Horror 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.
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 Backbone, The 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?