Really bad horror movies emphasize slasher gore, often known as torture porn. In these bad horror movies, the goal is to show people getting cut up and killed in as many graphical ways possible. Unfortunately, there’s only so many ways you can show someone getting tortured or killed, so the effect gets numb and dull over time.
A far better way to create horror is to focus on keeping the audience confused. Horror derives its emotion from the unknown, so by keeping your audience confused, you also keep them in the dark about what’s going on.
In “It Follows,” the villain isn’t just a single person but an entity that changes appearance unpredictably, and that’s part of what makes it so creepy. Besides not knowing what it will look like, “It Follows” also makes sure you never know when the villain will appear. No matter how far you run from the villain, it always finds you again and slowly walks in your direction.
In “It Follows,” the villain changes appearance from an old woman to a young man to the hero’s own father. The shape shifting feature is never fully explained, but that adds to the suspense and the unknown nature, creating greater horror.
In “The Shining,” there’s an odd scene of blood gushing from an elevator and filling a hallway. Initially we only get glimpses of this strange liquid flowing out from the side so we don’t fully understand what we’re seeing. Then as the story progresses, we get more and more glimpses of this scene until we finally recognize it as a flood of blood filling the hallway. This final recognition provides the ultimate horror as we finally understand what we’ve been seeing all this time.
A similar occurrence happens with the two girls who keep popping up around the hotel, but only seen by the little boy. The first few times the boy sees these girls, they just stare at him and walk away. The next time he sees these little girls, they’re asking him to play with them and then flash images of the two little girls chopped up by an ax. Initially we don’t understand what these girls mean, but when we finally do, the horror strikes us hard.
An unsatisfying scene in “The Shining” occurs when we see skeletons scattered in the hotel lobby. Seeing a bunch of skeletons covered with cobwebs is shocking in a way, but understandable. A more frightening image occurs when the wife/mother is running through the hotel and she sees two masked men in a hotel room, looking like they were engaging in oral sex and looking up to stare at the wife/mother.
Since we don’t quite understand what’s going on, who these people are, or why they’re wearing masks, that short image is shocking, frightening, and horrifying at the same time.
Another frightening scene from “The Shining” occurs when the man (Jack Nicolson) hugs a beautiful naked woman in a bathroom, opens his eyes, and suddenly sees that he’s embracing a withered and diseased hag. As he runs away, the hag chases him, laughing.
That unexpected image creates horror, but the horror increases when the wife asks the man if he found anything unusual in that room and he denies it. We just saw that he met a strange woman so his denial creates a greater sense of dread since we don’t fully understand what’s going on.
Horror works best when the audience doesn’t quite understand everything but finally gets the full frightening effect in the end. In “Alien,” the audience initially doesn’t understand what the alien’s capable of doing because we barely see it. The unknown keeps the horror level high.
Torture porn creates horror through anticipation as you see a chainsaw moving closer to a helpless woman tied to a chair. Better horror creates tension and fear through unknown scenes that suddenly become understandable much later with a jarring effect.
It’s easy to create torture porn. It’s harder to create real horror through suspense, shock, and dread relying heavily on keeping the audience in the dark until a final jarring shock of understanding creates the real horror.
Good horror stories are rare, and horror movies are cheap to produce, so horror movies represent the best way to break into Hollywood if you like this particular genre.