Today’s movies seem to rely too heavily on special effects, which act like fireworks to capture the audience’s attention through sheer pyrotechnics. But after these effects fade away, the audience is left with a dull story anyway.
There’s a term for many horror movies called “horror porn.” The idea is that you focus on attractive young people getting tortured, maimed, mauled, and slaughtered in excruciating detail. The problem with such “horror porn” is that it requires even greater special effects to top the one before that.
Here’s a better approach. Watch this episode from “Night Gallery,” an anthology TV series by Rod Serling, the creator of “The Twilight Zone.” Most of the Night Gallery episodes are forgettable, but there are a handful that are superb and show how you can create horror without special effects. The two episodes in the link above are called “The Caterpillar” and “Little Girl Lost.”
“The Caterpillar” is the most famous Night Gallery episode and involves a creature called an earwig, which supposedly burrows into the brain of a victim, causing a painful death. At no time do you ever see this creature, nor do you see anything more gory than a little fake blood on a man’s handkerchief when he realizes that the earwig is inside his ear.
Yet the suspense and horror from the story comes not from special effects or gore, but from the anticipation as we realize the truth of what has happened. True horror isn’t showing more blood and more gruesome ways to die. Instead, horror is actually the sudden realization of an unpleasant truth. We see one thing, then we see a second thing. Only when we see a third thing do we put the first two things together and come to a frightening conclusion. That’s true horror, not special effects or horror porn.
(For screenwriters, relying on true horror has another benefit in that you don’t need any special effects. Just create fine writing and that will create all the horror you need by letting the audience fill in the details with their vivid imaginations.)
The second episode of Night Gallery in the link above is “Little Girl Lost,” an equally horrifying story about a scientist who is slowly going mad when his daughter is killed by a hit and run driver. Once again, there’s no gore or blood, but when the final conclusion arrives, you’ll suddenly put the earlier scenes together and realize the horror of how everything comes together.
Horror is what made “The Sixth Sense” work. We see one thing, but only when we reach the end do we suddenly realize what we actually saw all this time through our new sense of wonder and dread. That’s horror.
The only other episode of Night Gallery worth watching is this one called “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes.” It’s paired up with much weaker stories so skip those. “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” is about a psychic boy whose predictions are unfailingly accurate. Suddenly, he refuses to make any more predictions and nobody can figure out why. Once again, when you get to the ending, the truth suddenly dawns on you and you realize that everything you saw before is now cast in a completely different, and frightening, light. That’s horror. No blood, no gore, no special effects. Just the horrifying anticipation at the climactic ending that reveals an unpleasant truth.
By studying these three Night Gallery episodes, you can see how horror really should work. Then you’ll see how weak and lame most other horror movies are with their buckets of blood and detailed killings. There’s nothing more horrifying than what the audience can imagine, and that requires clear and purposeful screenwriting.