I saw this video the other day:
Who doesn’t yell at stupid horror movie characters when they persist in swimming in the cursed lake, running upstairs instead of out the front door, or acting illogically general?
The problem is — at least in this parody trailer’s case — it’s anticlimactic to say “hell no.” There would be no horror movies (or at least very few) if the creators let their characters say hell no. That’s why to craft enjoyable horror fiction you have to have smart reasons for your characters to do something that puts them at risk (enter the haunted cellar, drop their only weapon, etc.) or smarter ways for your main villain to still foil your good guys even when the good guys are being smart.
I took drama in high school and one lesson that is burned in my memory is one I use in my writing today: “never say no.” If one improv actor proposes a situation, no matter how ridiculous, the responding actor cannot say no — they can go along with it or they can offer an alternative situation, but it’s up to them to be smart about how they react.
If a character in horror says no to a scary situation and walks away, readers won’t have a good time. They’re going to have a safe time. (If your readers feel safe, then you’ve written something, but it’s certainly not terrifying.)
But your character has to pick up the devilish-looking hitchhiker; has to answer the murderer’s phone call; has to explore the foggy cemetery in order for your story to progress and build tension. The characters just need to have really good, logical reasons to do these things that are unthinkable to us real people. And to make your story even stronger, your characters can’t go through with these risky endeavours for dumb, cliched reasons.
The point is to give your characters opportunity to make smart decisions. (And that’s not to say that all your characters should be smart and streetwise. You’re allowed to have dumb characters and people who make bad decisions.) When your reader says hell no — I would’ve grabbed the shotgun or hell no — I would’ve gotten in my car and driven away, beat your reader to the consequences of doing that. Give your character a solid reason for why they couldn’t grab a shotgun or why, when they tried to drive off, the attempt backfired on them.
Readers will be on their toes when they see your characters making all the “smart” decisions and the terror pursuing them has not been deterred.