What Makes Great Horror?
With Halloween just a few days away I’ve indulged in one of my favourite pastimes- Thinking about stuff that scares the crap out of people.
I’ve given thought to some of my favourite scary books, movies and campfire stories. Which of course led to the obvious question… why is so much of our horror media so bad?
You’ll hear it all the time from scary movie buffs and avid readers. Horror is an incredibly difficult thing to balance, often falling flat especially around the October season where terror becomes the flavour of the month. So why do we still hold it so close to our adrenaline filled hearts?
Because horror lets us explore a part of ourselves we keep locked away. It celebrates the part of us we hide away. But first, let’s first address the elephant in the room…
When we experience something scary in the comfort of our homes or a crowded cinema we do so expecting two things- to be at least startled in the moment, then to walk away from the experience. Probably forgetting it soon after. That is because modern horror is built to make us feel ‘safe’. There is always a moment to relax behind the scares, a time to cool off and laugh at what makes us jump. Horror contains comedy relief, fake-out moments and the opportunity to feel distanced from the art when we walk away. Sadly blockbuster movies and videogames do not want their audience feeling disturbed by what they’ve seen, and funnily a movie that is perceived as “too scary” will be watered down before release to a wide audience (see; ‘Event Horizon’ 1997 for a great example). This approach does not leave anything that sticks with us on a psychological level, and allows us to feel safer about the world we live in- rather than the possible world the story alluded to.
If that’s part of the issue, what are some of the essential building blocks of true horror?
Well just as important as the scare itself, perhaps even more so, is the tension cycle. This is the point in a movie or book where our minds are led into a vulnerable place. The creaking of doors, the rustling of windows, the sound of a running tap. Between the point where our expectations are made and the fright is actually delivered is an incredible stretch of time where our brain’s cannot feel safe- every small thing becomes a possible threat. Shadows on the walls, images in mirrors. It is here where horror geniuses will do work.
I give a classic example of The Exorcist (1973), which not only paced its tension across long periods but also snuck haunting images and unsettling things out of sight. If you pay attention to the shadows behind doors and furniture in this movie, you’ll see faces hidden in the dark watching the audience- now THAT is well done.
The tension cycle is also what allows us to feel that sense of dread even if we’ve already been startled. After enough build-up the payoff of a scare will actually relieve some of that stress, making us feel relaxed despite ourselves. That’s when the pace can begin building up all over again.
The scare itself doesn’t always need to be a jump scare- despite what some movies would have you believe- but instead a slower payoff can add to the creeping feeling. Like the girlfriend rising in the night to watch her partner sleep in ‘Paranormal Activity’ or the dog that isn’t really a dog in ‘Conjuring 2’. Watching that uncertain threat open before our eyes instead of just jumping out at us is not only more subtle, it makes it impossible to find that feeling of rest. We are still trapped in the unease.
Limiting perception also plays a part in the emotions of the audience. As viewers we should never see everything that’s going on, because knowledge breaks the tension. Uncertainty is a weapon of horror, and lots of movies fall into the trap of letting us see too much. Effective horror will often use restricted viewpoints- cameras, hallways, darkness, even just showing an image for a fraction of a second only gives us a limited idea of what’s out here.
Possibly one of the greatest lessons of horror is tied to this very fact- People will always scare themselves worse than you can scare them. Showing only pieces of the greater whole and letting the audience or reader fill in the rest, whether they want to or not, will always be more powerful than showing something on screen.
Outside of the terror itself there are three pillars that determine how much we are willing to care about the scares presented to us: Setting, Mystery and Character.
Setting sounds like a simple concept, simply what spooky place these events are happening in. But creators should never limit themselves to letting a setting be a backdrop; some of the greatest locations in film are the places where horror takes place. The Overlook Hotel from ‘The Shining’, the spaceship Nostromo from ‘Alien’, even the mall from ‘Dawn of the Dead’ are iconic landscapes for cinema. Why else is setting important? Because it builds toward a core element of Horror…
The isolation a setting can create is an incredible tool for making us feel disempowered and vulnerable. Humans are a societal species, as a group capable of overcoming any problem no matter how immense, but alone we are fragile. This is why stories often have characters alone in hospitals, cabins, mountains or abandoned towns. These places make psychological connections. Places like asylums and prisons all have negative images tied to our psyche that just the word alone, let alone the visuals, can invoke. By stirring the shared fear of these places the superstitious part of the human mind will fill in a lot of the horror just from the setting.
There are also locations like space, the ocean, the Arctic or even jungles and lost villages; these are great for horror because a primal part of us knows we aren’t supposed to BE there. That the area around us is hostile, sometimes even immediately fatal, and only a thin barrier of security is keeping us alive and safe. A setting like this can create horror without even needing an antagonist, such as in ‘Gravity’ (2013) where the threat of the Where far surpasses that of the What.
So what then of Mystery? As I’ve stated already the unknown is a terrifying place. It’s the part of horror that allows us to fill the gaps and build expectations. The unknown is always scarier, and this is why many horrors lose their edge after the monster/killed is exposed- fading into the mediocrity of sequels. For a master class of mystery I raise you the master of the macabre; H.P. Lovecraft.
Most Lovecraftian tales revolved around a simple concept, the unknowable.
Not the unknown, something we have not yet come to grips with, but forces which cannot be understood. Stories like the Music of Erich Zann and The Shunned House revolve around frightening elements that not only aren’t displayed in full, they are portrayed as being impossible for the words on the page to convey, making it very difficult to frame in movie format (which accounts for very few good Lovecraft movies). But even in his more subdued pieces mystery was core to his work. There was always a question present that rarely- if ever- got a complete answer. How can this effect be used to narrate good horror? That is the work of the Uncanny.
The uncanny is the creeping sense that something is not as it should be. Even if we can’t put our finger on it. This type of mystery can help construct a world around our characters without a single word of exposition, and leave the audience with the question, “”What is wrong here, and why?”
M. Shyamalan conveyed the uncanny to surprising effect in his 2015 film ‘The Visit’ where the suspense came not from blatant danger, but simply the sense that something was… off.
Stephen Lynch is the celebrated master of uncanny with shows like Twin Peaks relying on strange imagery and unnatural speech to convey unease when everything should otherwise seem safe. This makes us question our understanding of what we’re so sure the world is, and how it operates.
This sensation goes even deeper when it comes to human beings. Ask yourself, why are dolls so creepy? Why does the idea of a smile with too many teeth freak us out on such a basic level? Because we have a base understanding of what a human being is. So when faced with something that brings our understanding into question we feel unsettled, unsafe. We’re no longer as certain of ourselves as we once were, meaning anything becomes a possibility.
Any time a horror story leaves us with these feelings of doubt we are victim to its mystery.
The final pillar of our investment comes from the Character. These are not just the buffet of faces we will see offered to the monster over the course of two hours, they are our vessel into the story. How much we engage with a work is largely down to how much we are willing to invest, emotionally, in what we’re being told. Like in all storytelling a character is key to this- but what’s special to horror? What do characters do best here that no other medium can brag?
Characters in horror allow us a proxy. A chance to explore a darker, more fearful part of ourselves that our minds shy away from. The space between what we believe ourselves to be and what we actually are is a terrifying place that horror has always taken advantage of. To use Jung’s psychological term this place is The Shadow. This is where the illusions we put up around ourselves, as a person and as a society, are broken down. Our honest thoughts, true fears and most basic (and horrid) desires? Those are all found in The Shadow.
So these characters allow us to explore that darker side of ourselves. The monster that reflects the worst parts of human nature. When in horror, either by the threat or the actions of the characters within it, we are faced with the reality of being human. Some of the deepest horror can make us face these questions we’d rather hide from. This is what made ‘SAW’ (2004) so engaging- what would we do in that situation? Are we so noble to give up our lives, or would we commit atrocities?
Perhaps the best example in popular fiction is James Sunderland from ‘Silent Hill 2’. During the characters plight the town and all the residents met within reflect some element of James’s psyche, mirroring parts of his past and alluding to the mystery of why he’s there. Even the spotlight monster- Pyramid Head- is a representation of his violence and sexual anger. Having every element of the world reflect the conflict of the main character is a very difficult thing to pull off, hence why there aren’t many examples of it, and most stories will simply use characters as a relatable vessel for the audience to hide behind. Both these methods are acceptable, it largely comes down to one question: what are we really meant to be afraid of?
Too many fall into the trap of thinking the threat of the spooky monster is all horror can be. Consider a moment, are zombies all that scary? As a monster themselves, no. They are slow, rotting bodies with ugly faces. We might not want to be trapped in a room with them but comparatively they are much less dangerous than actual humans! But change the focus for a moment- what if it’s not the zombies we’re supposed to shy away from. What if it’s the realisation that the seven year old girl we’ve gotten to know as the audience has been bitten? There is no longer need for creepy hallways, moving shadows or jump-scares from the dark. Just a quiet moment of a parent cradling a 9mm pistol and all the true horror that represents.
So if there are so many options for good horror, why are many scary stories today so weak?
At a purely business level; Hollywood doesn’t want to scare off its paying customers. Movies trying to cater to broader audiences with PG-15 sell in much larger numbers than R-rated, and relying too much on jump scares for that ‘screaming audience’ effect has led to a generation of horror cinema that feels very one-note. Ultimately, it comes down to copying the tropes of spooky stories without understanding the essence of what makes them stick. That horror isn’t just about things that go bump in the night but questions that go much deeper.
Ultimately there are many root issues that unsettle us as animals; Sexuality, insanity, parental issues, racism, even loss of control in our lives. When these issues are brought to the surface they create a genuine unease which is a blanket for horror. One of the most popular horror films of the last few years, ‘The Babadook’, spent most of its run time establishing a painfully uncomfortable relationship between a mother and her disabled child before bringing out the scares.
Why? Because these issues claw at us and make us more susceptible to the basest fear- death. If we’ve already been forced to face issues that so many of us shy away from as human beings we can’t help but experience everything that comes along with it. Which is when the greatest of horrors will present us with a fear for life itself.
That is where terror is found.