When horror, suspense and thriller writers talk about their inspirations, they often refer to the great, renowned authors and directors like Stephen King or Guillermo del Toro. They pick through the prose and story beats of their works in an attempt to figure out what makes the stories so effectively terrifying.
Although analyzing horror content sure is the mos logical way of figuring out the keys to creating a good scary story, there’s also something to be said for analyzing comedy shows like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There’s a very thin line between horror and comedy, and writers will often use the same techniques to make a situation funny that they would use to make it scary. Sometimes, the only thing you need to turn a sitcom into a horror show is to remove the laugh track and darken the lighting.
If I had to pick one episode of a sitcom to serve as a template for writing suspense, it would have to be Dinner Party from The Office. This is the season 4 episode in which Michael invites Jim and Pam (and Andy and Angela) to a dinner party with his toxic girlfriend Jan.
It’s one of the funniest episodes of the entire show, but it’s also one of the most painful. It’s an episode that makes you squirm in your seat due to how deeply uncomfortable the situation is. It’ll make you laugh, sure, but so much of the laughter this episode provokes stems from discomfort. We laugh because the only other alternative is to grimace.
While actual horror media is still an invaluable source for aspiring horror writers to learn from, it can be helpful to study Dinner Party, and see how the writing techniques behind this episode can help people learn to write better horror.
Remove the characters from their comfort zone
The episode begins with Michael Scott successfully forcing Jim and Pam to agree to attend his dinner party with him and Jan. A running gag throughout the season so far has been Jim and Pam’s clever methods of avoiding Michael’s invitations, but here they have officially run out of options. They have no choice but to go, and even if the audience didn’t know about Michael and Jan’s increasingly unhappy relationship, they’d know just from the reluctance on Jim’s face that this evening was not going to be a fun time.
The question established in the cold open is not whether Jim and Pam are going to have fun tonight, but rather: exactly how bad are things going to get?
This is all reminiscent of the classic horror trope of the haunted house. That’s when, for whatever reason, the characters have to spend time inside a house we the audience know is haunted. We don’t know exactly what awaits them inside, but we know it’s going to be bad.
Part of the reason why this trope is so common in horror is because of how it throws the characters into a setting they’re unfamiliar with. It’s a fish-out-of-water narrative that works well in regular dramas and comedies alike. Human beings naturally get nervous in situations that are unfamiliar to them, so when we see Jim and Pam enter Michael’s house for the first time, with none of the usual office pretenses at their disposal, we feel nervous on their behalf.
Dinner Party does what so many good horror stories successfully pull off: before any of the crazy stuff happens, it puts the characters in a place the audience can relate to. In Get Out, everyone can relate to the awkwardness of meeting your significant other’s family for the first time. The Shining spends a lot of time letting the audience imagine what it must be like for a small family to have a whole hotel to themselves before the supernatural elements take over.
Similarly, everyone can relate to having to attend an awkward dinner party, which means that even if you haven’t seen an episode of the show before, you’d still find yourself identifying with Jim and Pam as they enter Michael’s place.
Make it so your protagonists can’t just walk away
Before things really spiral out of control, there’s a moment in Dinner Party where Jim decides that this is way too uncomfortable for him, and he hatches a plan to leave. He tells Michael and Jan that his apartment has been flooded, and it almost works until Michael points out that he doesn’t need Pam to go with him for this.
In one of the episode’s funniest moments, Jim nearly decides to abandon Pam — the love of his life — to save himself. However, Pam gets him to stay by saying, “You can buy new stuff but you can’t buy a new party.” The implication in her words is pretty clear: by abandoning Pam, Jim would be crossing a line and potentially putting his relationship with her in jeopardy. So, with no polite escape method left, Jim resigns himself to spending the rest of the night at the dinner party.
This is something that nearly every effective scary story does: cut off the protagonists’ route of escape. The Shining wouldn’t be effective if the characters could just get in their car and drive away from the hotel whenever they felt like it, and for movies like Scream, there’s nowhere for the protagonist to run because she doesn’t even know who she’s running from. Making it clear early on that this isn’t a problem the characters could escape is a perfect way to add tension to the story. It makes it clear to the audience that, although they may not know exactly what’s going to happen next, they know whatever it is is unavoidable.
What’s notable is that the point of no return moment never really happens in the very beginning of the story, but usually somewhere around a third of the way through. At the latest, it comes at the end of the second act.
In The Shining, the point of no return is when Jack sabotages the snowmobile and the phone lines, and in Scream the point of no return is when Sydney gets the phone call while Billy’s in jail, confirming to her and the audience that the killer is not only still out there, but is planning to kill her specifically. The point of no return should happen early in the story, but not until after you’ve properly established a strong desire on the part of the characters to want to leave in the first place. Basically, once the characters start to get a full understanding of how screwed they are, that’s when you take away whatever exit strategy they may have had.
Take advantage of point of view
It’s not just the toxicity of Michael and Jan’s home life that makes this episode so unsettling; it’s the fact that we’re watching this toxicity through the eyes of two relatable characters who react to the craziness in much the same way any person would.
The Office is a documentary-style show that uses talking heads, which is when the show cuts from the current action to have a specific character talk directly to the camera. In a typical episode, any character could have their own quick talking head, including Michael, Jan, Andy, Angela, or Dwight.
Not in Dinner Party. The moment Jim and Pam step foot in Michael and Jan’s home, the talking heads are limited to just the two of them. The show never takes any time to show us Michael or Jan’s perspective, or even Andy or Angela’s. It’s not something that sticks out to the average viewer, but it’s a pretty big departure from the typical structure of the show.
The writers stick to Jim and Pam in order to reinforce the feeling of watching this from their perspective. These are the only two characters who are appropriately disturbed by everything going on, so in order to continue growing that sense of unease, the writers can’t delve into the other characters’ perspectives. They aren’t feeling the awkwardness in the same way Jim and Pam are.
Playing with perspective is something sitcoms do all the time for the sake of comedy. Shows like Community, Seinfeld, South Park, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, etc., will often include scenes or base entire episodes around showing what the main characters look like from an outside perspective. For example, on Community all the main characters have sharply different personalities, but whenever we see them from an outsiders’ perspective they all just come across as jerks.
This technique is used in an even darker manner in Dinner Party. In prior episodes when we just saw Michael and Jan interact on their own, their relationship felt a little more light-hearted. It was wacky and absurd, not painfully real. A lot of this comes down to the fact that the show gave us constant talking heads of Michael and Jan. We got to see the relationship from their point of view.
But once they remove Michael and Jan’s perspectives, once the audience can see them from the outside looking in, we can see how truly unhinged and unhappy they are. This decision on the writers’ part is similar to the decision of so many horror writers to not give the monster/villain of the story their own perspective. Most slasher movies, for instance, would still be pretty dark if we got to see the killers’ perspectives, but it wouldn’t be scary in quite the same way. Likewise, Michael and Jan wouldn’t be as funny if we’d gotten their point of view throughout the episode.
Embrace that uncanny valley
The Uncanny Valley is a concept often used for robots, and spoken of frequently in discussions around horror and science fiction. The more human a nonhuman object looks, the more it distur