5 Ingredients for Effective Horror

As a former film student and having had the guilty pleasure of sampling a wide array of horror films, I find myself analyzing what makes a film succeed within a given genre.  I’ve attended courses in Asian cinema, pop culture cinema, sci-fi, and even an in depth Hitchcock study.  But as a filmmaker, I find myself drawn to the horror genre.  First, because I can produce effective horror on a meager budget, and second (more importantly), I LOVE the dark stuff – unlike Eric Idle at the end of “Life Of Brian”,  I tend to always look on the DARK side of life.  So what makes horror really hum?  Let me throw out a few of my personal observations and before you all jump up and down with YOUR top five let me run my disclaimer – this NOT by any means a finite list – just my favs:

1. Environmentally Hostile – There are two items common to great horror films that are perfect for building tension. First, successful horror films thrive on tension and environments that force close proximity – mazes, tunnels, old mansions, basements, etc. all force characters into close contact with “monsters” and/or each other.  Whether they are psychos or actual creatures, that tight habitat with mystery around each turn breeds the most effective opportunities for terror.  Throw in a healthy dose of paranoia, and you’ve got a recipe for horror bonanza.  The Descent, while IMHO fell short when the monsters showed up, had that whole “trapped in a cave with mistrust” part was working like a champ in the beginning – claustrophobic, man, claustrophobic but beautiful!

Second, familiar, every night situations in which people are vulnerable – those universal events like taking a shower, crossing that dark parking lot or going down to the basement in the middle of the night to investigate some mystery noise, are all psychological trigger points that great horror wallows about in.  We’ve all been there and felt that eerie tingling on the nape of the neck that forces us to move a little slower and tense up.  As a matter of fact, I feel as if someone is watching us RIGHT NOW!

2. I Heart Characters –  complex characters that the audience cares about are a necessity for successful frightfests.  One sure fire method to up the ante?  In a word – children.  When children are put into jeopardy, everyone cares and hopes for their safety and redemption.  They are vulnerable and innocent – who doesn’t want to see them unharmed (outside of Jerry Sandusky, of course).   Insidious, The Exorcist, Here Comes The Devil, etc.

Families are also great motivators for salvation – Poltergeist, Sinister, Pet Sematary, etc.  One of my favorites is Jeepers Creepers, a celebration of the bond between brother and sister.  I found that to be truly refreshing.  No one wants to see a nice family destroyed – the struggle to keep the brood together is just a fantastic vehicle for tension.

And then there’s women – particularly attractive women.  Halloween, Psycho, The Hunger – all play to the desire of saving the hottie because, well, she’s hot and it would be such a waste of aesthetics for her to perish.  Male chauvinist pigs…

3. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Horror – Humor and Horror have more in common that a same first letter.  The both behave in similar ways with regard to human psychology and tension – particularly the build up and release of tension.  Comedy works like this – the build up makes us psychologically prepped for laughter.  It builds and builds and then, viola, out comes the uncontrollable laughter.  Horror is similar – tension builds and builds and then, bam, we flinch, scream, or jump in our seats.  That release then creates an environment ripe for comedy and laughter as well.  Adding comic relief at just the right moments in a horror film gives the audience a chance to relax, breath and get ready for the next big chill.  Without that break, some films run the risk of relentless horror.  While it might sound good on paper, the audience may not walk away as satisfied.  Remember how you laughed at Return of the Living Dead‘s split dogs?  I do!

4. The Mind Is A Terrible Thing – This one stands out as one of my personal favorites.  So many of today’s films rely on the shock of gore, showing every aspect of the brutality in a step by step nature.  For me, this results in desensitization.  Holding my hand through the bloody details only releases my imagination from building a much more personal, lasting and frightening set of images.  My lazy brain tends to sit on the couch and eat fritos during the gorefests.  Psycho never showed a knife penetrating (huh huuuhhh, I said penetrating) the flesh.  Instead, our brains did the heavy lifting and this created one of the most personal and long-acting horror scenes in history.  Leave more to the imagination and your audience will fill in the gory details better than even you can, Mr. Peckinpah.

5. The Great Unknown – Finally, most of my favorite horror themes touch on an aspect of human nature that is somewhat universal – fear of that which is unknown.  Those vast regions of our world that remain largely uncharted.  The ocean, space, the forest primeval, the human psyche, unknown disease, the afterlife etc.  These are places where mystery abound and the imagination is free to wreak havoc on our otherwise common senses.

So here’s my top 10 regarding these criteria – starting from bottom:

I think they planted the tree too near the house…

10. Poltergeist – the family threatened at it’s best – lots of familiarity, the thunderstorm and counting to see how far away the lightening strike occurred is something I did with MY family!  Also, the unknown world of the afterlife takes center stage.



I got slug for that slug…

9. Slither – the comic relief in this film makes it a campy classic.  Humor and tongue-in-cheek dialogue mixed just right.  I had to mention it as a prime example of how comedy and horror are BFFs.  Evil Dead 2 and 3 deserve mention here as well – all hail Bruce Campbell…


This phone is way too heavy!

8.  When A Stranger Calls – there’s a description of the killer “tearing the children apart with his bare hands” that painted a hideous picture in my mind when I first saw this in the theaters (I had snuck in to see Alien, but ended up sitting through this one instead!).  One of my favorite “monster in the house” films.

Is that a 10 inch butcher knife, or are you just glad to see me?

7. Halloween – Jamie Lee Curtis is the ultimate hot chick vic, the mysteries of psychosis, trapped in the house with Michael Myers, the imagination runs rampant with Donald Pleasence’s description of MM’s eyes.



I told you to clean the sink!

6. The Road – Cannibalism is just plain creepy.  This film is relentless in it’s pursuit of tension.  The happy times always find horror lurking around the next corner.  The imagination is truly let loose – plenty of hints of horror to guide the mind to hideous conclusions that stick for weeks.  The cannibal vics in the basement left me freaked.  One of the most finely tuned tension machines ever produced.

The lady of the house ain’t home, besides, we mailed you people a check last week.

5. The Thing From Another World/The Thing – Both Howard Hawks and John Carpenter make ample use of a closed, cramped environment and a free-range monster.  Carpenter ups the ante with a healthy dose of paranoia as well as the fear of contagion.  Let’s not forget the phenomenal Rob Bottin FX – solid analog performers in todays digital world – just shows that creativity trumps technology every time.

Now that’s some COLD water!

4. Jaws – ahh, the mysterious ocean – who knows what lurks – Speilberg, that’s who.  The vulnerability of the beach and swimming has made me think twice EVERY TIME I GO INTO THE DAMN OCEAN.  Curse my active imagination…don’t forget a bunch of dudes trapped on a little boat with a giant monster seemingly everywhere at once.  Dun, dun, dun, dun…

A bad complexion is nothing to projectile vomit at.

3. The Exorcist – horrors of the flesh, the unknown afterlife, trapped in the house with the devil, children victims – oh yeah, brief flashes of an African death mask that allow the imagination to fill in the creepiness – oh yeah, the sound of bees in the soundtrack which has been psychologically tested and proven to cause universal distress to humans.  Mr. Friedkin  sure did his horror homework…

Hard water sucks.

2. Psycho – the shower scene is brilliant and lasting – common vulnerabilities, hot female, mysteries of the human psyche, plenty left to the imagination, black and white, mother, blood, mother…Hitchcock was THE MAN – Nuff said.

Wow, she’s a member of the plumber’s union too!

1. Alien – Now I know you’re screaming “Sci-Fi”, but I call BS on that.  Ridley Scott with the collusion of artist H.R. Giger made a perfectly balanced and long-lasting horror film in 1979.  The unknown mystery of outer space,  a dark, cramped ship, never REALLY seeing the monster except in glimpses, tall, seductive, Sigourney Weaver in her undies, strobe lights to obscure (and cause epileptic seizures), lots of subliminal visual metaphors for sex, child birth and other deep psychological gimmicks to influence our subconscious – thanks Giger…

Please apply sunscreen

Please apply sunscreen

8 thoughts on “5 Ingredients for Effective Horror

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