Horror movies exist primarily to do one thing: scare people. And, for the most part, horror movies fail in that one goal. They shock, they gross out, they startle, but they don’t truly scare. There’s nothing scary about Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. There’s nothing scary about torture porn like Hostel and the entire Saw series.
Modern horror filmmakers seem to have forgotten the fact that these movies are supposed to terrify us, not make us roll our eyes and gag. The formulaic and tired nature of slasher movies got so bad that Wes Craven wrote Scream to lambaste the tropes he helped to create. So it’s an irony that the Scream series has become a victim to the same rote formula like every other slasher series.
And the slew of viciously violent movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede are just more fuel for the fire that horror movies as a whole are culturally bereft of value and nothing more than cheap intellectual trash.
There was a point when horror movies were actually good, not just as scary movies but as films. Psycho, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera (the one with Mr. Chaney); these were well-made, well-written and actually scared the audiences at the time.
But after eighty years of scary movies, filmmakers seem to think that the only way to make a relevant scary movie is to get progressively more and more shocking, graphic and violent. And yet, there have been movies released in recent years that have scared the bejesus out of people with a minimum of blood and gore. Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project both used similar techniques which were effective in scaring audience members. And there have been other effective thrillers that have a similar reluctance to employ the wet stuff (The Vanishing is a prime example).
So, for all those aspiring filmmakers out there, here are a list of rules that I’ve compiled based on what genuinely scares me when I watch a movie. There are only four, so bear with me here.
1. Keep it Small Keep the cast small. Keep the location small. Keep all the strange happenings located to a house, a small town, a small patch of woods. This serves multiple purposes. If you only have a few characters, then the audience has more of a chance to become invested in the characters, and you want that. The more the audience is invested, the more they’ll care when you start killing the characters off one by one.
You also run less of a chance that the audience will become desensitized. Too much violence and they shut down and tune out. Anticipation of bad things can be as effective as the actual event. Tension is important for a good scary movie.
2. Isolation This is a rule commonly employed by horror movies, which is why so many movies are set around campsites or in that house by the lake or on some deserted stretch of highway. Cut your characters out from the herd and keep them away. Facing the abyss is scary, facing the abyss with no one to help them is terrifying.
Isolate them through geography (woods, island, desert). Isolate them with their own sanity (or lack thereof). Isolate them in the middle of a crowded city (stuck elevator, basement, sewers). Just get them alone so that no one can help them.
3. Minimize suspension of disbelief There are many, many ways to break the illusion. Audiences (generally) go into a movie to be entertained and they’re willing to suspend their disbelief to do it, but you have to help them out. It’s even more important in a horror movie, because scaring someone is about creating a mood and then sustaining it. To truly scare your audience, you can’t keep providing jump scares. You have to build dread. You have to make them fear every shadow and every movement in the corner of the character’s eye. It’s no good to provide an aura of foreboding if it’s immediately ruined by a boom mike in shot or cheesy special effects or an abrasive, obvious score.
Minimize special effects. If you don’t have the technology to pull of an effect, dial it down. Jaws was more effective when the shark was in the water. The alien in Alien and Aliens was most scary when it was in the shadows. Keep your monster in the shadows. And for the love of God, don’t use digital effects to replicate blood and gunshot wounds. Corn syrup and squibs work just fine.
Subtlety is the key here. A subtle soundtrack (or none at all), a monster who stays in the dark and a bare minimum of effects work.
4. Avoid the Tropes There are certain monsters and situations that are no longer scary. Vampires and werewolves stopped being truly scary ages years ago. They’re a fixture in pop-culture, not in the darkest recesses of your audience’s imagination. While I hesitate to say there’s no way to make them scary (Let the Right One In was creepy and unsettling as sin), it will be very hard to do since the audience will be prepared.
And you don’t want the audience to be prepared. You want them to be unsettled. You want them to be on the edge, uncertain about what’s going to happen next. You do not want them to know that silver and crosses can keep the monsters at bay.
Avoid the scary haunted mansion. Avoid the invincible slasher who can only be brought down by the plucky, perky and chaste teenage girl. Avoid the those same tired ways. We all fear the unknown. That is the one thing everyone shares in common: a fear of the lurking unknown that lives in the darkness.
Surprise us. Challenge us. Demand from us our attention. Keep us always guessing. Make us dread the next frame, for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s coming.
That is how to scare the audience. That’s the way to make a truly good horror movie.