The reason people like horror films is because they want to be able to face their fears in a safe environment. By watching a movie that triggers their fears, they get a chance to experience their fears without subjecting themselves to the danger that would normally entail, and they are afforded an opportunity to try to master their fears. In a way, this is a survival skill in that it prepares us to handle the moment when our fears suddenly appear in response to something real. This is the same instinct why kids test their fears by standing on a high, unstable place, by venturing into a darkened abandoned building, or by seeking to touch an animal that can easily bring them down in the wild. It’s our way of testing ourselves and learning to tame instincts that could one day undo us if left unmastered.
Knowing this, it should be obvious how to make an effective horror story. Essentially, you consider the things that scare us on an instinctual level and you find ways to let people experience those while they are watching the movie. Indeed, I would argue that with rare exceptions, most of what scares us in horror films has little to do with the plot itself. It is, instead, the presentation.
For example, people are afraid of the dark. . . of the unknown. . . of being alone. . . of cramped spaces. . . of confinement. . . of spaces that are too large to monitor effectively. . . of things that creep up upon us when we are vulnerable or from our blind sides. These are all instinctual fears that can be put to use in any film. Yet, too often, filmmakers seem to ignore these, or they take one and use it to the point of abuse.
Kubrick was genius in his use of space in The Shining. He presented rooms that were so small the characters could barely move their arms. Then he would suddenly throw you into a vast room that was so large that anything could be standing in a corner and you just wouldn’t see it because the room was too big to notice. Or consider the maze-like hallways where anything could be around the corner and how scary that is, or how terrified you feel as Jack enters Room 237 where anything could be waiting for him. Those are brilliant choices. Yet, so many horror movies have their characters run across fields or parks or down city streets, areas that are familiar and feel safe to us.
And don’t forget that humans have any number of fears, such as snakes, insects, and disease, but their fears require more than just showing these things. What terrifies us is the danger they represent to us. So a smart filmmaker will find ways to approximate that danger. Yet, again, so many bad filmmakers use these things in a cartoony fashion or show you a spider climb a wall and them move on with their scene... as if that somehow scares us.
Consider also that the fear of the unknown in this context can be your most powerful aid in making a horror film. The less you show the audience, the more they imagine, and their imagination will by its very nature find the things that terrify them. This is the accidental lesson of Jaws and all the smart films do this: less is more! Yet, so many horror films completely lose their audiences early on because the director can't wait to proudly show off his big toy. It’s sad.
There’s more too. Beyond simple presentation, you have to examine the audience’s other real fears to get to that next level in a horror movie. That requires understanding what really scares people compared to what the conventional wisdom thinks scares people. For example, soldiers have long reported that one of the greatest fears in war is not the fear of death, but the fear of permanent maiming and disability. Some of the best Twilight Zone episodes dealt with this fear, just as some of the best horror films have dealt with a form of this through the damaging of the human soul either as ghosts or possession. Yet, most horror films revel in the kill because that's what the conventional wisdom says is the worst thing that can happen to you. But the problem with the kill is that once it happens, the horror ends for us and we forget that character.
Other common fears include making a disastrous choice, facing an impossible choice, having our failings exposed and not being up to the moment when it finally comes. There is much to exploit here, especially among secondary characters. Yet, the temptation in modern horror films is to have several throwaway moronbeciles to use as cannon fodder. That is a totally wasted opportunity. Rather than warming up the audience to their insecurities, these characters become comic relief. Ask yourself: do you think The Exorcist would have been better if Father Karras was comic relief to warm up the audience for the main match with Father Merrin?
Finally, when it comes to plot, remember that humans are creatures of habit and patterns. We find comfort in those things. And when you give them what they expect, you reduce the horror. A horror film should always shatter their comfort level and keep them tense. Do you think it’s a coincidence that The Exorcist and The Shining are two of the greatest horror movies ever made, and that both involve jarringly unexpected moments to the normal patterns you see in films. . . such as when Father Merrin dies suddenly in The Exorcist or when Hallorann dies the moment he appears to be starting his heroic moment in the sun in The Shining? How about Gregory Peck dying before he finishes his task in The Omen? How about the alien NOT attacking when Brett looks up into the water? Take away the comforting formula, and you tap into that fear of the unknown.
The point is this. Most modern horror movies are made the wrong way: they try to scare you with the stakes contained in the storyline and the outcome of the film, when they should be focusing on the journey itself. The great horror films take advantage of all of our fears to discomfort us, to bring us to the edge of our seats, and to make us close our eyes whether the hero ultimate wins or loses. Watching Danny ride his Big Wheel, or Tom Skerritt panic in the ventilator shaft of the Nostromo, or Linda Blair sitting quietly next to the body of Father Merrin, or Gregory Peck too terrified to speak to his son Damien is where these movies paid off... not in the stakes, not in the outcome. Those are the moments that made you shiver later at night. And notice that everything I discuss above are the things you do apart from the story itself, i.e. they can be done regardless of what the plot maybe. This is how horror films need to be built.
So tell, me what do you think? What other things scare you on film? What doesn't?