Fear: A Look At What Makes A Horror Movie Work

Fear is the most basic human emotion that every single person reading this will have experienced at some point of their lives. When a filmmaker creates a horror movie they’re trying to tap into the primal fears that exist in all of us, coaxing us to experience those feelings in the safety of the cinema or our living room. Much like the creators of a theme park rollercoaster the director aims to manipulate his audience with every tool he has in his box for maximum effect and response.

Rogue's Gallery

We’re all scared of different things. I find the fear of spiders to be absolutely irrational yet I know many of you just shuddered at merely reading the word. I’m more scared of the unknown and what’s just beyond the edge of my vision lurking in the darkness, however some of you wouldn’t even bat an eyelid. If you can’t see it why worry about it eh?

What I’m writing is clearly of a personal perpective yet we all share the same common fears. Fear of death, not having control, the unknown, rejection, violence and being eaten by a big fucking animal are all pretty common fears. I’m going to go through some movies that have touched upon some of the fears I hold while looking at how this effect was achieved.

Control is a pretty common aspect of our lives. We all need an element of it to varying degrees. When we get on a rollercoaster we relinquish all control and let the experience take over, the same as watching a horror movie. I have often found some of the most intriguing premises to be those that take away our basic right to control our own lives and push the viewer into contemplating a situation where their control is gone. When you watch a horror movie there always has to be a suspension of disbelief to enjoy the ride and gain maximum effect, you have to give control over to the experience.

The kind of horror that takes away that control has always unnerved me, especially the ones that force you to contemplate that you are not safe and in control even in your own home, in fact, you are unsafe asleep in your own bed. Wes Craven’s 1984 film ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’ was one of my earliest memories having to think about the premise of not being safe in what you always feel is the safest place. As a child you always think that tucking your feet back in the bed keeps you safe from all the ‘monsters’. The genius of Craven’s creation was that you were most at risk when you were asleep.

I remember being fascinated by the poster’s tagline and intrigued to see what the movie was all about.

“If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all” 

Wes Craven’s nightmare creation was a deceased child murderer called Fred Krueger who had in death become more dangerous than he had been when alive. Krueger’s unique hook was that he would enter and manipulate the dreams of the young characters, if you die in the dream then you check out in real life. Many people will vouch for the iconic homemade, razor bladed glove as being the scariest thing about Freddy Krueger. For me it’s the premise, not the butchery that will always be most unerring.A Nightmare On Elm Street

Wes Craven states that he got the idea for the movie from reading a series of articles in a newspaper over a period of months that nobody seemed to link. In each of the articles a young person had died suddenly in their sleep after developing a dehabilitating aversion to sleeping, going as far as overloading themselves with caffeine to artificially rupture their sleep pattern.We all need sleep, it’s a human necessity. Now, imagine if that need could not be fulfilled without the risk of fatal consequences?

Robert Englund plays Freddy with such a maniacal, sadistic glee that he becomes the embodiment of things that go bump in the night. Though later, sub-par sequels pushed Krueger a little too far down the wisecracking comic path, the impact of the first movie is undeniable.

The other factor that is always sure to terrify me is the suggestion of something sinister that we can’t see. The fear of what nastiness is lurking in the shadows ready to pounce. There have been many fantastic examples in cinema where ‘less is more’. Spielberg achieved this in Jaws by represeting his behemoth Great White via score and musical cues rather than revealing the beast on screen until later in the film. Underneath the calmness of the ocean was a leviathan ready to take you and drag you under in a frenzy of serrated teeth. Even to this day and with the knowledge that shark attacks are incredibly rare I still hear those chilling bass notes whenever I take to the sea.

Subtletly is an underrated tool. Look at how John Carpenter expertly teases the presence of Michael Myers in his 1978 landmark ‘Halloween’. The pale masked figure appearing throughout the film with an unnerving calm and serenity. An eery prenomition of the tornado of evil that’s about to be unleashed. ‘Halloween’ isn’t scary because of gore and body count. By standards at the time and especially by today’s standards  there are very little of either. It gets under your skin by suggestion, building tension and the tried and tested technique of the slow reveal, demonstrated literally towards the end of the movie when in the corner of the panoramic frame light is gradually increased to reveal Myers has been there the whole time, watching a sobbing Laurie Strode.This kind of thoughtful and expertly cranked tension is totally absent in Rob Zombie’s terrible remake. It may be a sign of the times that we’re now treated as an audience that needs a jump scare or an outburst of violence to keep our attention, maybe for some of us that’s true.


But for me it’s moments like this that make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.Who can forget the light fluctuations revealing just what’s behind Angela at the end of ‘Rec’? Those brief and tortured glimpses of something we don’t want to see have to power to stick with us far more than excessive gore or garish gross out film making.

That’s not to say I still don’t enjoy the occasional shock moment. Who can forget Leatherface’s sledgehammer introduction in the original ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. The slamming of the metal abbatoir door definitely leaves a mark, the speed and efficiency of the brutality imparted leaves you open mouthed when you didn’t expect it. It’s still important to remember why the moment had impact though, and that’s the ominous build up, the exceptionally details set design (bone furniture *shudder*) and the fantastic gritty photography of the Texas landscape captured on 16mm film to create an almost documentary feel.


For me, the art of imagination and expertly increasing tension are lost in the modern horror movie. There’s an unnatural focus on violence for the sake of violence and eventually even the most shocking of images have no effect on an audience that’s become increasingly desensitised. Luckily I’ve seen a few examples of modern horror that buck the trend and I hope that films of the ilk of ‘Sinister’ and ‘The Woman In Black’ can continue to get made amidst the excessive gore that appears to have saturated the cinema with crimson.

I could genuinely write all day about horror but I’ll save it for a future article. I haven’t even mentioned my favourite horror movie of all time, William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’, simply because it warrants a piece all by itself and I’m not about to start questioning the mysteries of faith to that depth here and there are so many other movies that deserve massive mentions. So, what scares you? I’d be interested to see if you agree with any of my choices or if you have your own personal Boogeymen. If you feel like sharing your favourite scary movies or if there are any particular horror movies you’d like me to cover then please feel free to comment below.

Laurie: “What’s the Boogeyman?”

Dr Loomis: “As a matter of fact, that was”

3 thoughts on “Fear: A Look At What Makes A Horror Movie Work

  1. Enjoying the blog sir and hope to see more. Hopefully that future Exorcist post won’t contain a possessed Regan image so I can view your thoughts without soiling my pants.

  2. I saw The Thing last night (original). What do you think of it? I think it’s got a nice menacing tone, suspense, a couple of surprises that make you jump, and some ‘look-away’ gore. Full package from a horror movie, but limited in some other ways not. Like its difficult to follow who all the characters are, and too much action takes place off screen.

    • I love The Thing and was lucky enough to see it on the big screen. Do agree on the first viewing the characters are quite hard to follow but I suppose in a way it assists with the paranoid atmosphere. The final shot of that film is amazing.

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