Fear. It is a powerful tool – especially in the entertainment industry. Some of the most popular films of recent years have been that of the horror genre. It is often stated that the horror genre is also one of the best to use to break into the industry. Horror films have also been known to have deeper political messages tied to their basic and obvious plot.
But if you are looking for a scare, you do not necessarily have to obligate yourself to a horror film. Many other genres of film use scares and horror aspects in their stories solely because of the entertainment which it can provide. People just simply enjoy being scared! But therein lies the trouble. What exactly makes a movie scary?
WHAT ARE YOU MOST AFRAID OF?
Much like any other genre or feeling, everyone has their own thoughts and preferences on exactly what scares them. This is one thing that makes the creation of a horror film or scary scene so difficult. Just because the filmmaker or writer thinks something is terrifying does not necessarily mean an audience will see it the same way.
This is why most films in the horror genre use several different methods of scares. For instance, it is more likely than not that a film officially dubbed a horror will have at least one “jump-scare” within its run time in order to get that quick shock out of the audience. But anymore with this becoming an expectation in the films, it completely undercuts the effectiveness of the trope. A slow build in the background score coupled with a long, still or tracking shot usually means a jump-scare is coming. What really makes these types of scares work is the shock factor that goes into it. The unexpected burst of action or terrifying imagery on the screen after a calm moment. And, as stated earlier, the unfortunate fact of this is that it has been used enough at this point that most viewers can see the scare coming and are therefore prepared for it.
Another trope in many horror films is the use of gore and “body-horror”. One series of films that most represent this style of horror is the Saw franchise. These films really capitalize on the gore and reality of torture. Scenes of people having to cut off their own limbs to survive with blood pouring out, bodies being twisted and contorted with bones cracking and breaking through skin, all while listening to the agonizing screams and pain of the characters. The brutality and horror of these types of films comes from the reality behind the acts and their repercussions. While a lot of the actual situations are fairly absurd, the results are all too real and could actually happen. The Purge films are another good example for this type of horror in a sense, because it is all simply people hurting other people. All of the things that happen and are meant to show the darkness and brutality of what a human can and is able to do to another human.
One final and probably most popular form of horror is that of the supernatural and the unknown. By not showing the audience exactly what is happening or by using the paranormal in their horror, it lets the viewers’ imagination fill in the blanks. And it is true that often a person’s own mind can make a situation scarier than what a filmmaker will show you.
This is the type of horror I find to be the most effective. Because when it is people simply hurting and killing other people – while that is scary and actually more likely – the fact that ghosts and demons and aliens are so very much in the realm of the unknown makes them that much more terrifying. Your own thoughts and imagination get the better of you and ultimately make these things some of the scariest out there.
This also goes hand in hand with the idea of knowing what to show to an audience and what to keep hidden. It really shows the skill and talent of a director knowing what is better left unseen, effectively making it even scarier. Being able to build an uncertainty in the audience creates suspense. If I am on the edge of my seat, waiting and shaking to see what happened, it is really in a sort of fear of what is to come.
There are many different types of horrors within the main genre. And while each is and can be effective in its own right, the blending and integration of all of them is really the best way to get the most scares out of your undoubtedly diverse audience. Each person fears their own unique fears, and tapping in to just one of them really makes you miss out on the others.
That is why using paranormal situations and not showing the audience everything in its entirety is what makes for the scariest films to me. Because everyone has their own ideas and individual perspectives on what scares them. If the filmmaker cleverly convinces the audience of something but then does not show it to them explicitly, it allows the mind to take over and create the worst and most terrifying outcomes.
By allowing the viewers’ own mind and imagination to get the better of them and create their worst possible fears, the filmmaker is doing their best work in scaring the audience. Almost in the idea of being your own worst enemy, you are also the only one who truly knows your worst fears. And the only way to really pull them forward is by forcing you to fill in the blanks that the writer or director created for you.