It seems like every year there are more and more horror movies being made, but less and less that are truly scary. This past year saw a couple of exceptions, but overall the horror genre as a whole has taken a huge dip. As a writer and a fan of the genre, I feel I should do my part to keep this from happening, and you should too. Let's make horror great again! How do we do that, you ask? I've compiled a list of 10 steps to making a truly great horror flick, along with some great examples of each one. Stick to these ten rules, keep creating, and let's bring horror back to where it should be!
1. KEEP IT SIMPLE
The scariest things are those that could potentially exist. Something rooted in reality can provide the scariest experiences. If an audience can put themselves in the shoes of the characters, the fear becomes that much more real.
2. DO LESS
This applies to story as well as direction. The less the audience can see, the more is left up to the imagination; which, in my opinion, is the most terrifying place there is. I know this kind of goes hand in hand with the first rule, but I can't stress it enough: LESS IS MORE.
3. SHOCK AND AWE
A couple of times throughout the film, think about where the next logical step is and then go as far from that as possible. If you're sitting in a horror movie and say to yourself, "Aaaand, now the killer shows up behind you," that moment just lost all of its scare factor for you. Every time someone bends over in front of a mirror, we expect to see something behind them. The audience's number one enemy in a horror movie is predicability.
4. TAKE YOUR TIME
There's nothing wrong with a well-placed jump scare every now and again, but that shouldn't be the focus of your fear. Jump scares are forgotten seconds after they arrive, take time and build tension, let terror grow.
5. BAD LUCK, NOT STUPIDITY
Tarantino once mentioned the phrase, "Real situations in imaginary circumstances," meaning that, even though the movie is fictional, real things can happen to the characters. Horror characters are historically stupid, but that shouldn't be the case. Let Lady Luck intervene instead and keep the audience from thinking, "Well I wouldn't have done that." In other words, keep the bad things out of the character's control.
6. PLAY WITH ABSTRACT FEAR
Most people are afraid of death and that's the only fear most movies choose to exploit. Take that fear and combine it with other psychological fears like being watched or claustrophobia. Pairing multiple fears is the perfect way to have an audience squirming in their seats; even on the drive home.
7. SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Horror viewers have been trained to let the score or soundtrack lead them to the scares. When the music suddenly stops, or gets louder, something bad is about to happen. Break that mold and utilize things like silence or out of place music. Ears can be a powerful weapon in the hands of horror.
8. KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS
If the characters are just average stereotypes, no one will believe in their fear. How many times have we seen the prom queen, or the dumb jock? Cabin in the Woods did a great job of reminding us that stereotypes in movies are alive and well. Make your characters real and unique, root them in reality, in order to make them more believable.
9. EMBRACE THE BACKGROUND
Some of the most terrifying scenes I can remember are ones that weren't right in your face. Something far off and barely noticeable is terrifying because nothing can be done about it in that moment, especially when the characters can't see it. Don't feel like the protagonist's always have to be the focus or POV. Change the point of view or the angle, and let people think fear can come from anywhere.
10. SCARE YOURSELF
This might be the most important rule of them all. If you're not afraid of the concept you're working on, no one else will be either. If you aren't looking over your shoulder or waking up at night thinking about what you've created, stop now. Real fear must begin with you.