Trigger warning: some frightening images
Any horror junkie will agree that most scary movies suck. For every morbid masterpiece, there exist a thousand inept imitations and sloppy snoozefests. Being a fan of horror feels like trudging through a tar pit of mediocrity, hoping you’ll stumble upon a hidden gem before you pass out and drown in the viscous black. It’s not that the movies are necessarily terrible (though many are); it’s that they’re terrible at frightening you. Heck, that tar simile was probably scarier than the thousands of titles it stylistically subsumes.
Since I try not to dwell on negativity, however, let’s turn the issue on its head! How do you make that rare good horror movie? What elements do you need to successfully scare a moviegoing audience? Well, some scholars postulate that good horror is all about establishing atmosphere. Others insist that you need interesting characters. Others still would recommend you tap into the fears of the collective consciousness. All good advice, absolutely. But I believe there’s a much simpler, yet consistently overlooked, recipe for ghostly greatness:
When writing/directing a horror movie…
DON’T ASK: “How should I scare the audience in this scene?”
DO ASK: “How should I threaten the characters in this scene?”
I know, the question in red is a tempting one to ask. You wouldn’t be making horror if you didn’t enjoy instigating terrified shrieks. But there are two benefits to the restrained green approach: focus and power.
Let’s start with focus. It’s not the genre’s strong suit; even decent horror flicks are rife with inconsequential filler. The fake-out jumpscare. The nightmare that doesn’t connect to anything. The ghost child that runs giggling through the room. (I hate that one especially.) Vapid cliches like these persist because they’ve proven themselves adequately thrilling to uninitiated audiences, but they muddle the sense of peril. Use too many of them, and the viewer will wonder what the peril even is. Are the characters about to be giggled to death? If you follow the advice in green, however, you’ll force yourself to stay focused. No tossing scares in at random – each one needs to be a legitimate danger native to the story. (What if, say, the ghost child was a major character, and it was running towards the protagonist?) Something that actually tries to hurt the characters, not something tacked on because “hey, that would be kinda spooky” or “now we’ve gone ten minutes without a scare”. It will be more work, crafting those properly perilous scenarios, but they’ll add up to a much more cohesive and frightening narrative. Plus, you’ll eliminate the most obnoxious cliches.
By far the most unfocused subgenre (or topic, if you prefer my genre system) of horror is that of ghosts. I take no pleasure in saying that; ghosts are cool and I do want to be afraid of them. But because they’re so nebulous in concept, they invite laziness. You can shoehorn any unnatural phenomenon into a film and chalk it up to unspecified ghost powers. The door that slowly closes with a creak at 1 AM. The deformed, translucent face that peers through the bedroom window, only to vanish when the character screams. The toy firetruck that rolls unaided across the floor. It wouldn’t be too bad if the scares at least impacted the story, but they seldom do. The ghostly antics usually leave the characters unharmed, if a little unnerved. To be fair, in most ghost films, the real danger starts to mount in the last third, but that still leaves the viewers with a good hour of fright-fluff.
It’s a lazy, unfocused philosophy of horror, and tragically ubiquitous. It plagues the Conjuring universe, the Paranormal Activity series, The Woman in Black, His House, Mama, Oculus, and countless other titles, always raising suspense-killing questions. Why would the ghost play with a firetruck? Why would it appear outside the window for only a second? What did it hope to accomplish? Where does it go? What’s the danger? The likeliest answer is that the ghost is trying to mess with the characters by sporadically making itself visible or interacting with random objects. And… doesn’t that make the ghost seem rather pathetic? Think about it. Which is scarier? Something that’s trying to scare you? Or something that’s trying to get you?
Only a handful of ghost movies survive taking the red, scare-oriented approach. The ghosts of What Lies Beneath and The Changeling, for example, are so unfocused in their methods that the sense of danger falls apart when you really think about it. But said films also have engaging leads, and enough finesse to their direction to lure you into their chilling embrace regardless. However, if you’re not a master director, and you don’t have Michelle Pfeiffer available, it’s not worth the risk. You’ll be better off heeding the green advice.
Consider It Follows. That 2015 hit isn’t a phenomenal horror movie – it suffers from third-act fatigue and pervasive blandness – but it nails the antagonist. Precisely because the makers weren’t horror masters, they knew they couldn’t just go ahead and scare people; they needed to conceive a tangible danger and stay focused on it. The ghost (okay, it’s more of a demon than a ghost, but it still fits the subgenre as an undead, not-quite-corporeal entity) has a clear goal and method: Disguise itself as a random person, slowly stalk the cursed individual, and kill them in some sickening fashion. That’s a focused, effective antagonist. Now, I’m not saying you have to explain the danger. It Follows never elaborates on the backstory of its evil entity, and it’s all the creepier for it. But it shows, in detail, how it can hurt the characters. Consequently, the audience know what to fear – any person that moves slowly – and why to fear it – it’s insanely murderous. With very few exceptions, every scare in the movie stays true to that concept and drives the story forward.
Then there’s the second benefit to the green approach: power. The power dynamic makes all the difference in horror. It’s why the viewer bought the ticket; they want to feel powerless against the wicked spectacle you pledge to unleash on them. What is fear, really, but the absence of control? But if you try too hard to scare your audience, that dynamic will shift. They’ll realize that they have power over you. You’re desperate for their attention, longing for their reaction. Their screams will cease, replaced by laughter, and your dignity will vanish quicker than a ridiculed boggart. To avoid that fate, you must know your limitations as a storyteller. You hold no dominion over the real world. You can’t actually threaten the audience. If you insist on bombarding them with scares, they’ll eventually question your authority. Exploit, instead, every viewer’s greatest vulnerability: their empathy. It’s in the nature of storytelling that the audience will subconsciously insert themselves into the characters, feeling that which they feel. It only follows that, if you place your characters in the path of the (preferably focused) antagonist, the viewers will start to squirm in their seats. No, you can’t torture them directly, but you can strike at them within your realm, at the characters they accept as surrogates. You can torture their personal avatars. Remember that, and you’ll always remain in your (f)rightful position of power.
The characters don’t even need to be interesting for this to work, as many film theorists claim. (No genre absolutely requires interesting characters, in my controversial opinion.) Scroll back up to the featured image of this post. You have no idea who those eyes belong to, and I doubt you’re super interested in finding out. Eyes have no development, no relatable flaws, no dynamic arc. But admit it, their look of sheer terror still disturbs you. Your brain instinctively emulates a portion of their fear.
If a stock photo doesn’t convince you, consider The Thing (1982), the scariest film I’ve ever seen. It’s so terrifying that I was reluctant to google production stills from it for the immature joke below. Oh, and I’m not alone on this; unlike It Follows, The Thing actually is a horror masterpiece, and recognized as such by most connoisseurs. With all that said, though, I couldn’t care less about any of its characters. I don’t want to know MacReady’s backstory, I can’t go into detail about the personality of Nauls, and I won’t lose sleep over Childs. The only reason I even know their names is that I’ve seen the movie a dozen times (which I don’t recommend, by the way). But the men are all acted well, they feel genuine, and they react to the antagonist with appropriate panic. Thus I instinctively accept them as avatars and share that panic.
Scary movies suck because so many creators underestimate the craft. It’s not just the sequencing of eerie elements – a nightmare there, a startling sound there, a ghost in the mirror there. A horror film shouldn’t be comparable to a curated collection of creepy gifs. On their end, film theorists overestimate the craft. They tell esoteric tales of a secret formula, a certain ratio of cinematic variables that somehow produces fright. What neither group realize is that good horror is simply the result of a good threat. A good threat in turn comprises a properly defined antagonist, and believable characters who live in fear of it. Bad horror is the result of threat dilution. With this knowledge, aspiring horror masters, always keep the threat more in mind than the scares. Don’t ask “what scary thing should happen when Larry investigates the dusty, windowless attic?” That will dilute the threat. Ask “why is Larry investigating the attic, what’s the monster doing up there, and how will it try to get Larry?” Once you get that down, then you may max out the fright value by means of atmosphere, character development, cinematography, or effects. But if you bypass the threat element in your impatience to scare, you’ll void your movie of focus and power. It will lose its identity as it’s swiftly assimilated into the dreaded tar pit.
So, you want to make a good horror movie? Restrain your sick urge to frighten people. Embrace your equally sick urge to torment (fictional) people. The viewers will feel the difference. Ironically, by not trying to scare them, you’ll become much better at it. By not targeting them specifically, you’ll have them scream louder, longer, more satisfyingly. You weirdo.