What Makes Horror Movies Scary? 

Fall is upon us and according to Internet memes, it’s already Halloween. This year, the horror genre has been pretty solid. A few that stood out to me were Lights Out, The Conjuring 2, and Blair Witch. I have a strange relationship with horror. On one hand, I respect and enjoy innovative ideas that test new boundaries. At the same time, I am unable to handle a jump scare. Horror that hits home with me are films that could happen in real life. That being said, throw out every copy of Paranormal Activity and Nightmare on Elm Street you have; I want some real psychological horror.
The genre of horror plays on human’s fears. Horror is set on a spectrum and has an endless amount of sub-genres. That’s why there is something for everyone.

For me, the perfect cookie cutter example of what I’m looking for is Jaws. Set in reality? ✔️ Builds tension that pays off? ✔️ Places character in a setting that feels organic? ✔️
Choosing a horror setting that revolves around reality is the best way to get your heart pumping. Placing a character in a setting where they feel safe, such as their home, is an added bonus. To relate this to the real world, think about a time you’ve been home alone and you heard something. We know it was just the AC or the washing machine going off, but in the back of our minds it was an axe murderer.

What locks in a scare for me is when filmmakers draw something out. This decision adds suspense that helps lead up to the main scare. Without this, we wouldn’t have a jump scare. We all know that jump scares have become a cliche for the genre; they are overused and cheap gimmicks for a reaction.

For example, Tobe Hooper keeps the focus on the clown for a solid minute in Poltergeist. During this, he places a musical cue to signal the viewer that something is about to happen. The same thing goes for Zodiac when Jake Gyllenhaal enters what he thinks is the killer’s basement. From the beginning of the scene, you can tell something is off. It isn’t until the reveal until we feel it. During my first watch, I was literally yelling at him to get his butt out of there.
Movies that play on one’s fear have a similar effect, such as films that remind us that we will all die eventually or ones that play on people’s phobias of bugs, needles, clowns, etc. This is a direct link to our psyche and can scare the shit out of some viewers. PSA: If you have belonephobia, DO NOT watch Saw ll.
Another kind of horror film I enjoy are films that take a traditional paint by numbers horror, but add a twist that changes it at the end. One of my favorites is Cabin in the Woods. However, for this example, we have to give it to the king of twist endings: M. Night Shyamalan. Though the overall film didn’t work for me, 2015’s The Visit’s twist ending added to the movie. The problem with this type is that it isn’t always done effectively. Normally, twist endings are put in due to the writers not knowing how to end the movie.

Maybe it’s a combination of the music, script, and editing that make a scare. What triggers someone is different for everyone, and many factors play into what makes a horror movie good. Asian Horror is a completely different story because unfortunately, they have a direct line to my nightmares.


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