Before you scare the audience, make them care about your characters.
Frankenstein, one of the oldest horror films, has one scene which almost perfectly encapsulates the point of the new video essay by Think Story. In the beloved, much-discussed scene, the monster and a small girl play an innocent game by the river which, sadly, ends with the girl's death. The monster is blamed, and the rest is history.
The crucial element of this scene, though, is the empathy we feel with the monster, who we know will labor for the rest of the film under the weight of unfair judgment. Whatever scares the film may offer, they're mixed with compassion, on the viewer's part. And that is the point of this excellent new piece: stirring viewer empathy is the key to any really good horror film. Make the viewer care.
Avoid tired techniques
What are the tired techniques of horror films? The essayist lays out a few. One is the jump scare—when something comes out of nowhere, possibly making you twitch in your seat. The piece includes an incredible statistic, stating that the top horror films of the last few years, per Wheresthejump.com, contain 30 jumps per movie, on average. In a 90 minute film, that's... well, you do the math.
Another is now an old favorite in our technology-obsessed age: blame the cell phone! Cell phones without batteries or with low reception appear in film after film, much to the delight, of course, of the villain stalking the poor soul staring haplessly at his or her small piece of useless plastic. Another? Blood. So many films rely on ketchup or one of its brethren at this point, usually combined with visuals of axes in skulls or chainsaws ripping through flesh, that there are no thrills left. You could have the same amount of fun in a food fight at a diner. (Cheaper, too!)
Scaring is caring
The main message here is this: if viewers care about a character, they're more likely to be scared on his or her behalf. It seems simple, but many horror films simply bypass this element. The essay uses this year's Get Out as an example. So many of the elements here—the budding relationship between Chris and Rose, Chris's nervousness around her parents, Chris's growing bafflement at the odder aspects of Rose's family home—draw on viewers' emotions. Who hasn't been in love? Who hasn't been nervous to meet a girlfriend's parents? Writer/director Jordan Peele drops in other little details about Chris, as well—his attempts to quit smoking, his artistic aspirations—that involve us, draw us in. This means that during the last 30-45 minutes, as Peele slowly presses the gas pedal to the floor, viewers have a crystal clear idea of who to root for, made all the clearer by the relationship Peele has established between his characters and the people in the theater seats.
Remember, sympathy and empathy are two different words
An important takeaway from the video essay is this: don't confuse sympathy with empathy. Sympathy is pity; empathy is fellow-feeling. It's easy to feel sympathetic, for instance, with someone who's just had a post driven through their head or someone who was attacked by a possessed automobile or someone who was chased by a ghoul in a ski mask or... But the feeling there, running through films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the like, is fairly shallow and doesn't last. The more substantial, successful, groundbreaking horror films all have one thing in common, which is the emotional bond viewers feel with their characters.
What are some horror films you can think of that demand empathy, rather than sympathy? Let us know in the comments!