I’m a huge horror movie fan. That being said, there’s a lot of crappy movies in that genre, and I’ve learned as much from the bad ones as the good ones; the stereotypical horror movie is light on the substance that matters and over-wrought where there should be subtlety. Ever since becoming a fan of the genre, I’ve learned many lessons on what makes a story work– and what makes one fall flat.
The biggest difference between good versus bad horror movies? The good ones spend 80% of the movie developing the characters and their relationships to one another. This should come as no surprise to any writer worth their salt, but it bears repeating. No matter how spooky or alluring or original your premise is, if your characters cannot relate to one another, if they have no depth or goals, I won’t enjoy it. Few will.
This is why most horror flicks rarely draw those outside of their typical fan-base; they serve no interests other than those in the horror genre. It’s weak. It’s not multilayered. Conversely, if you build solid characters with intricate relationships and motivations? Then you’ll have a richer story, and maybe even draw in those who might not’ve otherwise looked at your work.
Jump scares are cheap. They have their place, but they’re mostly cheap. This can be said for a lot of things in entertainment, when people go for the low-hanging fruit because they know it’ll get a reaction. Someone once said that jump-scares in a horror movie are akin to being tickled in a comedy movie. Yes, technically you’ve gotten me to laugh (or jump, in this case), but you didn’t really earn it.
James Wan, director of The Conjuring and Insidious movies, is someone I regard as a master of suspense. One of his smallest but most profound tactics is that he will go in for what seems like a textbook jump-scare– but then lets the audience dangle. He doesn’t follow through on it, doesn’t show you the scary thing you think is coming, and so draws out the suspense. What is the equivalent for your genre? That’s up to you. But when in doubt, take a trope, flip it on its head, and I think you’ve got a good start.
Heavy-handedness is one of the primary reasons I find that people dislike horror. Its excessive gore and psychopathy is clunky, destroys the suspension of disbelief, and alienates viewers. That’s why for the first 18 years of my life, I didn’t dare to go near anything even mildly scary. I couldn’t even tolerate the commercials, covering my eyes every time they popped up.
Don’t have them monologuing about their depravity or fantasies for more than a second, because almost everyone has tuned out at that point. Don’t splatter gore across the walls, because (unless you want to be niche) almost everyone else has changed the channels. A lot of horror movies assume that, because it’s supposed to be a scary movie, they have to constantly scare the audience. But, it just numbs them with each passing moment.
The lesson here? What matters, the thing that you really love about the genre, risks getting lost in the clutter.
When filming Jaws, the mechanical shark constantly malfunctioned and was of no use. Initially, this was a massive set-back– but it prompted Steven Spielberg to reimagine how to deliver the horror of the creature in the first place. He found a way to allude to the shark without revealing it, how to drag out the suspense and the mystery. Because, as Spielberg said, “it’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening”.
Every story has an opposing force, whether it’s a person, social movement, natural disaster, etc. And sure, we do need to see them early on so that we know what’s propelling the main character onwards. But even if your villain’s there from scene one, you have to save what makes them truly horrifying for last. And use it sparingly at that.
I thoroughly enjoy Halloween and spooky things and scary movies. So if you’re like me and will watch a horror flick soon, look out for these tips and be ready to learn.