What Makes a Great Horror Movie?

A few weeks ago, I watched Rosemary’s Baby for the first time. Afterwards, I discussed the film with some other friends who are very much into movies. The conversation evolved into one where we discussed the horror genre in general.

Personally, I didn’t think of Rosemary’s Baby as a horror movie per se. To me, it was much more of a paranoid drama than a scary movie. Some of this might be due to the fact that I really didn’t know the plot of the movie beyond the basics (spoiler: woman becomes impregnated with actual devil spawn). I was expecting a movie about a woman terrified of whatever it was growing inside of her. Instead, I got a movie about a woman who finds herself subject to the puppeteering of a bunch of Satan-worshippers.

Out of the three of us discussing the film, only one felt it was a scary movie. The reason why, was because they bought into the whole Devil/supernatural evil element. It was something they feared on some deep level in real life, and so it was something which understandably terrified them when watching a movie in which it is a dominating element.

Sticking with those “horror” movies where the scare factor comes from Satan, I was reminded of my reaction to The Exorcist. It’s commonly regarded by many as one of the scariest films of all time. I’ve watched it once. I was bored – and I certainly wasn’t scared. And I’m not saying that because the effects had aged or what have you – I’m saying that because in order for The Exorcist to scare you, you’ve got to have an existing fear or belief in whatever the supernatural horror factor in question is. Be that the Devil, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, whatever.

Writing that last paragraph reminds me of the scene from A Cabin In The Woods, where they’re taking bets on what nightmarish creature will plague the bunch of teens. Doesn’t it make sense that for a horror movie to effectively deliver scares, the audience must be predisposed to be scared of whatever the central “creature” is? Hence, for me, horror movies that are dependent on a pre-existing fear of the Devil are going to be wholly ineffective. Sure, I might jump occasionally or sense the suspense if the direction is good, but I’m never really scared.

So when are ghosts, werewolves, vampires, etc. genuinely scary? I suppose it’s a fair assumption to say that most people don’t believe in such things. And yet they are still the types of antagonists one envisions when you think about the horror movie. In many cases, however, these creatures are not necessarily the ultimate source of the horror that drives the fear. As with the best sci-fi movies, the creatures of our nightmares are merely the representation of something else. The classic example here is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The movie was about humans being replaced with identical alien replacements, but it was an allegory for the red scare.

A more recent prolific example is the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where various monster of the week scenarios were actually ways for the writers to deal with deeper issues. Off the top of my head, I think there was a particularly effective first season episode where a loner girl at Buffy’s high school literally became invisible or a ghost (I forget which). In terms of movies where horror is transplanted in to deal with real-life issues, two of my favorite examples coincidentally both deal with puberty and awakening sexuality in adolescent girls: Ginger Snaps and Teeth. Both follow the traditional werewolf movie model; Ginger Snaps more blatantly so, since Ginger literally transforms into a horrific murderous beast at her time of the month.

At this point, I think it’s only fair to confess that I’ve never been the biggest horror movie enthusiast. Although, when I was very young (probably somewhere in the 8 to 10 year old ballpark), I used to have sleepovers at a friend’s house where we watched a lot of semi-appropriate horror movies along the lines of Gremlins, Critters, The Burbs, etc. Oh, and he lived next to a graveyard. So, yeah, I’ve seen horror films. The contemporary iteration of the genre doesn’t interest me. You can keep your Saws, Paranormal Activitys, and Human Centipedes thank you very much. Not my cup of tea. Ditto slasher flicks. They just never interested me.

Alright, I get it – you’re thinking why write a blog about horror movies if you’re just not that into them. Truth is, I like to watch a scary movie now and them while I’m in the mood for it. To a large extent, the secret ingredient that makes a great horror movie is the audience. They have to be up for it, and willing to suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to forget it’s just a movie in order to get scared.

Personally, I tend to prefer those movies which don’t involve a supernatural enemy or psychotic killer on the loose. Generally. Just to throw a handful of titles out there of horror movies I’ve somewhat liked from the past several years, let’s say Frozen, Buried, The Strangers, A Tale of Two Sisters and The Orphanage. Hands down my favorite horror movie of recent times, however, is OrphanOrphan works for me because it doesn’t depend on any pre-existing believe in or fear of any particular paranormal phenomenon. It works because the dread comes from the unthinkable everyday, with a twist which just intensifies that sense of unthinkable horror.

Actually, that’s what I respond to best in scary movies: realizing that my perception of reality is not quite true, that things are not what they seem, and that the true monster lies within. Perhaps that’s why Rosemary’s Baby would have been scarier to me if the terror had come from Rosemary’s fetus, rather than from numerous external forces.


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