copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman
What makes a horror movie scary? Why do some films frighten us while others don’t send similar chills up and down our spines? Why is Stephen King a master of this genre, both in its printed and motion picture forms? What’s the difference between a truly frightening horror movie and a merely horrible one? By analyzing those moments of fright and horror, perhaps some clues may be pieced together, allowing us to discern just what is so scary about horror movies. As a result, we can both better appreciate the techniques of the horror maestros and, if we are ourselves writers of horror fiction, improve our own work.
One way to analyze what scares people is to ask them. Fans of the genre maintain web sites, respond to interviews, rate movies, and keep blogs concerning what they like and don’t like about horror films. Since these individuals represent the market for which you are writing or intend to write, their comments, observations, points of view, praise, complaints, and questions are a goldmine waiting to be excavated.
Another way to discover what’s scary about horror fiction is to read interviews on the subject by the masters of the genre. Many of these interviews are available online or in the back issues of magazines available at your local library. You can also type in a phrase such as “what’s so scary about horror movies?” or “scary horror movies” into an Internet search engine’s window and see what results occur. Of course, another way to find out what scares the hell out of moviegoers (and readers) is to watch horror movies (or read horror stories)--and take notes!
As you visit these sites and read horror stories or watch horror movies, make a list of your insights and thoughts about the question, What’s so scary about horror movies? Before long, you’ll have a huge list. Remember, though, you’re not interested in summarizing the plot per se. Instead, you’re interested in identifying frightening moments in the film or story and understanding why these incidents scared you.
Your list might contain some of these elements:
Unexpected shock: something springs out of a closet, falls from the ceiling, bursts through the floorboards, or springs upon a character from behind, seemingly having come out of nowhere. Another example is the sudden and immediate disfigurement or dismemberment of a character. Reflections, especially strange and incongruous images, in a mirror or other glass surface can also frighten.
Red Herring: one incident occurs, such as an unexpected shock, that distracts us from the big scary moment that is just about to occur. For example, a cat springs at the character, screeching, and scares the hell out of us just before the axe murderer buries his weapon in the character’s abdomen or back.
Scary Music and Other Tone Setters: the soundtrack plays jarring, or frantic, music that sets up the expectation that something nasty is about to happen; what follows is something nasty--or a red herring. A thunderstorm is an old stand-in for such discordant music. The interplay of light with shadows, like weather and musical effects, sets the tone (horror) in many horror movies; printed horror fiction uses descriptions and juxtapositions to accomplish the same purpose.
Lights Out: a character is knocked unconscious, by the villain or by an accidental fall, only to awaken in deep, hot water, metaphorically speaking, a la “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
Gross Out!: Stephen King says he will scare his readers if he can and disgust them if he must. Blood, guts, and gore usually do the trick.
Dead Meat: showing or describing skeletons or corpses, especially partially decomposed bodies, horrifies and disgusts.
Stalking: the monster stalks the protagonist, sneaking up on him or her, or ambushes him or her; the stalking or the ambush is “previewed” for the reader or the moviegoer, however, rather than occurring as an unexpected shock: we see the villain sneaking up on or lying in wait for the main character, so we anticipate the bad guy’s next move (but the protagonist doesn’t).
Being Watched: showing the main character being watched by someone gives moviegoers and readers the willies.