Here’s a look at five crucial elements that every horror film must have if it has any chance of succeeding in giving us chills and scaring us beyond the reasonable.
Great horror films, like “Alien,” “The Ring,” and “The Abandoned” all have a common theme: atmosphere. In “Alien,” the spaceship setting works brilliantly to set the tone and mood of the film. It’s dark, large, metallic, unyielding, and contains no elements of anything inviting. It’s foreign to us, which is a filmmaker’s tool in the horror genre. The unfamiliar creates the perfect setting for things to happen that we don’t expect.
“The Ring” effectively uses weather as a tool. It’s always raining and foggy, which gives us a sense of constantly being damp and cold. It’s an effective horror element because it tends to make us a little uncomfortable throughout the film. It also heightens senses and keeps viewers on the edge of the seat because it prompts suspicion that something bad is lurking.
“The Abandoned,” set in a very old and remote house in Russia, uses this to its advantage. This plays on feelings of helplessness and abandonment, and instantly raises awareness that being stalked, with no help nearby, would be frightening in real life.
We never see the shark in “Jaws” until the last 30 minutes of the movie. In “Evil Dead,” we never see what’s out in the forest. Michael Myers hides his face with a creepy mask in “Halloween.” The fear of the unknown strikes again.
“Jaws” was about a massive shark, but was also about the potential of being attacked in the water. While not the scariest movie ever made, “Jaws” used this “unknown stalker” element very well, adding to it with a two-note soundtrack that prompted hearts to race.
In the classic “Evil Dead,” we see the attacks from the monster’s point of view, which is an added horror bonus because we get to see the fear and dread on the victims’ faces.
The “Halloween” franchise works the “unknown stalker” element perfectly. Even though we can see Myers stalking and attacking his victims, we don’t see his face. This makes him foreign to us and leaves us feeling no hope of reasoning with him.
The unknown in any good horror film works to its advantage because it causes us to feel helpless. After all, how can we negotiate with or fight against something we can’t see or understand?
Sense of Dread
Dread is devoid of hope and is the feeling that no matter what we do it’s still going to end badly. Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, is perhaps the horror genre’s best example of this.
Throughout the entire film, we know Jack Torrance (Nicholson) is losing his mind. The bartender who isn’t there, the twin girls who die, and the bathtub scene with a scary old woman, let us know that only bad things happen inside the Overlook Hotel, isolated high in the Colorado Rockies.
As his mind continues to slip, the sense of dread builds higher until the worst happens. We feel for his wife and son, but our real sense of dread comes from the fact that Jack Torrance was just an average guy who took a seemingly good job for the winter and didn’t survive because he lost his grip on reality. A normal, everyday situation played out in the worst possible way, with no redemption or Hollywood ending to make us feel better.
The horror genre has a tendency, at times, of being quite predicable. Sure, certain elements must exist for a film to be considered a horror film, but a little care and deft handling can make all the difference in the world.
We would have never guessed Linda Blair would turn her head 360-degrees in “The Exorcist,” yet she did. We didn’t think for a second they’d all die at the end of “The Blair Witch Project,” and we never expected to see Samara, the undead girl from “The Ring,” crawling out of our televisions.
When Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) eats a piece of sautéed brain he took from the head of the still-very-much-alive Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), we can only come to one conclusion: that was unexpected.
The best horror films you’ve ever seen each used sound to their advantage. Whether it was the shrill violin in “Psycho,” the two-note bass line in “Jaws,” or Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” in “The Exorcist,” we immediately knew something bad was about to happen.
“The Strangers,” with Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, used the haunting sounds of Joanna Newsome’s voice as heard in her song “Sprout and The Bean” to push us over the edge. After roughly two minutes into a scary scene, we realize it’s the most peculiar song playing on their phonograph that has us completely rattled, and without it, the scene wouldn’t be nearly as horrifying.
The prolific use of surround-sound audio allowed sound engineers and composers to completely envelope us with loud sounds, soft whispers, and the sense that something just moved behind us. It’s a key element in any successful horror film.
What are some of your favorite scary movies?
About the Author: Lisa is a writer for Satellitetv.com and loves writing about all things entertainment.
David_P studied fine arts and film history and is a graphic and web designer, and a diehard movie fan. David has been involved with a variety film festivals including the Cinephile Film Festival, the PRIDE Film festival, and the Manhattan Short Film festival, and is currently the director of the Dark Carnival Film Fest in Bloomington, Indiana. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)