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The Rules of Terror in Horror Movies

By David Konow

A great horror film doesn’t happen by accident, so here are a few common denominators I’ve noticed in the best of them, some good building blocks to help create a good, scary tale if you will.

When people write about the great directors of our modern era, they often inexplicably leave out people who direct horror films. Yet it often takes an incredibly skilled filmmaker to make a great scary movie. All of the elements, such as the cinematography, pacing music, and editing have to come together and work like a well-oiled machine in the best scary movies.

It may have seemed odd that a comedy writer, Carl Gottlieb, was picked to craft the screenplay for Jaws, but as Gottlieb explains, “Comedy, at its most rudimentary level is really a craft, there’s really a technique to it. A shock moment in a horror film is like the punch line of a joke. If it’s not set up properly, it doesn’t work well. If it’s handled clumsily or bobbled, it doesn’t work at all.”

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s love letter to horror, he wrote that a filmmaker takes a “great risk” when making a horror movie because if it’s not made with any skill, “it often fails into painful absurdity or squalid porno-violence.”

Indeed, a great horror film doesn’t happen by accident, so here are a few common denominators I’ve noticed in the best of them, some good building blocks to help create a good, scary tale if you will.

Timing is Everything

Most of us know the Alfred Hitchcock rule of suspense. A bomb is under the table, the audience knows it’s going to go off in ten minutes but the people sitting there have no clue. Instead of having the bomb go off immediately and shocking the audience for a moment, now the audience is on the edge of their seat for what feels like an interminable length of time. As the master director himself once said, there’s no terror in a bang, only the anticipation of one.

I’ve always loved the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls, which takes its time building fear, and it also built scares with simple ideas. Fred Walton, the writer/director of Stranger, advises, “Don’t be afraid to slow down and get into the details of what’s happening each moment. The clock is ticking, the wind is blowing outside, the ice cream bar is melting, all these little things flesh out the environment that the protagonist is struggling in. The things that scare me are the most realistic things, and for most people, the realistic things tend to be really small like the phone ringing, a knock at the door.”

Ridley Scott recently said he couldn’t make Alien today because it develops too slow.

Walton also adds, “No one in the theater is going to walk out in the first thirty minutes, they just aren’t. So you’ve got ‘em for at least thirty minutes. Now you better deliver at the end of thirty minutes, but you’ve got all this time that you can build, build, build.”

Watching older classic horror films, a lot of fans lament that they don’t move fast enough, but this is not a detriment provided it all goes somewhere. Dan O’Bannon, the late screenwriter of Alien, says, “Hitchcock would take his first act to calmly set up a situation so he could tell a story. When I wrote Alien, I didn’t write: play it slow, which is what Ridley Scott did! He played it slow, and he was damn lucky that slow worked so well for that kind of material. It could be deadly, but in this case it worked fine. Ridley recently said he couldn’t make Alien today because it develops too slow.”

The most infamous shocking moment in the film, where the alien bursts out of John Hurt’s chest, happens fifty-five minutes into the movie. It comes out of nowhere, and it happens where an audience wouldn’t expect it. But then there’s still another hour to go, which leaves the audience totally helpless with the realization that anything could happen next.

With the chest burster scene, O’Bannon said he wanted to do something “excessive, something so awful that you just shouldn’t do it.” He also planned to “only do it once, and do it early enough that most of the picture has yet to play. The audience’s teeth will shatter into nothing waiting for the unpredictable moment where the next dreadful, unacceptable thing is hurled at you. That’s where you get your mileage is out of the slow scenes where nothing is happening.”

When asked what makes a great suspenseful scene, Brian DePalma had a great two-word answer that definitely works: “Withholding information.”

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

Although this site deals with technology, with many horror films the less technology, the better. In fact, a lot of times when a horror film is too expensive, it doesn’t feel as effective as something that was made with ten bucks and a dream, like the original Evil Dead.

I’m very thankful we didn’t have CGI when The Exorcist and Jaws were being made, and I shudder to think at how cheesy they would look with that kind of technology. Alien was a guy in a suit, and the chest burster scene was essentially done with a hand puppet. The Michael Myers mask in the original Halloween, which was a modified Captain Kirk mask, was bought in a Westwood mask shop for about $5.95.

A lot of times you don’t even need anything at all to scare people. One of the oldest rules of terror that the best horror films use is what you can imagine is always worse than what you see. Both Alien and Jaws got a hell of a lot of mileage out of keeping their monsters hidden, a happy accident that came out of budget limitations.

“There are many good reasons for keeping the monster hidden, just as a simple dramatic principle of writing something scary, the unknown is the most frightening thing,” says O’Bannon. “Make the audience squint, stare and try to catch glimpses of the thing in the shadows. Underexposure is always more effective than overexposure when you’re trying to scare people. And on top of that, the less you saw of the damn thing, the less trouble it was to do!”

Underexposure is always more effective than overexposure when you’re trying to scare people.

Gottlieb says, “Steven and I were both impressed by The Thing as young moviegoers, and we knew that hiding the monster was a valuable device. We couldn’t show the monster, we didn’t have a monster! If we had a full budget for the shark and the shark was working, you would have seen much more of it. It may have been problematic in it wouldn’t have been as effective of a movie, but I would give Steven credit enough that if we had a shark for all the shots we needed a shark for, I think we would have created an equally terrifying movie, we just would have gone about it in a different way.”

When Roman Polanski decided not to show the infant spawn of Satan in Rosemary’s Baby, the film’s producer, William Castle, was certain the audience would feel burned. Polanski said, “Of course, but I don’t think we should ever let them (see it). On the contrary Bill, everyone will have his own personal image. If we show our version--no matter what we do--it’ll spoil that illusion. If I do my job right, people will actually believe they’ve seen the baby.”

As Castle recalled in his autobiography, “Polanski was right. Many people leaving the theater believed they had seen Him. Imagination plays strange tricks. When Rosemary was shown on TV, columnists reported that ‘due to censorship,’ ABC had cut the scenes where the “baby” was shown.’ Rosemary’s ‘baby’ was never photographed.”

Polanski’s decision not to show the baby came from the book, “Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing” by Professor R.L. Gregory. As Polanski recalled in his biography, “One of Gregory’s contentions is that our perceptions are shaped by the sum of our visual experiences. We see far less than we think because of past impressions already stored in our minds...”

And where so many horror films are soaked with gore, often to the point of hilarity, as we’ve seen in Evil Dead and Dead Alive, Halloween didn’t show a drop of it, and some of the most hideous scenes in the original Texas Chainsaw didn’t show it either.

“Sometimes when you put too much blood in a movie, it gets boring,” says Dorothy Pearl, one of the make-up artists who worked on Texas Chainsaw. “It doesn’t shock you. We wanted to use the amount we did, and when we used it, it would come across very strong.” (When working with chainsaws, also please make sure you pop out the clutch so no one gets hurt. Thank you.)

Embrace Your Budget and the Genre

As I just mentioned above, and as you’ve read in our previous story on the, ah, technology behind the first Evil Dead movie, you don’t need tons of money at your disposal to make a great scary movie. (In fact, it often feels like the more money you throw at a horror film, the more detrimental it can be.)

Certainly the less CG you work with the better, and if it doesn’t look technically perfect, it can make the movie even scarier. With Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw, blowing up the film stock from 16mm to 35 gave both a demented home movie quality.

As Wes Craven recalled in David Szulkin’s Last House on the Left: The Making of a Cult Classic, the movie was shot with a fast film stock, and it ended up looking “almost like old footage from World War II, with the light burned out and the darks very grainy and black. It turned out to be very powerful.”

“There’s certain qualities that low-budget horror movies had that work to their advantage in unnerving their audience,” O’Bannon says. “Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw were crudely made, and they were clearly not made by any established studio, but by a bunch of guys somewhere. Right away that gave you the feeling that there were no civilized restraints on the people making this film…now you’re convinced that the people making this movie are psychos and they’ll show you anything!”

All this stuff only scratches the surface of course, but in closing I wanted to advise that you embrace the genre and have respect for it. You certainly don’t want to treat it as beneath you because the fans will spot that a mile away but it should also be mentioned that several of the best horror films in history were also made by people that weren’t fans of the genre at all.

Take William Friedkin with the Exorcist, and he still refuses to call it a horror film to this day, which proves a fresh perspective can create something wholly unique. Just as much as there are rules to terror, they’re always made to be broken.

As Drew Goddard, the director of Cabin in the Woods, told me, “Cabin was a love letter to the genre itself, and because it was a labor of love, Joss Whedon and I didn’t feel the normal constraints of, ‘We better play by the rules of this kind of movie.’ We felt we should write what we wanted to see, and there was something invigorating about letting your imagination run wild and seeing where it took you.”

David Konow is a southern California-based writer with a passion for the schlocky films of Hollywood past. His book, Reel Terror, chronicles the history and impact of horror movies.