Diving Into Horror: What Make A Movie Truly Scary?

Diving Into Horror: What Make A Movie Truly Scary?

In the past few years, horror movies have had a rocky track record. We’ve seen spectacular horror flicks such as Hereditary, The Witch, and The Conjuring, and then we were given cliché-ridden and jump-scare infested horror films like The Nun, The Curse Of La Llorona, and The Bye Bye Man

To many fans, horror has become a very hit or miss genre.

Some filmmakers today struggle with finding a great recipe for horror films, while others have clearly mastered it. It’s safe to say that most horror films today are filled with lazy jump scares, dull acting, incoherent plots, exposition dumping, bland characters, and more stereotypes that remind you of ’80s slasher movies.

Look at it like this: if a horror movie isn’t scary, then it fails as a horror movie. Just like if an action movie has bad/underwhelming action, it fails as an action movie, or if a comedy movie isn’t funny it fails too.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes a horror movie…horrific (or horrible). 

Atmosphere (Setting)

the-witch-screenshotThere are multiple aspects of filmmaking. When it comes to horror films, few things are more important than the setting and environment. Think about settings in horror movies that are set in a “scary” but normal place. It seems like it can happen anywhere, but something just isn’t right from the beginning.

The idea of the movie’s plot can happen anywhere makes it scarier, builds the intensity, and it makes the movie stick with audiences. And when your movie sticks with audiences, you my friend that happens, they come back for more and we have a great horror flick.

People are scared of simple but eerie settings like attics, basements, old houses, overgrown forests, and even the maybe stereotypical graveyards. What makes these settings work is the environment fits the theme of the movie and also the plot. The setting of the movie strengthens the movie and brings it in to “real” life. Most of the time, a dark place is where evil things can hide. Atmosphere and setting is everything when it comes to how a horror film portrays a story.

Hide Your Monster (Antagonist)

paranormal_activity_4A ton of horror movies struggle with this. An abundance of scary movies show their monster or antagonistic force too early in the film and blow their load.

Whenever a movie shows their monster early, the quality goes downhill from there (most of the time). Don’t fully reveal your monster until the third act of the film or at an appropriate time that fits with the plot. Movies shouldn’t show the monster at the start of the movie.

Horror directors should try to hide the monster in the darkness. This uncertainty makes the fear of unknown keep going throughout the experience. Why have the monster show up in broad daylight? Having the monster show up at daytime makes it less scary because you can see the whole monster. There is no more mystery. The fear of the unknown makes the movie scary because the audience doesn’t know what the antagonist looks like or how it works. And when you can’t see what you fear, don’t you fear it even more? 

Fear of the Unknown (Terror)

it followsOne of the scariest themes a filmmaker could put in their horror movie is the fear of the unknown. What should the audience fear? Where should the audience look for clues? Fear of the unknown is when audiences and characters in the film search for the enemy and don’t know what it does, why it does, how it does, or how it thinks.

Think about Michael Myers in Halloween. No one knows why or how he does and how he thinks. People fear most what they don’t understand. Not showing your monster or what it does makes the fear of unknown live on. It’s the knowledge of something being there but not knowing what it does or what it can do.

My favorite example of this is showed in It Follows. This is one of the best scary movies in recent years. The whole film is pretty phenomenal … up until they show the monster. The first half of It Follows does a very good job of playing the idea of the fear of the unknown. It Follows started to fall off when the film showed what the monster is capable of doing.

When you see the monster in action the fear of the unknown is lost and therefore the movie always goes downhill from there. Horror movies need to live on the idea of fear of the unknown. Once the fear of the unknown is gone… it never comes back.

Music and Sounds (Score)

exorcistThe music, sounds, and score can make the entire difference between good and bad scary movies. When leading up to scary scenes, do you ever notice the sound of barely playing a piano makes the scene even worse?

What about the effects? Door slams, hard-knocking, bumps, lightning, and unexplained shrieks outside the scene. The best scary movies are riddled with these sounds and it carries on the fear of the film. Jump scares work with music and sounds, but some of the most terrifying and effective are seen in silence.

Quiet is scary because it mixes everything we have discussed. Having a movie that’s mixed with scary music and silence makes a very good horror film. 

Horror is one of the most captivating genres in film because multiple aspects–many of them minor in creation–make a scary, long-lasting, and great horror movie. Those who have mastered those little things make the biggest differences. And their skills are only getting better each year.


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