What Makes Good Horror (Scares) – Ideas on a Concept
I’ve been writing a lot about horror or things that work well for Halloween, so now that it’s the actual date, what makes good horror?
Now, this is obviously going to be somewhat subjective because it’s my thoughts on horror, and your thoughts on what you prefer might vary greatly, but I think that there’s going to be a number of takeaways that most people will probably agree with.
Let’s start by thinking about why people read or watch horror. There are probably several reasons for it, but the biggest one that I know of is that energy that you get from feeling scared. It triggers some of the fight or flight adrenaline in people who love horror. There’s a sense of high emotion that you’re getting even though you’re feeling scared. It’s an energy that is going to stick with you for a while, even if it does haunt your dreams later.
With that in mind, how do you best go about creating those feelings and moments?
There are a number of things, but one of the biggest is also basic for any sort of story generation. Keep your characters interesting and sympathetic. You want your readers or watchers to be able to relate to the main characters, because then they are going to feel more when those characters are scared. It’s really being able to insert yourself into the shoes of the character so that you can imagine it happening to you. The more you can do this, the more of a true reaction you’re going to get out of people.
Now, that isn’t for every horror movie, in movies like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Cabin in the Woods, I doubt we feel like we’re any of those characters. In those cases you’re playing off of the expectations of people as to what is going to happen in a story. They will be looking for the jump scares to happen to those characters, but if the jump scare is done well enough, the people taking in your story are still going to jump as well. The stories that use this methodology aren’t going to stick around as long with people because you already have some idea as to what is going to happen.
Then how do you continue to build from there?
I’m going to break this part into two different sections, the more realistic first than the more trope driven methods of horror.
In a more realistic approach you’re trying hard to keep everything based somewhat in reality. A movie that I haven’t seen yet, but that has some reasonable feel to it while being completely out there is A Quiet Place. Being quiet so that no one knows where you are, that seems very reasonable to the human brain, which makes that movie scary. You’re going to feel for the people every time they make a noise because you can imagine it happening to yourself and how scared you would be when you hear a noise. Cloverfield is another example that seems a bit odd, because there’s a giant monster attacking New York City, how realistic is that? But with the handheld camera and found footage feel they are going for it feels more realistic and more relatable. Now, it’s less effective than some because it is a monster, but another thing that Cloverfield does well is the not knowing all the information about what is going on. This is also shown in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The main characters do not have all the information and because we’re basically just seeing it from their perspective, we’re also lacking in information which makes it more tense.
The danger to the characters also matters a lot, you don’t want it to feel like any characters are particularly safe. Cloverfield does this by having a character you met very early on who seemed fairly likely to survive dying in the monster attack, then another character dying from a monster attack part way through the movie. In fact, in that movie no one is safe. If you’re worried that the character you might light will die, that adds more to the stress and fear that you’re going for in this sort of horror.
Also, keep away from the buckets of blood. A grisly death can be effective in this sort of horror, but it isn’t needed by any stretch of the imagination, and really in any horror, the over the top plethora of violence doesn’t really make it scarier. A lot of gore isn’t generally scary, it tends to be gross. You’re going to get a reaction of revulsion versus being scared and that’s going really horror. It might be horrifying and traumatizing, but if we go back to what my original definition for good horror was, it’s not going to kick up the fight or flight adrenaline. Especially in something that you’re targeting to be more realistic, it only works if you are doing something disturbing to a character that you care about, and something makes sense within the story. 10 Cloverfield Lane does this with the character being killed in a vat of acid, and even with that, they don’t focus in on the gore of it, it’s just something horrifying that happens primarily off screen. The concept of what is happening is where the horror comes from, not actually seeing the event, and how far the character is going to go is scarier than the actual event.
So what about the trope filled horror, how do you make that scary?
You still do want to feel for the characters some. So try and keep them somewhat sympathetic. They just aren’t going to be as realistic as the other type of horror. You’re going to have them fit into the various tropes as to what sort of characters are in a horror film. If you want to see a good way that the different tropes of characters are used in a horror film, Cabin in the Woods does it nicely with the characters starting out one way, and because it’s a horror film being shaped into a certain expected horror film trope.
Next you are going to rely on a lot on jump scares. It’s less about the psychological because you probably have a killer or horror instigator like Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. They are not highly realistic, though they can do interesting things, like Krueger attacking through dreams, but even in that case, it’s more about how and when they pop up. I would say with a good jump scare it’s about misdirection. A viewer or reader versed in horror is going to know when to expect it to happen, but you want them looking for it in a certain spot and have it come in from a different direction.
You’re also trying to subvert expectations once in a while. The heavier trope focused horror should generally follow the expected story progression. You want it to feel familiar because people will start to get into the story and what is happening and start looking for things, and while jumps should fairly often come from a misdirection of where they are coming from, not so much when, you should try and have some sort of twist in the main plot that is at least a little surprising. It’s mainly done through the backstory of the villain in movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, but you could hit other areas as well, such as having a character turn on the rest of the characters at an time they don’t suspect.
And how do you deal with gore in this sort of film? I still don’t think you need to lean heavily into disgusting violence. But this is the spot that you can use a bucket of blood. Black Sheep, a movie about zombie sheep in New Zealand, has a ton of gore to it with buckets of blood and people getting torn apart, but it isn’t done in a twisted sort of way, it’s just straight forward over the top gore. It doesn’t add much to the scariness of the movie, but as compared to some movies, it also doesn’t detract from the movie.
I think either of these methods creates an interesting horror story. It really depends on the person which one they prefer or if they prefer either of them. Which type of horror do you prefer and what are some of your favorite books, shows, or movies in the genre?
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