An important aspect of a good horror flick is to keep us really engaged and scared (duh). But how exactly does it keep us engaged? Engaged long enough that we are on the edge of our seat, cringing, terrified of what is about to happen, but not feeling tired of the standard “horror” genre elements that we see all too often.
There is a sickness that is prevalent on most “horror” flicks. Beware, be prepared, get ready, 'cus it's about to jump in front of you with a loud noise. It is: the excessive use of jump scares! Not only jump scares, but the expectations of what people think a horror flick should always be: Ghosts, deformed beings, monsters, gore, and of course the jump scares!
So, how does a good horror film or series create an effective scare we love so much that we become paranoid enough to keep our lights on before we sleep (or not sleep) at night?
Sanity And The Perceptions Of Reality In Horror
Let’s start first with an example of the late Satoshi Kon’s directorial debut, a 1998 anime movie classic Perfect Blue. Mimi Kirigoe, a Japanese pop idol retires to pursue an acting career. Her transition from a member of a pop idol group to her first role as an actress wasn’t easy as she becomes the victim of a stalker. Together with the pressure of working in the showbiz industry takes a toll on her sanity, losing the perception of what is real and what is fantasy.
This anime movie had influenced Darren Aronofsky's films, namely Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan for its effective visual storytelling and themes.
Themes like identity, jealousy, obsession, self doubt, paranoia, pressure at work, a potentially dangerous stalker are strongly relatable, and important issues because we may have experienced these at some time in our lives.
The blending of hallucinations and reality immerses the viewer in what it’s like to be on a brink of insanity with the characters — to question whether what we are seeing is real and what is not. The feeling of trying to portray a certain identity for fear of not being accepted, and for fear of being irrelevant are terrifying because these are some of the core things most people deal with throughout their lives.
Social Issues In Horror
Horror can be portrayed as simply relating to social issues like addiction. What kind of addiction? Drugs, weight loss, and money, all of which could become mundane in a movie or on TV. One film that effectively executed these serious topics was the film I mentioned earlier, the disturbing 2000 American film Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky. This film questions the idea: What is a drug?
The film at its core is about addiction. Addiction in the film is portrayed as the “antagonist” for these four characters. It is something that we should be really afraid of because anything could lead to something bad once we are too addicted and obsessed with something. The disturbing downward spiral of these four characters is both depressing and scary as it is depicted in a way that is grounded in reality. A scene portraying the deteriorating mental state of Sara Goldfarb is executed in a simple yet disturbing way.
Notice that there are some “jump scares” used. Why do you think it doesn’t feel cheap and tiresome? Because it shows us how she is feeling, what her mental state is, and by that, we know we are associating the fear on what she is undergoing right now and not the loud noise. It is used in a context where we are already afraid on what is happening and it is not coming just out of nowhere.
Jump Scares In Modern Horror
Since we are now on the topic of jump scares, let’s analyze why we think they “scare” us. Notice that the given examples so far aren’t entirely the so-called horror movie that some might associate with. No ghost, no deformed beings or creatures, and no excessive gore. So let’s analyze jump scares.
Jump scares are there to provide a short spike of emotions by creating a loud noise combined with a disturbing image that doesn’t really connect or relate to a scenario. Why does it become cheap and tiresome? By using it often throughout the movie, we begin to associate “fear” with a loud noise, eventually becoming predictable and annoying because it releases the tension too soon. And because of that, the audience is now able to relax until maybe another one occurs. A good horror movie needs to build and sustain that fear throughout without releasing too much of that tension quickly and prematurely so that we remain engaged along the way.
Another example of what I think is an effective “jump scare” is from a scene in Mulholland Drive which is a 2001 film directed by David Lynch. Without giving all the details, I’ll explain after how the scene is successful in doing a “jump scare.”
Beware of minor spoilers: Don't watch this clip if you don't want to see the jump scare without watching the whole movie!
Two people are talking at a diner before going out to see this “scary face.” Before the jump scare is shown, we were given the context on what we are about to see. The stage is already set and we can already feel the dread by how one of the men describes this scary face. It is handled in a subtle way with a carefully acted scene, the use of camera work, how the “scary face” looks and acted, and how the sound was used.
Creative Horror Through Metaphors And Symbolism
Horror doesn’t need to be always literal in inducing fear. I think psychological themes in horror are more effective because of their creativity. Creativity by show visuals in a non-literal way through metaphors, symbolism, surreal imagery, allowing us to use our imaginations, to allow us to use the power of our minds so that we could interpret what we see on our own without being told what exactly is happening.
Some films really push our minds to its limit to really understand what is happening, while at the same time never forgetting to apply good storytelling that make us feel uncomfortable, scared, and to give us the creeps. Don’t let it put you off completely. Allow yourself to experience what you are witnessing. Let your imagination run wild because you can always reflect back after the film is done, which what makes psychological horror fun!
Mulholland Drive isn’t just all about that particular “jump scare” we talked about earlier. It is about an aspiring young actress named Betty Elms who just arrived in Los Angeles, California, and befriends an amnesic woman hiding in Betty’s apartment. The film is very effective at using surreal imagery and non-linear storytelling, but also shows the harsh reality of making it to Hollywood, jealousy among people, and the pressure of someone’s expectations that can lead to dark places in a person’s psyche.
This film is not only scary because of how the mind can lead a person to do dangerous things, but because I felt how real and relatable these characters are. Even people you might be very close with can destroy your life if you lose your will. It is both sad and frightening to experience something beautiful then turn into something very destructive.
The Future Of Horror: Real Life And Relatable Scares
The problem with most horror flicks is we usually associate it with ghosts, creatures, or monsters (or jump scares!). Don’t you think the real horror is here in the real world? For example, our mind is a very powerful tool and it can betray or destroy us depending on our experiences.
Psychological horror is effective because of how it delivers its scares by showing us something we can relate to in real life. Something we use everyday, like technology for example, can turn into something scary when we begin to abuse it. Black Mirror fans would vouch for that.
If you need some some suggestions for good horror, take a look at the video below, where Moviepilot staff have suggested some of their favorite Netflix horrors:
So what do you think are the elements that really makes you scared when watching horror movies or any other flicks in general?