After a lengthy debate over the scariest movie I've ever seen, I chose to break down what makes a movie truly horrific. There are a lot of factors that create fear -- the cat jumping off the top of the fridge after a long musical buildup, long pan shots in the dark and, of course, 'the chase' scene. But all of those are simply elements to a film that, when completed, stick with you and creates fear outside of the theater.
Here are the core elements to a memorable horror/thriller movie:
- First and most importantly, you must make an everyday task or scenario frightening.
- If you can make your scenes scary during the day, that's a big plus.
- If you can make your scenes scary without musical buildup, also a big plus.
- Kidnapping, inhuman torture or anything that directly connects you to your family or personal circle.
- Make your villain someone that you initially have an emotional connection with before they turn on you.
- Tapping into childhood fears (while low-hanging fruit) is a great way to set a tone.
- Utilization of the dark; alternate cultures and the unknown (i.e. the occult).
- In the news/the guy next door effect.
- Location and isolation.
- Utilization of ghosts and possession of characters and objects.
- Overzealous and seemingly uncontrollable curiosity.
- Time-shift and potential future scenarios, albeit post-apocolypitic or otherwise.
- Effective use, pace and temperament of the musical score.
"Fear is primal, to really scare someone, you have to tap into those primal instincts that are hard coded into our psyche. It reminds us that we aren't in control of ourselves as much as we think we are." ~ Mike Monello (@mikemonello) Co-Founder & Executive Creative Director @campfirenyc
But going back to my first point, "you must make an everyday task or scenario frightening" -- this is essential. You can break almost every good horror/thriller film down and find its core competency. To prove this point, I'm going to randomly grab some movies that I felt 'stuck with me' and I still find scary for the above listed reasons:
- The Ring - The television; the act of watching suspect materials.
- Poltergeist - The television; possessed childhood toys (a clown, no less, which is twofer).
- Psycho - The shower; villain seemed normal enough.
- Jaws - Swimming in the ocean will never be the same for anyone that lived when this movie came out.
- The Blair Witch Project - Hiking; uncontrollable curiosity; utilization of the dark; location (even during the day, no less).
- Evil Dead – Cabin in the woods; possession of just about every damn thing.
- Silence of the Lambs – Guy next door; family; childhood memories.
- The Exorcist – Childhood possession a twofer; occult; music.
- The Shining – Isolation; possession and time-shift.
I invite you to put your fears to the test and see if you can reverse engineer your movie list and see where it breaks down. Chances are it won't be as difficult as your fear.