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How to Scare People: The Elements of Horror Movies

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The profitability of genre filmmaking is indisputable, and among the genres horror reigns supreme. Consider this article from Mental_Floss that lists the twenty most profitable films of all time in terms of return on investment – eight of them are straight horror films (nine if you include Young Frankenstein).  The commercial viability of the horror film is couched in two principles that have carried the genre from drive-ins and video stores to streaming platforms: they tend to be cheap to make, and people flock to see them with or without the presumption of quality. In short, they sell.

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Why is this? What is it about horror movies that inspire such a powerful attraction in people? Perhaps the answer is right in the name. Horror derives from the Latin horrere, meaning to bristle, shudder, or tremble. These words describe physical reactions to the emotional phenomenon of being scared, revolted, or terrified, and it is just these reactions that make horror films so popular. In film theory, horror is included among the so-called Body Genres, films whose popularity are attributed to the physiological reactions that they elicit in the viewer. Basically, the adrenaline and catharsis of being frightened by a movie becomes addictive, and you keep coming back for more.

These physical reactions are so potent that they’ve long been used to entice potential viewers in the marketing of the films themselves. When The Exorcist took the world by storm in 1973, theatres would arrange for ambulances to be parked outside during screenings to drum up hype. The marketing behind 2007’s Paranormal Activity cut night-vision footage of terrified audiences directly into the trailers. The film went on to gross $90,000,000 on a production budget of $450,000.

So how do you achieve this effect on people? Through technique, psychology, and a refined understanding of the cinematic language. While it’s easy to dismiss horror films as cheap thrills and schlock (and a lot of them are), a well-executed one harnesses every aspect filmmaking to create pure, synthesized dread.

There are three essential things you need to do to make a movie scary. The first is to situate the narrative in the theme of some inherent, universal fear: the dark, death, monsters, the unknown, various phobias, the supernatural, and so on. The second is to establish an emotional baseline that will allow the audience to project themselves into the story, and the third (and most important part) is to build tension and subvert expectations. Atmosphere creates suspense, suspense is ratcheted into dread, and then you choose how to exploit that dread: was it just the cat making that noise? Or was it something worse? If all else fails, you can just go for the Jump Scare.

Here are a few ways you can apply these principles to your next horror project, and hopefully spook your audience. Remember, however, that horror movies are like any other: they’re only as good as the sum of their parts.

Writing Techniques

Originality and depth should be your watchwords. Horror is a well-trodden genre with conventions that have been bent, broken, and reconstructed a million times over.  Think carefully about what’s going to make your ghost/monster/slasher/vampire/zombie story different. Horror audiences know the cliches of the genre like the backs of their hands, so use this against them. If you can lead the audience down a path where they think they know what’s coming and then successfully subvert that expectation, you’ve achieved the ultimate horror coup.

Depth is how you achieve the all-important emotional baseline, specifically through strong, fleshed-out characters. Even if your characters are merely going to be fodder for monsters, the audience has to care about them or they’ll disengage from the story, and eventually disengage from the atmosphere. Underdeveloped and uninteresting characters essentially become shields against the dread that you’re trying to achieve. It’s hard to be scared when you’re bored (or laughing).

Visual Techniques

The way you use the camera can be just as unnerving as the content of the story, and isn’t just a matter of filling your shots with mist and shadows. You should always try to use your camera in ways that reflect the thematic fear at the heart of your story.

For example, this steadicam shot from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a perfect analogue for the horror classic’s overarching atmosphere. We’re locked in behind Danny Torrence on his trike has he navigates the labyrinthine Overlook hotel, appearing tiny and isolated by the huge, oppressive space that surrounds him. The tension is palpable, and is ratcheted up by every blind corner we’re forced to go around to keep him in frame. As is often the case, something bad is eventually waiting behind one of them.

Aural Techniques

Try watching the above clip from The Shining with volume turned off. Not as effective, is it? People can be just as perturbed by strange or jarring noises as they are by disturbing imagery – both play on the primordial parts of our brains that are kicked into overdrive during the experience of watching a horror film.  Notice how even the increasingly discordant score that plays over the shot amplifies our anticipation that something scary is about to happen.

No Film School offers a great primer on what to consider when designing sound for a horror film. Of particular interest is the concept of the ‘Unseen Character’ (the horror entity constructed in the mind of the audience entirely through the use of offscreen diegetic sound), amusingly explored in this video from RocketJump:

Editing Techniques

Horror is an editor’s playground. When you’re trying to scare people, being able to control what they see is one of the most powerful tools you have.  Holding on a shot without cutting away builds suspense and tension.  Rapid, disorienting cuts create confusion and unease.  Close-ups emphasize immediacy and intensity. Shifting perspective away from the subject of the scene to something that they’re unaware of develops a kind of visual dramatic irony.  Consider the editing in the infamous shower scene from Psycho:

We start with a series of evenly spaced, deliberate cuts showing Janet Leigh’s character entering the shower and bathing. This establishes a comfortable, complacent sense of normalcy. When the shot goes wide, it’s to introduce a looming presence in the bathroom of which the subject is unaware. This creates dramatic irony – the audience knows someone is there, the character doesn’t. Suspense begins to build.  When the shower curtain is finally flung open, we enter extreme close-ups and rapid cutting (no pun intended) as the killer does the deed. This is the moment of terror. We then return to the initial state of evenly spaced, slow cuts. This time, however, the situation is anything but normal and the atmosphere of the film has shifted into horror. Being scared is now the baseline of the experience, because the audience is anticipating more to come. You need to achieve the same effect.

Interested in attending a film conference in the beautiful St.John’s, Newfoundland? Check out SJWIFF Come meet some Celtx employees (Bryant White, Noel Moffatt & Nicole Squires) who will be attending the event this year.

If you’re watching a horror movie this Halloween and find yourself getting scared, keep these principles in mind and think about why it’s happening. Breaking into horror is a great way to get noticed in an age where unassuming horror shorts are frequently getting made into extremely lucrative features. Once you begin to understand the mechanics of how a movie scares you, you’ll be in a good position to start figuring out how to scare others in your next film or video project.

Look out behind you!


  • Stephen Stanford is the Product Owner of Celtx Gem. Born in Newfoundland and based in Toronto, Stephen was originally trained in film production and screenwriting, and also serves as Celtx's Writer-In-Residence.

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