What Makes a Horror Movie Scary?


Horror fans all have their favorite genres of horror movies, and we can vividly remember our first experiences of being truly scared by movies as little kids.  What’s your scare of choice?  Horror movies have explored all our deepest fears over the years…and some themes keep getting repeated over and over.  Why are certain types of horror films so disturbing?  Film and psychology experts have weighed in on this topic before.  Here are some interesting theories.


Disturbing Images

Thinking back to the movies that gave us nightmares when we were little, almost all of them had some sort of disturbing visual image that haunted us long after we saw the actual movie.  There are all sorts of disturbing images: monsters, ghosts, demons and serial killers, as well as deformed or disfigured humans and animals.  Experts say that the morbid, can’t-look-away curiosity we used to get from carnival side shows is still with us…now we get that satisfaction from horror movies.


The Unseen and Unknown

Fear of things we can’t see (What’s down the stairs in that dark basement?)—or don’t know (Do ghosts really exist?)—have been used by horror filmmakers for years.  It’s no accident that so many scary scenes are filmed in the dark.  Psychologists point out that humans have been scared of the unseen and unknown for thousands of years.  Our ancestors were afraid of animals lurking in the dark outside the light of their fires.  And we still have even deeper fears, like what happens after you die.



The feeling of anticipation that something bad is about to happen is one of the most commonly used (or overused) plot devices in horror movies.  A victim is walking down a dark hallway and we know the monster, killer, etc. is just behind the closed door that she’s about to open.  The tension builds until it becomes almost too intense.  Creating a feeling of anticipation and dread is one of the most effective ways to make the audience tense and uneasy.


The Thrill of the Scare

The “jump scare” is one of the classic elements used to make a horror movie genuinely terrifying…if it’s done correctly.  Nothing produces a stronger physical effect on our brains and bodies than a sudden, unexpected visual shock…often accompanied by a loud noise.  A well-executed jump scare can work in any horror genre…slasher, paranormal, etc.  Horror fans know the drill: your tension is built up, then released, and then comes the scare.  The trick these days is to make it truly shocking.



Movie images from IMDb.


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