The Origin of Fear – What Makes a Horror Movie ‘Scary’?
By Nate VanLindt On 11 Feb, 2018 At 10:05 AM | Categorized As Editorials, Featured, Movie News, Old School Otaku, Opinion, ROG News | With 0 Comments



What makes a horror movie truly scary?  Is it the blood and gore?  The jump scares?   Identification with the finale where someone usually manages to survive against incredible odds?  Horror is a wide-ranging and varied genre, spanning the length and breadth of cinema.  Inside the genre we see everything from horror/romances like Spring (2014) to horror/comedies such as Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010).  There are psychological horror movies, splatter-fests, graphic horror, sci-fi horror, and the list goes on.  But the powerful horror movies are the ones that manage to hit home; to stimulate our lizard brain and make us squirm in our seats.  What makes that happen?  Why are some movies so effective at this and others in the same genre fail?  Let’s take a look at some of the scariest movies, the real nail-biters , the weird, and  the eclectic, and pull the curtain aside on our dread and unease.

One of the basest human fears is simply the fear of the unknown.  What we don’t know can hurt us, or kill us, or devour us bit by bit as we lie screaming on the floor.  It’s hardwired right into the brain and there’s nothing we can do about it.  We experience this for example as a fear of a silent, darkened room.   Our minds fill the room with invisible objects and collate the noises we hear in the background to create a false image of what might be lurking in the deepest shadows.  Alien (1979) is one of the most well-known examples of this.  We don’t see the alien for a fair amount of the movie as it gestates, escapes and grows into…well…something.  And when it does finally appear, it’s wreathed in darkness and moves in the shadows.  A virtually perfect example of the sort of thing we’d imagine in the dark, brought to life by the sinister artistry of the late H.R. Giger.   We don’t know WHAT the Alien is and therefore it becomes an object of fear.  It’s fast, powerful, and terrifying.  If Alien showed the Alien early in the movie, the suspense and fear would vanish quickly as we adapted to the view of a known quantity.  The more information we are given, the less afraid we are.

Another simple fear trigger is sound.  Sounds don’t have to be alien to be scary, but good sound design will make or break a horror movie.  Ignore music for a moment (which plays its own role) and let’s focus on sound design itself.  Abnormal sounds make us uncomfortable.  The sound of bugs skittering up the side of a thin metal plate.  The echoes of a primal scream of pain and terror.  The wet, meaty splashes of human viscera being rent asunder and tossed upon a hard surface.  Foley artists have been simulating these sounds for years in studios and adding them to the primordial soup of horror movies, making the action on screen hit home at a subconscious level.   Look at The Grudge (2004), where a ghost taking revenge kills it’s victims one by one.  The creaking ceilings, the clicking and growling of the ghost’s manifestation.  It all creates a slowly building tension that culminates in the appearance of the ghost and it’s inevitable attack.  Without that auditory intensity, the movie simply wouldn’t have the same impact.

Speaking of impact, does violence itself play a part in creating a terrifying movie?  Let’s examine movies like Saw (2004) or Hostel (2005).  Movies that cater to the graphic depiction of violence have been around since the 1970’s and before, but filmmakers hit a new level in the early part of the new millennium.  Saw was groundbreaking in both its intensity and its depiction of violence.  The tortures of Jigsaw have become well-known and commonplace these days, but the first movie was shockingly original.  And seeing people choose to mutilate themselves or be forced to seemed to strike a chord with many viewers, even as they cringed to watch each scene.  The infamous eyeball scene in Hostel led many people to wonder how far they could go if put into such a situation.  And these movies were scary.   Watching them made it easy for us to mentally put ourselves in those positions and we didn’t like what we saw.  The genre has since evolved into more of a ‘torture porn’ fantasy realm for those who can’t get enough of extreme violence.  Ironically, real dead bodies seldom look as horrific as those found in these movies.  Hollywood has managed to glorify even mutilated corpses.  But that’s aside from the real point.  The palpable fear created by watching such violence is at least partially a result of us superimposing ourselves into the situation.  Not a fear of the unknown, but a fear of the known, of facing one’s demise.  Being visually reminded of what frail and fragile creatures we are makes us nervous in a way that few other things manage to do.

So the question is what have we learned from peeking out from under the bed?  We’ve looked at fear of the unknown, strange sounds, gore, and human frailty.  These are but a few of the effective vehicles of a good scare.  Others include music, suspense, background, and even the actors themselves.  This isn’t a research project, however.  And the underpinnings of fear are woven throughout each one of those parts of a horror movie.  But there’s one thing that runs through every single part of a good horror movie.  It’s part of the sound, the imagery, through every set piece and actor’s scream.  And that’s the fulfillment of suspense.  A scary movie is only truly scary if it creates an atmosphere in which you anticipate something might happen…and then something does.  Suspense is an effective vehicle, but only if there is fulfillment at some point.  If nothing happens, the movie ends up being less scary, or ultimately not scary at all.  Fulfillment is the one ingredient that is universally required for a horror movie.  If there’s no payoff, the movie becomes pointless and therefore does not generate fear.  This is true regardless of whether the horror movie is a psychological thriller such as Fallen (1998) or a drop-dead brutal remake of a classic horror movie like Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007).  In short, a good scare requires a build-up, ambiance, suspense, and finally, fulfillment of that suspense.  It’s only when something actually happens that we get that jolt from our brain of primal fear, the real rush that every horror movie fan hunts for .  So when that axe on the screen plummets into someone’s skull with a moist thud and you squirm or cringe inwardly in your seat, you’ve just gotten exactly what you signed up for.  Fulfillment.

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