Horror movies, as a genre, come in all shapes and sizes. But they’re all made to do one thing: scare. Because of that, you can define a horror movie’s legacy and success based on one thing: whether it was legitimately scary or not. Not everybody is scared of the same thing, but it’s easy enough to generalize about what people fear. For that reason, horror movies tend to follow a formula. Below is a dissection of that formula, or the six elements that generally make a good horror movie.
6. A Good Score
A good horror movie isn’t a good horror movie without a good original score. We’re talking about music that adds depth of feeling, and by depth of feeling we of course mean depth of terror in this case. Classic horror movies like Halloween and Jaws wouldn’t have had near the effect that they did without their music being every bit as scary as what was happening on camera. Sadly, the art of making an original score for a horror movie is being lost as the years go by and the trends change.
5. A Remorseless Killer
Horror movie killers/slashers must be remorseless. They generally can’t feel sorry for anybody. A killer who feels sorrow humanizes himself, and leaves the audience open to empathize with him, take pity on him, and possibly even understand him. And as we know, the more we understand something, the less we fear it. You want to tell a story about a guy who goes on a murder rampage to avenge the death of his wife? Fine, go for it. But don’t expect people to be frightened by a guy who’s simply standing up for his wife. You want to tell a story about a guy who goes on a murder rampage because his dead grandmother came to him in a dream and ordered him to do so with a sling blade? Now that’s a tad bit creepier.
4. Suspended Disbelief
Science is boring. Physics is boring. Common logic is boring. Michael Meyers dying from a gunshot wound to the head the first time he comes across a cop is boring. Freddy Kruger complaining about how bad his burn scars hurt his face is boring. The shark from Jaws swimming for open waters the first time a harpoon gets stuck into his dorsal fin is boring. The evil element in a horror movie must come from beyond what we already know. A killer who’s vulnerable in the same way as the people he’s chasing isn’t as scary as one who is. An exception to this rule, you could argue, is Jigsaw from the Saw series, who’s basically a decrepit old man. But he suspends enough disbelief rigging all those impossibly intricate and clever death traps for his victims.
3. The Element of Surprise
Obvious one, here, but poking and jabbing at our instinctual flight-or-fight response is a must. You can’t fight the scare you don’t see coming. The beauty of the element of surprise is it doesn’t have to be scary. It could be a radio mysteriously popping on in the middle of dead silence. It could be a squirrel falling from a tree onto somebody’s shoulder in the middle of a long walk through the placid woods while they talk about how they think they’re being followed. The audience can’t know what’s coming every second, so the point is to keep their nerves on edge with a few random surprises they can’t prepare for even if they can guess what’s coming plot-wise.
2. Relatable Fears
A good horror film takes common fears, exploits them, and acts upon them. So what do people fear? Easy. They fear the dark—create visual imagery that’s ill-defined and shadowy. They fear the unknown—keep certain psychological and physical components hidden. They fear death—keep the body count unpredictable as to who might be next. Knowing what people are afraid of isn’t rocket science, and fears aren’t always rational. Would we have a horror movie (Stephen King’s It) with an alien killer dressed as a clown if a lot of people weren’t at least a little afraid of clowns?
Above all, people must die in a horror movie. Remember what we said about exploiting the universal fear of death? And as far as dying goes, a horror movie doesn’t necessarily have to be gory, or gratuitously violent, but a little blood must be split in order to remind the audience that the shit is real, and the stakes are as high as they can be. A character vanishing out of thin air is out of sight, out of mind. We might know he’s dead, but as long as we don’t see him hanging from a tree with his guts spilling out, some part of our brain is still subconsciously suggesting to us that there’s a chance he’s just chilling on a beach in Maui or something.
Did we miss out on something horror-essential, or just in general piss you off with our attitudes? We know how you feel, and we were courteous enough to make a comments section so you can vent and feel better.