unbearable tension that the director has created. Someone shouts “Turn around!” when the protagonist doesn’t notice the killer creeping up…not because the protagonist is stupid, but because you want the tension to be relieved. You can’t handle the feeling of powerlessness. You need to do something.

This film is like the ascent in a roller-coaster. It sounded like a good idea before you got on. Then you were strapped in, and now there’s no getting out. So you scream to pretend that you’re not scared.

Of course, that’s just the first hour. Then (spoiler alert) the characters are killed. After a torturous experience, they die.

Um. All right?

This film was expertly crafted, and was amazingly scary…but when a horror movie kills off its main characters, it is essentially telling us that all is for naught. We just witnessed an hour and a half of mindless torture for no redemptive reason.

This, consequently, is the reason why Hostel, despite its flaws and its gratuitous violence, was so successful. The protagonist suffered, certainly, but lived to tell about it. If the protagonist does not live to tell about it, then all we’ve watched is a murder. It might have been terrifying twenty minutes prior to the murder, but now it’s just sad and pointless. Good stories show us characters who get the shit kicked out of them, but somehow come out of it all. Changed, yes, but still alive at least. When a horror movie kills its main character, it is taking the easy way out, and it is not as successful as it could have been. Think, for instance, if the characters in The Strangers had both survived, and the killers had escaped…we can picture the ongoing fear of the rest of their lives…always looking over their shoulders, always afraid to be alone. At least The Mist, despite a contrived ending, allowed its protagonist to survive so that he could confront his horrible personal choices after the terrible experiences were over.

When all of the characters are dead, we just sort of shrug. Pointless.

I understand there’s a question at the end of this film as to whether the characters actually survive. This is a frustrating question to ask for the following reason: if they don’t survive, the whole experience was pointless (as I’ve said). If they do survive, then the story isn’t over. Why keep us in the dark when there’s more story to tell?

The Strangers is definitely worth seeing, though, despite an unsatisfying ending. I haven’t seen cinema so frightening in many years, and it’s a case study in the creation of tension.

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3 responses to “The Strangers, Tension, and Dead Protagonists

  1. “Good stories show us characters who get the shit kicked out of them, but somehow come out of it all. Changed, yes, but still alive at least.”

    Wow. Why was I thinking I had to sanitize my story? If I were to do that, who’d care enough to stick around for the ending? Thanks!

  2. What story are you talking about, Deb? Are you taking a fiction workshop right now?

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