In the hands of the right filmmakers, literally anything can scare audiences. From the disembodied spirits of those long-dead to shape-shifting monstrosities, fear has taken many different forms on the big screen. This ever-expanding cornucopia of terrors has kept moviegoers up all night for nearly 100 years.
Some monsters, however, will always be more terrifying than an otherworldly entity or a perfectly-timed jump scare. Contrary to expectations, these monsters are not fanged or winged; they're seemingly normal human beings. These characters, thanks to their familiarity and relatability, are not only scary, but at times too terrifying for viewers. Here's a look at how the simplest horror monsters can still be the most effective.
The Nightmare Becomes Reality
Horror movies are a unique vessel for a filmmaker's personal commentary on the world, or to channel thoughts on the contemporary world in which the film was created, whether intentional or not. Through nightmarish visuals and grisly deaths, filmmakers can express their approval and (more often than not) disapproval for social norms and events.
So giant monster movies might become popular when threats of nuclear war or natural disasters become too real. When society seems unstable, or when particular inequity grows between classes, we see films with grand violence between characters who stand in for those social factions. And no matter the year or culture, a masked murderer hiding in the woods will always be frightening. A morbid fascination with serial killers and lone weirdos is an expression of the fear of dark fates of murder and torture.
Based on some of the most popular horror movies ever made, it's evident that both filmmakers and audiences are scared of what their fellow man is capable of. In Psycho and Silence Of the Lambs we see killers who are bizarrely similar despite their more obvious differences -- men who prey on victims in very particular ways. Slasher favorites like the original Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre express more gut-level terrors, and those impulses are carried forward into more recent old-school homages like The Devil's Rejects and this year's surprise hit Don't Breathe. All these different stories share a dangerous human threat.
Each of the evil figures in these films is marked by a lack of humane logic and emotion. More frightening, every single one of these killers was once a normal person who at some point grew up with a family. At the end of the day, the atrocities that inspired horror movies were perpetuated by mere human beings who snapped, or who were twisted into nearly inhuman shape. Even worse, perhaps some never saw anything wrong with murder and debauchery in the first place.
These horror movies serve as a dark reflections for audiences. An all-too familiar face on the body of a cinematic killer may be the most frightening thing of all.
The Morbid And The Mundane
Another aspect that makes these otherwise grounded and realistic horror movies so effective is the situation and location the characters find themselves in. Normally, horror movies would take place in a supernatural plane of existence, but in the cases of films such as Psycho, they take place in settings that audiences are familiar with.
The aforementioned Hitchcock classic and John Carpenter's Halloween happen in residential areas that no one would find suspicious upon first glance, while The Silence Of The Lambs finds its famous cannibal in the kind of medical/mental institute that exists today. When a horror movie takes place in a haunted spirit world, a ghost town or in outer space, audiences can still rest easy in the knowledge that the frightening setting is nothing but a figment of someone's imagination. Seeing a massacre unfold in an unassuming suburban village, on the other hand, drags memories of familiarity and comfort into the darkest regions of humanity imaginable.
This is part of the reason why seeing something like the twisted dinner scene in the climax of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the apathetic Haddonfield townsfolk in the original Halloween make audiences uneasy. By taking the mundane things they take for granted on a daily basis and turning them into something horrifying, audiences can see their neighbors, their everyday surroundings or even themselves in these morbid situations as either victim or perpetrator.
The suspension of disbelief that separates viewers from the onscreen carnage is brutally taken down, and now, the murderous rampage occurs in a place one could call home. Without a comfort zone, audiences can project themselves a bit too much in a horror movie, making the terrors seem and feel too real. In these movies, no one is safe - and this is a feeling that will always be present even after the credits have rolled.
Horror movies have been scaring audiences since the dawn of cinema, but no matter how creative some horror movie monsters were, the most base aspects of humanity are our ultimate terror. The strong sense of recognition some audiences may have when seeing another human being go on a cinematic murder spree can prove to be too much, and all of this is a testament to the horror movie's strength and morbid understanding of humanity.
Left to its own devices, our world can be a waking nightmare. That's not to say all hope is lost; we can combat fear and paranoia by creating a productive output for those emotions and impulses. A good horror movie can serve not only as catharsis, but as a way to get across a message about the current state of humanity across.