Psychology, editing and production in the era of horror films
Horror films, thrillers, scary movies—no matter what you call them, you know them when you see them, and you see them a lot.
With the recent announcement of a “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” adaptation by horror film visionary Guillermo Del Toro and a modernized reprisal of “Twilight Zone,” produced and hosted by Jordan Peele, scares and screams remain at the top of the box office.
But some might wonder what makes scary movies an exceedingly popular choice and why some are willing to partake in the horror. As it turns out, there are several reasons people love to be scared, from putting a silver lining around horrors in their own lives to simply watching for the thrill of it.
According to David DiSalvo, a contributing writer for Forbes, people who feel positive emotions towards horror films may be using the movies as an introspective therapy session.
“Research has found that willing exposure to that which scares us can provide a counterbalance to life’s stresses,” DiSalvo said. “It may also be an effective way to undermine anxiety and even bolster our resilience.”
Associate Professor of Communication Matthew Fisher agrees that there is a deeper reason beyond fear for the enjoyment of this genre.
“It’s the same impulse, I think, that has people riding roller coasters,” Fisher said. “Something about doing it in a controlled setting where you are able to understand that it’s fiction makes it appealing to people.”
Junior cinema major Jaren Lewis echoed this sentiment, saying that, for him, the enjoyment lies in the risk-free rush of intense emotions.
“For me, when I watch a movie, I want to be overwhelmed visually and feel invested into the story,” Lewis said. “We want to be thrown into the extremities of these feelings without putting ourselves in any real danger.”
Lewis considers these intense feelings as something people do for fun, such as parachuting out of planes or running with bulls.
“Horror movies throw at us the scariest creations from the human mind,” Lewis said. “We have seen…giant monsters to backwoods hillbillies killing teenagers who took a wrong turn on the road. These things are simply not real, and when we recognize that, then we truly get to immerse ourselves in the story and have fun with it.”
Lewis also argued this generation’s fascination with the horror genre is a way to escape the subjectively scarier things that may be happening in reality by comparing them to the horrific scenarios onscreen.
“What you’ll see in a lot of these new horror films is, at the end, our heroes survive,” Lewis said. “What I think we take from [scary movies] is that [it’s a] movie, and we aren’t in [that] bad of a situation. When the heroes win, it reminds us that the monsters we face in real life are not insurmountable.”
However, Fisher believes the successful horror films are the ones that break the barrier of fiction long enough to shock and scare the audience and make them forget it’s fiction.
Fisher also credits the rise of this genre to the sometimes lower production costs.
“[Scary movies] are a popular option because they can be very cheap to make, but they can make a killing,” Fisher said, with pun intended.
A quintessential example is “Paranormal Activity,” which cost $15,000 to make—a very small budget for a feature film—but made millions of dollars.
Lewis argues the horror genre’s ability to break box-office records lies within its cinematic innovations.
“The horror genre allows for almost all the rules in filmmaking to be broken,” Lewis explained. “This is done [by experimenting] with new ways of filming and [by throwing] the audience off the common pace of what they expect.”
Noted directors, including Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers, began their highly regarded careers in the realm of horror and gore. These directors used the genre’s flexibility to hone in on their talents by bending the rules of editing and cinematography.
Fisher explained that, unlike genres like drama, romance and action, successful horror movies are defined by the spaces between the action—in this case, between the scares.
Fisher said horror films are carried by suspense and trademark editing techniques like the quick cut, which is a shot of a horrific image just briefly inserted in the midst of a scene.
The 1980 classic “The Shining” is highly regarded as a successful horror film because of its limited number of scares and gory moments amidst a consistent tension and sense of doom throughout the entire film.
“Instead of pure shock and pure gore, [there is] an emphasis on…tone, which is trying to find a way to give the movie a pervasive atmosphere of dread,” Fisher said.
Fisher compared “The Shining” to Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho.”
“Hitchcock employed that same technique of giving you just little, quick pieces of the action and was kind of able to cut around the gore but still make what is this deeply troubling, terrifying scene that has become one of the most famous in film history,” Fisher said.
Another way the space between scares is utilized is by leaving key elements to the imagination.
Fisher considers “Jaws,” “Alien” and the Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House” iconic examples of terror that have succeeded because aspects of the plot were left unseen or unknown for a good portion of the films, keeping the audience dreadfully anticipating when the scare will come.
Regardless of which techniques are utilized, the horror genre is revered for its ability to compel and thrill an audience and keep them coming back for more.
“When we get scared—and I mean truly scared—by something, it stays in our heads forever,” Lewis said.