‘Ghoulish’ writer visits Harlow College

CREATIVE writing students at Harlow College had a special Halloween treat when horror writer Iona Smith paid them a visit. A A Hassan reports on Iona’s talk and is now busy writing her own horror story.

Iona spoke about horror as a genre and the common tropes and clichés that are present in the sub-genres of horror. We also discussed how to do these correctly, as well as poorer executions of them.  

Although her main job is TV management, Iona herself writes for the Ghouls magazine, which is a female and non-binary horror magazine where she does editorials and lists about current horror, getting to see horror films before they come out and then writes reviews from a female perspective.

During the introduction of her talk, she explained to us that she has a “huge interest and love” for horror which started at early school age, and it has been a part of her life ever since. This engaged me because I knew since she was passionate about the subject, she would be quite knowledgeable about the tropes and sub-genres of horror. She told us that a successful horror story focuses on “creating scene of suspense and fear” in the audience, and that sub-genres will commonly use tropes to try and achieve this effect.
Although, she also spoke about how more modern horrors are subverting these tropes, because we now have a very “genre literate” audience. This means that because of how long we have had horror as a genre, most audiences will have seen the classic tropes a few times, and so we come to expect it. This can cause the tropes that may have worked on an older audience to fall short for a younger one, as we already know what is going to happen. 


Iona showed us the first horror film ever put on screen, The House of the Devil by Georges Méliès, to show us how horror as a genre has evolved since 1896 when it was created. The film was quite short and was silent aside from the music playing in the background, and it was very hard to follow. This would be quite effective on an older audience as horror was a newly emerging genre at the time that the film was made, but to a modern audience it comes off as confusing and abstract in a negative way.  


Iona then went on to tell us about tropes. She stressed the importance that tropes are not the same as clichés – a cliché is a “storytelling device that is overused” whereas a trope is “a successfully used story device” that is symbolic to the audience, such as an object or action that says something about the overall story. She said that most tropes are perceived as cliché due to the growing genre literacy of modern audiences, and so they elicit the same reactions and therefore are often confused for one another. 

She then told us about some common tropes for horror, including jumpscares and mirror scenes, then we started talking about the different sub-genres. 


The sub-genres we covered were supernatural/paranormal, religious/occult, monster, zombie, slasher, comedy, found footage, gore/splatter horror, psychological and elevated, all different kinds of horror. Iona walked us through the tropes used in each of these sub-genres and even offered some of her own personal insight into some commonly help opinions about some of these, such as the debate on whether gore/splatter horror should be considered “torture porn”. This was incredibly engaging as the personal opinions and anecdotes made the information, she was giving us stick more. 


At the end of the talk, she opened the room to some questions for her, where we got to ask more about herself and her own opinions on horror. I asked, “what’s a horror movie ick that you have?” – meaning something in a horror movie that she really doesn’t like and will put her off a movie if she sees it in it. Her response was “the gaslighting man”, where a character will go to another character and recite something horrible that’s happened to them, and the other (usually a male) character will respond by questioning the first person’s sanity and logic, effectively gaslighting them into thinking that their own suspicions are ridiculous, which most likely will lead to more bad things happening later in the movie. I agreed with her about this trope being an ick as it can be very frustrating for an audience to watch such an idiotic character have a massive effect on the storyline. 

Overall, the talk was entertaining and educational, keeping us engaged the whole time and offering a nice insight into the world of horror. I feel like this will aid my class and I with our task to write a short horror story and make it so we can write whichever sub-genres we choose effectively. 

Photo: Iona Smith taken from the Ghouls Magazine website

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