The Elements of Horror

Horror films have a built-in audience, especially right before Halloween. From a production point of view, horror films are cheap to make since they generally rely on minimal special effects and low-budget actors. Beyond these production advantages, horror films generally follow the same pattern.

The key to horror is to make the hero helpless. In any story, the hero is always an underdog to the villain, but in horror films, the hero is typically a young person while the villain has much greater powers. If not supernatural powers, then the villain has greater physical powers. This is no different than any other type of story.

Where horror films differ is that they often trap the hero physically. In “Don’t Breathe,” the hero is trapped in a house and can’t get out. In “Alien,” the hero is trapped in a starship with no one else around. In “Quarantine,” the hero is trapped in an apartment building. Trapping the hero in an isolated location means the hero can’t get help and can’t escape. This heightens the tension because now the hero must defeat an overwhelmingly superior foe. That’s why in many horror films, the hero simply loses because the villain is simply too powerful.

Besides a physical sense of isolation, horror films also rely on an emotional sense of helplessness. When the hero is trapped, that’s a feeling of helplessness from a physical standpoint, but horror films add an emotional feeling of helplessness as well.

In “It Follows,” the hero is actually free to roam anywhere she wants. The problem is that no matter where she goes, a strange ghost, who appears in the form of different people, pops up and slowly begins following her no matter where she goes. The hero is never physically trapped but emotionally trapped. Her plight feels hopeless because no matter how she tries to escape, she can’t. The ghost will always appear wherever she is.

So horror films rely on physical isolation and emotional isolation. What makes horror films great isn’t the actual attack on the hero but the threat of an attack on the hero. In most horror films, the hero (and the audience) learns of the danger from the villain as people around the hero get picked off one by one. This creates a sense of impending doom until only the hero is left to fight the villain. What’s scary isn’t the villain but the increasing tension as we know the hero will be attacked, but we just don’t know when.

Horror isn’t about slashing or blood but about the sudden realization that something seemingly normal or confusing suddenly takes on a sinister tone. In “The Shining,” a little boy rides his tricycle down a hallway and meets two little girls who had been chopped apart by their father years ago. When these two little girls tell the boy they want him to play with them forever and ever and ever, superimposed with images of their bloody bodies in the hallway, that’s frightening enough.

Then the little boy meets his father who hugs him and tells him he’ll stay with him forever and ever and ever. By echoing the ghostly girls’ exact line, suddenly that phrase evokes more horror than any amount of blood and gore could ever do. True horror isn’t about the actual attack but always about the threat of an attack.

In “Don’tĀ Breathe,” the horror comes not just when the hero realizes the villain has locked a girl in his basement all this time, but when the hero realizes that the villain has kept this other girl prisoner so she’ll have is baby after he impregnated her with a turkey baster. That’s terrifying enough, but when the hero gets caught by the villain and he attempts to impregnate her with the turkey baster as well, that adds another element of horror.

So don’t just scare people with blood and goreĀ or cats suddenly jumping out of a closet because that type of horror is forgettable and boring. Scare people by twisting seemingly ordinary events into something dark and foreboding. Then repeat it again with even more fear for the hero.

A good horror story is actually just as difficult as writing any other story. It’s not easy to keep up a constant sense of dread and tension from start to finish, but as horror fans can tell you, the result will always be worth it.

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