What techniques do horror movie makers use to make a film scary? The answer is, many. Serious critics often vilify horror movies as cheap, vile “video nasties”. But in reality, a horror movie is a complex machine. Some of the best ones operate on many levels. So today we’re going to examine just what makes a horror film scary.
I’m not talking about monsters or violence. Instead, I’m talking about the methods writers and directors use to make us jump out of our skins or hide behind the sofa (don’t tell me you’ve never done that) in our favourite scary films!
This is by no mean an exhaustive list of the types of scares to be found in horror movies. But here are the ones I’ve noticed a lot.
The Jump Scare
The laziest kind of scare. The hero or heroine is walking around the creepy old house when BOO! It’s the monster! Usually it leaps straight at the camera so we experience for the shock ourselves. This is the kind of scare that easily gets on your nerves. For a classic example, see the “head in the boat” scene in JAWS. Check out many modern movie trailers for more inept examples.
The Lewton Bus
Also known as the “Cat Scare” or “Faux Scare”.
Ever noticed how sometimes the hero or heroine will be walking through the dark old house/deserted spaceship looking for the monster, when suddenly BOO! out jumps the monster. Oh wait, it’s not the monster after all. It’s only the cat. Or maybe it’s the boyfriend that puts his hand on the heroine’s shoulder. You’ve just been played for a sucker.
The origin of this term is legendary film producer Val Lewton, who used this to great effect in the classic original THE CAT PEOPLE (1942). If you’ve never seen it, get yourself a copy. It’s been ripped off hundreds if not thousands of times since.
“Nested” Cat Scare
A modern twist on the Cat Scare is that right after the innocuous event the real monster DOES appear! This would be more interesting except that it’s also been done a thousand times. For a more interesting variety, check out AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Our hero has a terrifying dream involving a monster with a knife. He wakes up to find… his nurse leaning over him. She goes to the window, opens the curtains and…BOO! The monster jumps out from behind the curtains and stabs her in the chest. Our hero screams. Then he wakes up again. The nurse is there and she goes to the window. She draws the curtains again and… nothing happens. A very unsettling scene.
Mirror Scares / Reveal Scare
How many times have you seen the hero or heroine go to the bathroom, open the mirrored bathroom cabinet (it always has a mirror, doesn’t it?), close it again and… BOO! There’s the refection of the monster right behind them in the mirror! Modern variants include refrigerator doors with monsters inexplicably appearing behind them. Once again, this has become a massive cliché. Still pretty scary, though.
A relative of the jump scare. But instead of seeing something, we hear it. For a recent example check out the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies. Although here the scare is used quite effectively, as the loud noises build up over each night, making the audience dread each sundown more and more. And, of course, they are very inexpensive to create!
Typically, this very effective scare hits us from another direction from that in which we were looking. Not to be confused with the Cat Scare, which is supposed to get us on the edge of our seat before the attack happens. This scare comes out of nowhere. It’s a bolt from the blue.
Done well, this is one of the best scares. A classic example is the infamous chestburster scene from ALIEN where the creature explodes out of John Hurt’s chest. But other examples can be found. John Carpenter’s underrated THE FOG contains several of these. There’s also a great one in EXORCIST III. The camera sits at the end of a long hall in a hospital. A nurse sits at the desk, doing paperwork. Other people come and go. The nurse goes to check the rooms. She walks up the corridor. Behind her, very subtly, the other people leave one by one. She locks the last door, turns to go into the room opposite and BOO! What is that behind her? The monster explodes out of the locked doorway with a very nasty set of surgical scissors in hand. You’ve just been caught out by the Hidden Attack!
This technique has been described as what happens when the audience knows as much as the character on screen. We’ve all seen those films where the hero or heroine (more probably) approaches the door, knowing there’s a killer/monster on the other side. They open the door slowly and …. BOO!
Nowadays this is pretty clichéd. Modern viewers tend not to buy this setup. There’s no way anyone with half a mind would go towards the location of a dangerous lunatic or hungry monster. So filmmakers try to find increasingly bizarre ways of getting the character to go towards the fear instead of away from it. Personally, if I never saw a character go toward the monster again, I wouldn’t mind. Sometimes it’s best just to accept that certain things are no longer scary.
Hide and Seek
According to Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest ways to create suspense is to employ what’s called Dramatic Irony. This is where the audience is aware of a menace that’s creeping up on the unsuspecting hero or heroine. Classic examples of this scare include the original HALLOWEEN (1978). This has pretty much been done to death (no pun intended) by the Slasher genre. By now the audience has become so familiar with it, it’s almost like an in-joke for the crowd. See the SCREAM movies for pastiches on this technique.
A cousin of “Hide and Seek” is the Mystery POV, also known as the Dark Intruder POV. Here, the camera becomes the eyes of the killer/monster. We see it approach the unsuspecting victim. Classic examples include JAWS, when we see the unsuspecting swimmers paddling in the sea from below. Suddenly the camera rushes up to those dangling legs and… CRUNCH!
It’s a strange technique in that it sometimes arouses sympathy with the killer! Italian cinema has often used this technique to jarring effect. The Giallo films of Dario Argento, such as DEEP RED, often show us the killer preparing to commit (and committing) increasingly bizarre murders. It’s a sort of comment on how, just as audiences like to be scared, they might also be enjoying the thrill of seeing the murders onscreen. Creepy.
This is an interesting technique. Films such as the original THE EVIL DEAD (1981) were marketed as “endurance horrors”. The basic idea is that you throw so much at the audience that they can’t take any more. Eventually, the slightest thing sends them over the edge and leaves them a quivering bundle of nerves. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is a great example of this. By the time we get to the crazy “feast” scene at the end of the movie, the heroine (and the audience) are emotional wrecks!
Another lazy technique. This just means making the audience want to gag. In the hands of a master, like body-horror maestro David Cronenberg (THE FLY, SHIVERS) it’s truly terrifying and will stay with you for life. In the hands of anyone else, it’s just yucky. Bad examples abound, I’m just not going to go there.
My favourite kind of scare. This happens when you see something that looks so startlingly out of the ordinary that it’s frightening. It’s a “Thing that should not be”. Classic examples include David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD… or practically anything by David Lynch.
My favourite example is the famous vampire boy from the TV movie SALEM’S LOT (1979). Here, a boy awakens one night to find another recently deceased boy floating outside his window, scratching to be let inside. He foolishly opens the window. The dead boy floats in. He’s pale, rotting maybe. He has yellow eyes, long teeth and he’s very, very hungry. An extremely scary scene indeed.
Fear of the Unknown
Horror writer HP Lovecraft once said that the greatest fear of mankind is the fear of the unknown. Some horror movies play on our sense of dread at not knowing what lurks within the darkness. The Found Footage horror genre uses this one a lot (primarily because it involves not seeing anything and is therefore cheap). At crucial points all the lights will go out. Cue screams, banging and general terror. Examples include THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which proves that sometimes it’s what you don’t see that’s more frightening.
A close relative of the “Repulsion” technique, except that this involves repeatedly showing us images of something we find scary. Often this involves animals. Sharks, spiders, snakes, parasites, wolves, diseases, all these things are pretty scary. Or it could be a fear of flying, falling, the ocean, dismemberment, disfigurement or other types of grisly death. Examples include SNAKES ON A PLANE. However, you can forget the rather unscary ARACHNOPHOBIA.
Claustrophobia is another sub-type of this scare. The original DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) uses this to excellent effect. The heroes are all trapped in a shopping mall with hundreds of zombies. The undead might be slow, but there are so many that escape is impossible. The classic shot from that film occurs when a character thinks himself safe in an elevator, only to be swamped by zombies when the door opens. This type of scare lingers long after the film ends.
Loss Of Identity
What’s more scary than dying? Losing your soul, of course. Horror movies recognize this. Many classic genre tropes like werewolves, vampires and zombies prey upon out fear of losing our sense of self, that thing which makes us who we are. The undead are not our real loved ones; they are unthinking, hungry shells out for our blood! Smart movies play with this type of scare. One of the best is THE INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS (1956). We crawl with terror as people slowly lose their identity and are replaced with the hive-minded, unfeeling pod people. And when you are the only real human being left… well, that’s a truly frightening prospect!
Chase sequences abound in horror movies. It’s a close cousin of the “suspense” scare. Both we and the character know there’s something right behind them, trying to catch up. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE employs the classic example of this as the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface pursues the hapless heroine through the woods.
This is less common nowadays and has become a cliché. In the early days of horror cinema it consisted of an old dark house, scary inhabitants, flickering lanterns, lightning storms, etc. etc. The old Universal horror movies of FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE WOLF MAN (1941) contain many examples. However, something of this still survives in so-called J—Horror, which subverts this type of scare. Here, ghosts pop up in banal places, like modern Tokyo, Internet chat rooms, or tenement buildings. See the Japanese originals of THE GRUDGE, PULSE, and DARK WATER for examples.
So there you are, my main types of horror movie scares. Doubtless I’ve omitted a few, so feel free to correct me. Now go out there and scare the pants off people!