Of course, I don’t usually eat while I watch them, unless we’ve got a bag of Pop Secret in the pantry, but you get my point. Everybody has something they do to de-stress, and for me, scaring myself silly for 90 minutes seems to do the trick.
That love of horror definitely carries over into my reading and writing as well. The first book I ever read for fun was Cujo in the eight grade (although I did spend most of my elementary years checking out “true” ghost stories from the library) and over half of my published short stories are either horror or contain elements of the genre.
Everything is subjective, of course, but it’s interesting to think about how different types of the horror genre affect different people. The cheap scares in a slasher film, for example, are enough to keep some people from watching them. For others, it’s the gore. And for others, it’s the suspense.
Writing horror has affected the way I watch it. After I finish watching a horror movie, I usually end up analyzing it a bit.
Was it scary? Was it clichéd? Did the right character survive? Would have I ended it differently? Was that plot twist effective or predictable?
Those are just some of the questions I ask myself.
But in this post, I want look at a different question: Did this movie work?
Actually, a better question might be “What makes horror work?”
To me, horror is at its best when it frightens or disturbs the viewer and gives them a temporary escape from reality.
So when is horror its most frightening or disturbing?
1. “This Really happened”
When I was in the seventh grade, I was traumatized by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What made it so frightening to the seventh grade version of me was the fact that I was led to believe it “really happened.” While Leatherface was (very loosely) based on serial killer Ed Gien, obviously none of the events of that movie took place in real life.
You could say the same thing about The Exorcist. While I personally don’t find it frightening, I do consider it one of the greatest movies of all time. Regardless of what “truth” lies behind the novel and film, it was “real” enough to frighten millions of people for two generations.
2. This could really happen
By this, I mean real life horror. Not necessarily “true story” horror, but the horror that explores the true evil in the world. I’m talking about things like family violence, or real life killers. These movies are the most difficult for me to watch, and while I don’t always enjoy them, I can appreciate them as art.
Disturbing as it is, it works. Look at the critical acclaim and box office success of The Silence of the Lambs. Or in a completely different sense, look at the lasting cult success of The Last House On The Left. Both of these movies are disturbing in their own way and are good examples of the range of “real life” horror that fiction can present.
3. This couldn’t really happen, but the writing/acting is so good you can suspend disbelief and enjoy.
You can put ghost stories like The Sixth Sense or The Blair Witch Project here. Or well done slashers like Halloween, Alien, and A Nightmare on Elm Street (the first one). These are also some of my favorite movies and I believe horror at its finest. When you can escape to that fantasy world where you know nothing is real, but still get scared enough to forget about the stress of real life, that’s when horror is perfect, and I would argue that it’s why the genre exists at all.
So what make horror work for you? And what are some other movies worth mentioning? Leave a comment!