When I was at university I was the “horror film guy”. My bedroom looked exactly how you would expect a serial killer’s room to look, with reams of horror posters and gory special effects adorning my wall and countless dinky action figures of Freddy, Chucky, Michael Myers, Jason and Leatherface proudly standing above my fireplace. Above my bed was a huge wall-sized poster for the Dawn Of The Dead remake, meaning anyone having a picnic at the nearby meadows could look up and see an evil zombie child glaring at them through my window. Safe to say, had there been a murder nearby and had the police come to my flat to enquire for witnesses, I’d have been bundled into their car without much consideration.
As the “horror film guy”, I’d often be asked for recommendations. I’d learn which of my friends liked which types of horror, and would be able to recommend films based on those tastes. Every now and then though, I’d be asked the unanswerable question: “Which film is the scariest?” Every time I was asked that I’d be unable to reply. I’d stutter and stammer, choose one then change my mind, and ultimately come up with the defeatist answer “it depends”.
It really does depend, though. Different things scare different people. Someone recently told me the remake of Friday The 13th was the scariest thing they had ever seen, while I found the ‘scares’ predictable and poorly timed. Conversely, some of the people I’ve recommended The Eye to have said it didn’t affect them that much, even though I couldn’t sleep for weeks after it.
I decided to write this article after I got feedback from my review of The Omen, in which I said that “despite any suspicions you may have The Omen actually isn’t that scary at all”. One of my good friends Ronan, who knows his horror inside-out, told me he completely disagreed, saying: “The Exorcist is probably the better film, but Omen is definitely scarier. The unease and imminent danger is more scary than a daft lassie flinging herself about.”
His girlfriend Becca agreed, saying: “Scenes from The Omen creep their way into my consciousness on a regular basis. That’s not an exaggeration – Ronan will vouch for me. Probably one of the scariest films I have ever seen”.
Now, there’s no way I can say I’m right and Ronan and Becca are wrong, because that’s not how horror works. We each have different fears and so horror films affect us all in different ways.
With this in mind, I asked some of my chums and Twitter followers what scares them the most in films, just out of interest to see how wide-ranging people’s fears are. The responses I got can be split into eight different categories, each specifying a different type of fear.
Note: this is a longer article than usual so I’ve inserted a rare page break. If you’re reading this on the main home page, click below to read the rest.
1) LOUD, STARTLING NOISES
“For me I love unexpected shocks that trigger a very primitive reaction, I am regulary the only person in the cinema to actually yelp in shock, much to my wife’s amusement. The classic for me was the first time I saw the very end of Carrie.” (Neil D)
“The unexpected jump after a silent build-up…” (Shad0wH)
“Its always when there’s a huge build up, with creepy music, and then something jumps out and makes a really loud noise” (Ben25BBB)
The most often-used device in modern horror films, the ‘jump’ scare is a relatively easy way to instantly affect the audience because it triggers a literal knee-jerk reflex in which the viewer ‘jumps’ involuntarily. While it’s a cheap way to keep the audience on edge, it’s all about timing. Often films use the classic “look one way, then the other, then BOO” technique, others build up to nothing, wait a beat and then hit with the BOO.
Example – Here’s one of the most effective jump scares I’ve ever seen in a film. Make sure the volume’s down a bit and head to 2:50 in this clip from Three: Memories. I saw this at a cinema, I’m sure you can imagine the reaction.
2. THE POWER OF SUGGESTION
“What I tend to find scarier are scenes that involve something like creepy crawlies (spiders, aliens, etc), in the darkness that you can hear but not see, so it’s more fear of the unknown in a creepy situation with lots of adrenaline and heart-in-mouth moments.” (Nigel H)
“Definitely what you don’t see. So much stronger.” (Reesey)
Our brains are capable of producing things scarier than film can possibly hope to show us. Since we know better than anyone else what scares us, when presented with vague scenes our brains tend to fill in the blanks with what we feel is the worst possible scenario. Hitchcock and Tobe Hooper used this to their advantage in Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre respectively by never actually showing any contact during its murder scenes. The viewer’s brain fills in the blanks and they think they’ve seen a brutal murder in graphic detail, whereas in reality they saw nothing.
Example – Watch the classic Psycho shower scene. This is considered one of the most shocking scenes of its time and yet you never see the knife go anywhere near Janet Leigh.
3. PRIMAL FEARS / FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
“Sections where you think there’s something lurking in the dark can really up the tension and prove to be pretty scary.” (Yirba)
“One of my scariest films is The Descent and also the end of Rec. for the same reasons. The claustrophobic feeling of the darkness and not being able to see where the assailants are, gives me the heeby jeebs! I’m sure you’ll appreciate I’ve seen enough horror films to have become a bit immune to the cheap scares but I think examples like this play on a real primal fear. The end.” (Pamela B)
Taking the previous example a little further, when presented with something completely unseen our brains have carte blanche to create any sort of terrifying thing we can think of. When the crew of the Nostromo are being killed one by one by an unseen killer in Alien, it’s almost a little disappointing when you finally get a good look at the monster and it’s clearly a man in a suit (to the extent that Ridley Scott actually cut footage of the Alien for his director’s cut).
Our primal fears – fear of the dark, fear of tight spaces – are great sources for fear in horror films because they’re fears that most of the human race share. The scene in the air ducts in Alien makes good use of both as an unknown creature heads towards Dallas. Not only are our brains dreaming up images of what could be approaching, they’re also taking into account the lack of freedom provided by the air ducts.
Example – The Blair Witch Project bases its entire premise on fear of the unknown. With the cast surrounded by darkness the viewer constantly imagines what could be lurking and waiting to attack:
“Generally, horror films are scarier for me when there is unease and tension rather than constant jumps. Halloween for instance has just enough dread and scares. I love blood and gore and zombies etc but these films generally don’t scare me that much.” (Ronan M)
“For me it’s about atmosphere and tension. There are films which aren’t scary or horror films which have caused me more distress than any body-horror or slasher flick…” (Brian R)
Sometimes it’s not the moment itself that scares but the thought of what’s about to happen. Some of the best horror films tend to build tension for a long time before delivering the scare, like winding up a toy before letting it go. The more wound-up the audience gets, the greater the reaction when the inevitable eventually happens.
Also effective are movies that have many moments of suspense that ultimately don’t lead to frights. These keep the audience on edge as they can no longer predict when a fright’s coming.
Example – The Eye uses a lot of suspense-filled scenes to build the tension. Perhaps the most famous is the elevator scene. It doesn’t lead to anything but it does a fantastic job of winding up the audience.
“It all comes down to the sound. If the music and sound effects aren’t eerie enough, it all becomes cheesy. I can usually pick out the part where the director of the film wants me to be scared. That’s stupid. I want to be shocked and awed.” (Chris J)
“When music is coupled with a horrifying build up to reveal the killer. Jeez, that scares me!” (PixelatedHarry)
“Is music a legitimate answer? I always find the atmospheric build up with the suspense and music scarier than the actual thing” (Sarah T)
“I agree, the music also plays a huge part, in most scenes if the music wasn’t right or not there then it probably wouldn’t be scary at all” (Nigel H)
As I said in my last review, the music was the scariest thing about The Omen in my opinion. The right score can turn a normal scene into a creepy one and a creepy one into a downright terrifying one. Music can dictate the way we feel about a scene, it can make us scared when otherwise we may not be. A person walking down a corridor is a perfectly normal sight in a film, but when there’s ominous music playing in the background, the audience knows something bad’s coming and it keeps them on edge.
Example – The opening five minutes of Suspiria (one of the most beautiful horror films ever made, incidentally) feature a fantastic piece of music. Watch how the film makes use of the music during the airport scene to show how the fear awaits outside:
6. ABSTRACT, ABNORMAL AND BIZARRE
“Creepy things usually scare me/creep me out. For example, the way the antagonist creep around in some of the more modern scary movies (people shouldn’t move like that or be that flexible).” (Chris J)
“The bathroom scene from the remake of Amityville Horror when this horrendous thing appears behind the little boy in the bathroom.” (Lucy P)
Often some of the scariest things in horror are familiar things acting in unfamiliar ways. A telephone shouldn’t grow a tongue and start trying to lick you as in A Nightmare On Elm Street and a toy clown shouldn’t suddenly come to life like the one in Poltergeist does.
Sometimes though these moments are so bizarre and twisted from reality that they are truly disturbing to watch. Most common are the weird, disjointed walks of ghosts and other creatures as seen in the likes of The Ring, House On Haunted Hill and Silent Hill.
Example – look at the way the nurses move in this clip from Silent Hill:
“Little kids in horror films… like in The Shining, Pet Semetary, The Omen… scary shit right there!” (dudey300)
“The little boy floating outside the window in Salem’s Lot!” (Anna L)
There’s something undeniably unsettling about taking a child – the definition of innocence – and making it do distinctly non-innocent things. Put a creepy child in your film and you’ll make it scarier to a significant percentage of the audience. Creepiest of all is when films make use of the tried-and-tested ghost child – after all, when you take something that’s already creepy and then add in the extra little kicker that this child has died in the past, you’re talking grim city.
Example – How about the twins from The Shining? And as if they weren’t creepy enough, it seems Danny has a few screws loose too.
8. SPECIFIC MOMENTS
Of course, everything aside, there are just some scenes in particular that stick in our heads. Since everyone ticks in a different way, we all have one scene that constantly sticks out as one that shocked them the most. This is one of mine:
Here are some examples from others who gave me suggestions. Where possible I’ve tried to find YouTube clips, if they have links in the quote you can click them to see the video.
“The infected from 28 Days Later. Especially Milo at the end.” (Startdashselect)
“FREDDY KRUEGER.” (BeulahBukowski)
“That rotten face that appears in Jaws gets me every time.” (Reesey)
“Event Horizon, werewolves, apes, caves, wax works and Chucky.” (Kirsty L)
“The figure in the red coat in Don’t Look Now” (Michael A)
“The scene in Jaws, where the man’s severed head appears in that opening of the boat…nice!” (Anna L)
“Oooft. Going to have to talk about The Omen (1976). The look on the nanny’s face before she hangs herself shouting “I love you Damien! This is all for you!” – that seriously scares the shit out of me. But both scenes where Mrs Baylock attacks are imprinted in my memory. Just because both are unexpected, and the suspense throughout the film is rife. Obviously comes from the fact that neither of the victims are given enough time to defend themselves, and she is fucking vicious, which is a pretty universal thing with regards to horror. What really makes it stand out though is the music – it’s absolutely terrifying. I also think it was cast really well. Especially Mrs Baylock – what a horrid, ugly woman. I HATE HER. I think if I saw her in real life I’d want to burn her with a blow torch.” (Becca R)
“The ending of Rec. I got to a point where I decided that whatever was in the attic, I probably didn’t want to know and had to turn it off! (I watched the scene on Youtube later).” (Lucy P)
“The Langoliers, those things are terrifying” (Tamoor H, possibly not being serious)
Well, that was a hell of a long article. I hope you stuck with it until the end and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Please do comment below if you want to share what scares you, and provide YouTube clips too if you have them. Share the fear!