What Makes Horror Movies Scary?

The scariest part of a zombie movie is not when the audience sees a person eaten by a horde of the undead, but when the horde remains hidden until that very first glimpse. You know they’re coming. You know they will consume anyone in their path. The terror-inducing shivers felt hearing but not seeing an eater is enough to drive anyone to want to sport a chin guard in a padded room.

I tend to dedicate Monday Mayhem to all that is zombie. Today, I’d like to try something different. Today, let’s delve into what makes horror movies scary. In particular, let’s look at three movies that leave me lying in bed staring at the dark ceiling wondering if anything lives in my closet.

Alien egg (Photo credit: www.GdeFon.ru)
Alien egg (Photo credit: GdeFon.ru)

Alien—In 1979, when I was barely in my teens, director Ridley Scott presented his version of what an alien should look like. At the time, the trailers featuring an egg as the catalyst for a possible invasion drew critical acclaim. What audiences didn’t know is the flick is actually a horror movie dressed in sci-fi clothing. “In space no one can hear you scream” became the tagline for this original motion picture. When I first saw this movie, I couldn’t help notice how subsequent sightings of the creature throughout the film turned more graphic with every scene. It created an uneasiness I hadn’t ever experienced. It wasn’t until days later that I had appreciated how not seeing the alien terrified me more than if it had appeared earlier in the story.

The Exorcist
The Exorcist

The ExorcistI had written about this 1973 film in my October tribute to Horror for my Women Who Wow Wednesday series. Directed by William Friedkin and starring Linda Blair as the child possessed, the big screen adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel went on to become one of the most successful horror movies of all time. How did it do this? We never see the real culprit at work. We see the effects and the aftermath of what happened. But why or by whom remains a mystery. What’s more? The progressive escalation of events increases the tension further by leaving the audience wondering what is causing the terror. I saw this movie in my teens when my parents went visiting relatives. I had nightmares for a week. Now, that’s a good horror flick.

Jack Nicholas in The Shining
Jack Nicholas in The Shining

The Shining—Can anyone deny the phrase, “Redrum. Redrum. REDRUM!” chills the bones? This 1980 Stephen King vehicle starring Jack Nicholson as a writer wanting a quiet place to work, showcases classic scenes one would come to expect in a horror picture. As with Alien and The Exorcist, The Shining also highlights an effective acceleration of plot points to a heart-stopping climax. Making this Stanley Kubrick film unique, the individual scenes watched as individual units confuses, if at best, mesmerizes. As a whole though, every scene builds on the last, layering an intricate design of terror, which, by all accounts, gives the viewer an immersive experience in regards to the events surrounding this foreboding tale of murder and supernatural bedlam.

Overall, the movies Alien, The Exorcist and The Shining underscore what true horror is all about. Not so much what you see, but what you don’t see that makes things scary.

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Have you seen Alien, The Exorcist or The Shining? Which one did you find the scariest? Why? Do you have any favorite horror movies that left you awake at night?

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20 thoughts on “What Makes Horror Movies Scary?

  1. Great article on what it takes to make a really good horror movie. I am a light-weight when it comes to horror movies. The first dreaded musical notes of impending fright are enough to send me fleeing. I watched about 1/3 of the movie “Aliens”. That was more than enough to scare the bejezus out of me for years and years to come. It scared me so much, in fact, that when my husband used his Mig welder (I think that’s the right name) I was scared stock still. I watched, horrified, as the welding metal wire came out of the opening of the welding nozzle. Inside my head were images of the Alien thing with its many mouths with rows of razor sharp teeth. Needless to say, my poor husband’s welds looked like a toddler got hold of the machine :/. He still teases me about that to this day.
    Leslie

  2. Awake at night from horror movies…all the time Jack, all the time! Why do I do it? I have no idea. Maybe thats why I went with campy slasher flicks in October..haha! Minimize the lack of sleep in my slightly fragile state. But the one that keeps me up in the night, The Eye, Ring, Insidious…the list goes on..Add some form of spirits in there and you got me staring at the ceiling all night.
    I haven’t seen The Shining or Exorcist but Alien rules 🙂 I know I have lots to catch up on, especially in the horror world.

  3. Three great movies and three of my favorite horror films. I would recommend watching The Changeling from 1980 if you want non gory scares, shivers, and major creepiness.

  4. zombie, virus films are a great theme for me in films, so the three films you mentioned are all wonderfully frightful. To me, a scary film consists of darkened, barely lit places where you can only hear your own breath and steps, posession is another as it literally takes you over and anything in contact with taking over your body wins me over in a scary sense. It doesn’t help when they do certain shock face scares either in films.

  5. All of your choices made a huge impression on me when I first saw them. I would certainly rate them as a benchmark by which to measure just how appalling some of today’s (and yesterday’s) schlockfests are.

  6. I read “The Shining” after it first came out. Read it from start to finish in 3 days. Couldn’t sleep I was so terrified. When the movie came out I was ready to be terrified again. Frankly, I was disappointed. The “Alien” movie….I knew I was in trouble when the thing burst out of the man’s chest. When I saw the Mother….that was it. I was done. Baled. Left. High-tailed it out of there. Thoughts of it still creep me out. What can I say. I’m a wussy :/
    Leslie

  7. I agree Jack, so much is about what you don’t see – the anticipation of what might happen. I generally like my horror supernatural in nature and one of the reasons I like zombie movies so much is the concept of them – that they’re inescapable, since they are, after all, us. But there also has to be great characterisation, so that we care what happens.

  8. I can’t handle horror so I’m amazed at what I’ve read through friends having thrillers out. I guess the whole suspense thing is part of thriller as much as horror. The thrill is the anticipation – yikes!

  9. I always distinguish between what is shocking and what is scary. Alien and the Shining are shocking, you know the moment’s coming and you’re waiting for the punch, for the surprise. But scary is something that goes beyond the drama, transcends the film and touches something real. This is the reason I’ve never watched the Exorcist and never will. The subject matter of possession, exorcism, the presence, real or imagined, of some demonic force, is too close to the real world. And the same goes for films like the Silence of the Lambs. The awareness that there are real asylums with real very dangerous psychopaths and serial killers generates the fear within that film. What you’re watching is not some detached, safe thrill, but a reminder that such things exist outside the cinema. In that respect, I suppose, a film doesn’t have to be a horror film to be frightening.

    • Another movie I neglected to write about was The Sixth Sense. That movie kept me up all night. I found it scary, especially the beginning. Oh, and Shutter Island, scared me to death. That dark prison scene is ultra-creepy and blew me away!

  10. The Exorcist was the scariest. Aliens (2, 1) and The Shining are great! The Haunting is a good one as well. A friend of ours swore to never again watch They. This film was giving him the creeps. Thinking of creeps – I nearly forgot to mention The Night of the Creeps (Thrill me!). 😀

    • You mentioned some great movies there. I loved Aliens as well, but I consider that an action movie than anything else. I have to still see They. The Others was kind of creepy as well!

      • You are right about Aliens, Jack. The Others is a good one. El Laberinto del Fauno and The Orphanage by Guillermo del Toro are also great movies.

  11. Not much of a horror fan because I get startled easily. I’m a big sucker for getting drawn into suspense and atmospheric tension, so the ‘pounce’ tends to hit me pretty hard. Seriously, I was terrified by ‘Carrie 2’ and ‘The Faculty’ to the point where I was shivering. You definitely need that suspense to pull off a good horror movie. One can be desensitized to the gore and chaotic running because you’re always at the peak of fear. If you’re lulled into a state of being on edge then you can be jolted a lot harder.

    • I agree. Gore is more shocking than anything else. But a good scare, when everything goes quiet and all you hear is your breath–now, that’s when the “jump” can hit hard. If you watched World War Z, not to ruin it for anyone, did you like the scare factor in that movie?

      • I haven’t seen World War Z, so I don’t know. I’ve heard it has some good scare scenes. Need to get my hands on it at some point. Honestly, the last zombie movie I saw was Warm Bodies. Not really a scary story.

      • Warm Bodies has a really good story. It’s not as scary as some of the other movies, but I don’t think it was meant to be. I was appealing to a specific teen audience, so it became a very romanticized tale for the masses.

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