Basics Tips and Concepts to Keep in Mind as You Make Your Horror Film

The ExorcistHorror is frequently celebrated as the movie genre that young, unexperienced filmmakers can cut their teeth on, because what's a horror movie if not a sex and alcohol-fueled party with a bloodbath at the end, right? Well, horror is much more complicated than that, and scaring an audience that is only becoming more and more desensitized to gore and violence means we as filmmakers have to do our homework. Filmmaker Magazine shares some incredibly important aspects of horror, as well as a mental checklist of what filmmakers should be sure to include as they film their scary movies.

Fear and Society

First of all, if you're making a scary movie, it is of the utmost importance to understand what scares people -- and I'm not just talking about ghosts, clowns, or demons. I'm talking about something much more broad -- fear on a collective, societal level. Studies on horror say that tragic world events spur on what people are afraid of. Take, for instance, the surge of atomic monsters from the 50s -- a result of the collective fear of the atomic age. Or take Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Author Joe Bob Briggs offers an explanation as to why the film was so terrifying to so many people in his book Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies that Changed History

Chain Saw [sic] was the first baby-boomer shocker, in which pampered suburban children, distrustful of anyone older than thirty, are terrorized by the deformed adult world that dwells on the grungy side of the tracks -- Chainsaw reflects the way the youth of the flower-power 60's reacted once they hit the real world.

So, knowing what's going on in the world, having an understanding of what the global, national, even personal concerns are will definitely help you decide the subject matter of your film. If you don't have your finger on the pulse of humanity, you risk not scaring them.

Cinematic Techniques

Atmosphere: Creating an atmosphere in your horror film is absolutely essential. What you may lack in acting talent, bad audio, or a flawed story, you can potentially make up for with a really solid mood. Filmmaker Magazine says:

A good horror film has an underlying atmosphere, a moody visual undertone that creates a sense of dread, wonder and mystique and leaves us with snapshots of unforgettable imagery. This is well exemplified by foreign-language films like The Devil’s BackboneThe Orphanage, and Tale of Two Sisters (the original Korean version). These films rely more on isolation -- both literally (through creative use of location) and figuratively (in the mind of the characters) -- coupled with evocative cinematography and production design.

Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock is considered the Master of Suspense, and for good reason. Through the use of POV, camera angles, even the "MacGuffin", Hitchcock lured his audience into the worlds of his characters, often forcing them to look through the eyes of the victim, or worse yet, the killer.

There are so many ways to add suspense to your film: the sound of a ticking clock/heartbeat/footsteps, ominous lighting, music, Dutch camera angles -- building the audience's expectations and either delivering in a powerful way, or go for the fake out ("Oh, it was just a cat,") lull -- and then BOOM! Jump scare: Axe to the face!

Jump Scare: This is one of those techniques that I personally would actually like to see less of in horror films. It's not that it's a bad tool to get your audiences hearts racing -- it is. But, to me, there is a huge difference between being surprised or startled and actually, legitimately scared or horrified.

But, they're an excellent technique (in moderation) that can help put your audience on the edge of their seat. The backbone of a good jump scare is punctuation -- a loud and sudden bang, a flash of light, an element that becomes the focus of the shot through a cut or zoom. Here are a couple of examples of jump scares:

Study, study, study

There are so many dimensions of horror filmmaking, and becoming a student of horror will only better your chances of making a great horror film. Some of my favorite books on horror are Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture by Kendall R. Phillips and The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart by Noel Carroll. If you're not big on reading, definitely study your favorite horror films. Specifically I'd take a closer look at Hitchcock's films if nothing else than to get a sense of how to construct suspense.

And don't forget to check out Filmmaker Magazine's article. There are more tips, tricks, and thoughts on horror for you to mull over.

What advice would you give on making a better horror film? What resources (books, movies, articles, etc.) would you suggest to learn more about horror?

Link: So You Want to Make a Horror Film? On Jump Scares and Other Basics of Fright -- Filmmaker Magazine

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


Great breakdown. Horror is all about nailing the right tone.
I agree the best examples of horror cause the viewer to experience Dread.
Atmosphere + Suspense = Dread...and when it's constantly lurking, it's most effective.
That said...the Insidious "devil jump scare" shot freaks me out every time. About shit myself the first time.
Must revisit The Exorcist III...I remember good things but it's been a while since last viewing.
Thanks for the great read and resources!

October 29, 2013 at 2:41PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM



October 29, 2013 at 3:48PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


what dose that have to do with horror films? Stay on topic.

October 29, 2013 at 3:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Dude you are HARD core on the Johnson of a GH2. Every post I've seen of yours basically hails it as the second coming, lol. Trust me if you ever get your hands on an Alexa, ....things will change for you man:)

....they will change.

October 29, 2013 at 4:06PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I'm pretty sure he's just doing a running gag...

October 29, 2013 at 4:09PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


God I hope so. He's on every single article. I haven't scanned the Alfonso Cuaron article on cinematic chops,
But I'm willing to bet there's a comment over the GH2's relevance to his success... Or how Gravity would've been better if it had only been shot on a GH2.

October 29, 2013 at 4:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I would add two things and conteat another:

1. Have characters that we as an audience wants to survive. It's not that unreasonable, is it?

2. Please, for the love of His Lovely Noodiliness, if I'm spending more time trying to decipher what I'm watching than being immersed in the story. Then you need to step back, get a tripod and a DoP that knows how to light.

The contesting. For me, the best jumpscares actually are without a loud sting. just relying on my ability as an audience to pick up on the scary element is much more suspencefull than going BOOH! (*WRIIARRRP!!!*) every five minutes... For me, the loud jumpscares are not only predictable, but just like a slap in the face, it goes from startling to just plain numbing in the cheek real fast.

Oh and there's a big different between gore, and gross.

November 8, 2013 at 1:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


nice inputs. agree. jump scares shouldn't be predictable and loud. also, it shouldn't be jump scare for the sack of two second shock, it should forward the story and set the danger point of antagonist. from there, you don't need another jump scare, it's time to create suspense and terror.

April 3, 2014 at 9:07PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM