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Home > Elements of Horror: What Makes A Scary Movie Scary?

Elements of Horror: What Makes A Scary Movie Scary?

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Hundreds of horror movies are produced every year, but few qualify to stand the test of time. What makes a film worthy of decades of appreciation?

It seems that horror film junkies are always looking for their latest fix, for the latest quality film to shake them to their core. For this specific group of people, they want to be left gutted, horrified, and reanalyzing their life choices leading up to that point. While the film industry seems to be pumping out movies left and right, only a select few will live up to cult classics such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Stephen King’s The Shining (1980), or Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge (2004). There seems to be a certain algorithm, though, that movies can attempt to follow in order to find lasting success and generate timeless stories. 

One very specific element that is not central to all scary movies but I believe is important to note for horror is the involvement of young children. In numerous films, a child either has a dark side, an extraordinary gift, becomes possessed by an evil entity, or is an innocent victim to a supernatural attack. Children are said to have an innocence that allows them to communicate and interact with forces unseen, much like animals can. This innocence and vulnerability leaves them open to manipulation from the paranormal, making them a central part of whatever story they’re involved in. We see instances of this in The Exorcist, as well as in The Conjuring series, where multiple children are manipulated and used by the evil that lurks among them. Isaac Chroner in The Children of the Corn (1984) franchise is a strong example because of the influence he has that many other kids follow. This way, the spirit is not directly interacting with them but instead is channeling through Isaac to gain their trust. If there is a sweet child spotted in a horror film, chances are things will turn incredibly dark very fast.

In the world of horror, location matters. The setting is central to the plot of any story and can separate a great movie from an average one. A lot of noteworthy stories occur in an empty or nearly empty area. People who live in the middle of nowhere or near wooded areas are prime candidates, because the woods are said to harbor a sort of paranormal energy and unexplainable things can happen there. Films like Mama (2013) not only involve a spirit that attaches itself to children, but takes place in the woods for a majority of the time. Maybe it’s the eerie feeling of abandonment, or feeling like there is always somebody out there, but the woods and abandoned areas harness darker energy. Also, many killers and people who isolate themselves from society choose to live immersed in the wilderness or abandoned places. Along with this, it takes longer to call for help (if that is even an option). Sometimes, the help is too far away or inaccessible, which manifests another layer of panic for the viewer to fixate on.

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nun horrorWhile many people turn away when elements of religion are mentioned in scary movies, this is a very common trope in countless timeless horror films. Exorcisms and demons are used very often to drive the course of a story. The Conjuring franchise uses many demons, including one named Valak, a male demon that disguises itself as a nun in The Nun (2018). The dark side of religion is usually seen in films to display an extreme battle of good versus evil, one that can be even more complex than what meets the human eye. Usually, these evil elements and beings are seen as ugly, horrifying, and incredibly dangerous. They wreak havoc on the world in ways that humans can only imagine. The Exorcist will always be a classic example of this phenomenon, where religious items such as crucifixes and holy water are used to battle against evil and for a young girl’s life.

Of course, there are honorable mentions for what makes a great film great. For example, the perfect cocktail of jump scares and slow burns make for a thrilling masterpiece of a film. CGI and special effects bring in the nitty-gritty details needed for real thrills in horror. Exceptional acting where you can read the pure emotion on a person’s face counts a lot, and helps the audience feel what they are feeling in that moment. The relatability of characters gives viewers a sense of camaraderie with who they watch, and an even greater reason to watch until the end. 

Keep an eye out for these elements in movies to complete the timeless horror scavenger hunt. While theaters constantly advertise the newest big-budget horror film coming out, there are many frozen in time from decades’ past that will never be surpassed.

Check out the classic trailer for “The Exorcist!”

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Intern Article Writer | Website | Posts

Sadie is an Intern Article Writer and Senior English Major at the University of Central Arkansas. In her spare time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, and spending time with her guinea pigs, Ginger and Spike.