An odd feeling occurs when you watch something horrifying that isn’t intended to scare you. Instead of fear, you’re speechless as your brain tries to figure out how you should feel. Very few horror films can make us take a step back from the gore and terror and realize that there is a reason for this moment to exist whether we agree with it or not. 

Horror isn’t a genre that everybody is comfortable writing in, and that’s okay. But there are a few ways to tie in your preferred character study or coming-of-age romance if you are interested in exploring elements of the genre. 

There are ways to tie in tenderness into a naturally horrifying subject. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One Intells the story of a young boy intimately befriending a young vampire. When the horror happens, we are more understanding than terrified. Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and Alldoes something similar that makes you view the young cannibals as misunderstood souls who are trying to figure out where they fit in this world. 

Let’s break down how to write a tender horror story by looking at what Let the Right One In and Bones and All do to find the balance between terror and sympathy. 

How to write a tender horror story.'Bones and All'Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Justifying the Horror 

Understand that a massive element of your story is often used to scare people. The first hurdle of the story is challenging someone’s expectations while also confirming them. 

Sounds a little complicated, huh? Let me break it down. 

In Bones and All, Maren (Taylor Russell) is a young girl who eats people, but she can’t help it. Screenwriter Dave Kajganich and the author of the novel, Camille DeAngelis, justify the horrors of cannibalism by making Maren’s desire to eat people a genetic problem. She isn’t the only person like this in the film’s world, but there are very few people like Maren. 

The audience is learning about Maren’s “illness” along with Maren, and both are trying to navigate the morals and ethics of a lifestyle Maren cannot deny. Should she eat people who have just died naturally? Should she kill random people? Should she resist the urge until she eats herself as others have? The film tries to justify the horrors, never denying that cannibalism is a terrifying thing. 

In Let the Right One In, based on the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a 12-year-old boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), and his neighbor, a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson), start to build a connection because they are both outsiders in their communities. The only problem is, Eli is a vampire.

Oskar, who has been relentlessly bullied at school, can build a bond with Eli because they are both misunderstood characters. He is awkward and smaller than his classmates, and Eli consumes blood to survive. Their differences are unique, but it serves to bring them together. When Eli tells Oskar that she is a vampire, he stands by her. It’s a small moment that illustrates how this story is about connection and understanding, something we all strive to achieve. 

Eli’s caretaker, Hakan (Per Ragnar), helps to humanize the vampire even more by showing his compassion and care for Eli by finding her food, protecting her from those who fail to see her as more than a monster, and offering his own blood so that Eli can continue to survive. These characters are willing to do anything for each other because they care and understand their circumstances. 

Both of these films illustrate someone’s need to do something horrifying to survive, and it is up to the writer to articulate how the audiences should view these actions through the character’s desires and confrontations with their own horrific elements that define them. Establish compassion for the characters who would be the monsters in another story.  

How to write a tender horror film.'Let the Right One In'Credit: Sandrew Metronome

Balancing the Tone 

Once you’ve humanized the horror, you have to find a way to balance the tone of the film.

In a screenplay, the tone is the most elusive element. If the film’s tone leans too far into horror, then you have minimized the tenderness of the story. If you dismiss the horror too much, then why are you introducing it in the story? 

Balancing two tones can be challenging if you don’t know the intent behind your story. 

Let the Right One In showcases the best and most terrifying parts of a vampire movie, with Eli climbing up buildings, Hakan killing people and hanging them up to get the blood to drip out of them, and the eerie quietness of Eli’s existence. But it’s how those moments are framed in the context of the story that helps balance the horror. 

In one graphic scene, Eli dismembers Oskar's bully next to a swimming pool to end his torment at school. While the scene is gory, the heart behind the action is what balances it and makes us root for Eli. She is doing this to help her friend, and we even see a little bit of compassion from her as she chooses to spare the life of one of the boys who ran with the bullies but wasn’t an active member.   

How to write a tender horror film.'Let the Right One In'Credit: Sandrew Metronome

Creating a tender horror moment means showing both the horror and the motivation behind that action. There is a hint of need and innocence that is in this action as Eli does a horrific act out of a desire to make Oskar’s life better. 

Bones and All balances the tones of the story in multiple ways. One of the most notable ways is through subversion. At the beginning of the film, we understand that Maren’s father, Frank (André Holland), is strict and locks Maren in her room at night. Their home is barren, and the audience is led to believe that he might be abusive or controlling. Instead, we learn after Maren’s first attack that Frank is trying to protect his daughter and himself from her cannibalism. It’s a moment that shifts the audience’s perspective on the complications of Maren’s situation and humanizes her as her father sees her as a girl rather than a monster. 

Despite Sully’s (Mark Rylance) unnerving nature, he is probably the most ethical cannibal there is. But his ethical nature conflicts with his actions throughout the movie as he stalks Maren throughout the film. The audience is never sure how to feel about Sully, just as Maren is unsure. The performance, Guadagnino’s direction, and Kajganich’s understanding of the character create a character who is constantly shifting the tone of the film. 

When Maren is with Lee (Timothée Chalamet), the tone is that of a coming-of-age romance rather than a horror story. Although they do eat people together, they are learning how to navigate the world together, and it warms the audience’s heart to see them learning and understanding how to survive in the world. 

The tone emerges from between the lines as a conglomeration of dialogue, structure, character, and narrative development. A tender horror story needs the focus on each of those elements to justify the horror and help make it easier for the audience to understand and digest.

How to write a tender horror story'Bones and All'Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Understand why horror needs to exist for this specific story to be told, and how you frame the horror in the story. It might not always work because audiences are not used to seeing horror be humanized, but it’s worth trying. 

You might not feel confident that you nailed the tone in a specific scene, but let others read it and see what works and what doesn’t work. Don’t rely on horror. Instead, rely on the characters’ understanding of one another. The monsters are the heroes in these tender horror stories, and I find the balance of those types of stories to be very unique in cinema. It’s not an easy feat by any means, but it can touch on very interesting topics that only the horror genre can highlight for a modern audience. 

Do you have any other tender horror films that you love? Let us know why in the comments!