ByJack Tenhet, writer at
Jack Tenhet

What makes a great horror movie? The formula is very simple but seldom executed properly. After consuming untold numbers of horror films, I’ve come to realize what the most effective key components are:

1. Timing

Like in every medium, horror films are best when the timing of scares is well maintained. It takes time to build up suspense and still have a good payoff. If the timing is off, the scares fall flat.

2. Quality, Not Quantity

You can’t overload a narrative with senseless jump scares. A barrage of these waters them down and renders the audience unable to properly react. A few, well-thought-out jump scares are always more memorable than 20 in one film.

3. Developed Characters

Often, truly shallow tropes and stereotypes have replaced realized characters. This is lazy and destroys and sympathy the audience has for the main characters. If you care about one or more of the main characters, then the horror they’re going through becomes more real. A good movie is not about the villain — it’s really about the hero.

'The Babadook' [Credit: Entertainment One/IFC Films]
'The Babadook' [Credit: Entertainment One/IFC Films]

4. Invest In A Good Score

These days, scored music is largely unmemorable. Music in any film is just as important as characters. Good music is a character unto itself and a memorable main theme evokes all the narrative emotion that literature can accomplish. Michael Myers’s theme from Halloween, the Jaws theme, "Second Sight Seance" from Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, all fill in the emotional gaps left by the visual medium.

5. Stay Current

Horror is a reflection of our collective anxieties. These stories always work best as an outlet for what we’re all going through while stepping outside ourselves to look at it. The greatest horror stories always reflect current social themes, no matter what period in which the narrative is set. Always be honest with your story and remember that no one creates art in a vacuum — we’re all affected by the world around us.

'It Follows' [Credit: RADiUS-TWC/Dimension Films]
'It Follows' [Credit: RADiUS-TWC/Dimension Films]

6. There Doesn’t Always Have To Be Intense Gore

The most memorable horror movies all had little to no gore. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Psycho, The Omen — all of those had minimal gore; it was the subject matter that did the trick. Scenes of murder and death were shocking because the audience filled the gaps. Most times, what the audience perceives is more brutal and terrifying that anything we can shoot.

7. Be Real With Dialogue

If your characters don’t ring true, then your story won’t be either. Say all dialogue out loud before committing to it and trust your own ear to tell you whether it sounds wooden or awkward.

8. Sequels Are Fine If They Have Their Own Story And Feel

While connected by timelines, each chapter in a series should have its own feel and, yes, it’s own story. Originality is not just a new gimmick for your slasher, it is, instead, looking at your slasher from a completely different angle while staying true to the character. If you can’t expand on any characters, then don’t do a sequel.

'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' [Credit: New Line Cinema]
'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' [Credit: New Line Cinema]

9. Realistic Deaths

More realistic deaths are far more disturbing that gored-out, Final Destination deaths. These deaths can seem overdone and played more for laughs than actual emotion. Depicting death as realistic does not mean gorier; in fact, it’s generally the opposite. It’s always more disturbing to focus on the characters' faces as they bleed out from a blade wound. Edmund Kemper put it chillingly when he described his first stabbing death as “the leak to death.” Make deaths messy. Characters should die violently because that is exactly what death looks like. Human beings thrash and convulse instead of simply closing their eyes and “falling asleep.” The more realistic it is, the more effective it will be.

These nine things and many others make for a great horror film. Never be afraid to “go there.” The fans will reward you in untold dividends.

What do you think are the most important elements of a horror movie?


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