How do you scare people (who want to be scared)? It’s harder than it sounds because horror movie fans know horror movies the way evangelicals (think they) know the Bible. First confession: if you IMDb me, the impression you’d get from my credits is that I’m purely a horror/sci-fi guy: “Freddy’s Nightmares” (the Nightmare On Elm Street TV series)… “Children Of The Corn 2”… “Tales From The Crypt” (5 seasons on HBO)… “Demon Knight”… “Bordello of Blood” (oy!)… “Outer Limits”… And then nothing for two decades (a whole other story)… But (here’s the confession), I’m not at all a “horror guy”. I’m not organically attuned to horror. I’m not organically attuned to science fiction either. Circumstance not choice dictated the direction my career went (and that is why I spent a decade and a half doing nothing (a whole other story itself — but, I digress). I had a career writing horror because I understood (as a storyteller) how to set it up and pay it off. Nuts meet bolts.
The reason horror endures has less to do with any particular horror character or story itself than with how successful horror stories as a whole work inside our heads. As important as the payoff is, the moment you spring it, it’s sprung. All the tension releases and either the story’s done or, if you want to build another moment to match it (and it better be bigger) you’re going to have to do it almost from scratch. That’s why the secret to great horror is all in the build up. It’s all about uncertainty and dread.
Haunted houses are built upon foundations of uncertainty and then filled to the studs with dread. If a writer understands that — as, say, a Steven King does — then they will convert their computer keyboard into a veritable cash machine their entire creative lives (and deservedly so). In The Shining, alcoholic writer Jack Torrance accepting the job of winter caretaker at the remote Overlook Hotel in Colorado is the story’s “spring” — the uncertainty about what could happen there. Jack’s son Danny’s psychic abilities plus the hotel’s nefarious past (plus the fact that the nefarious past is “alive” inside the hotel!) — that’s King slowly coiling the spring — the dread — as tightly as possible before releasing all its stored, terrifying energy at the book’s climax (ditto Kubrick’s adaptation).
Uncertainty overflowing with dread (think of the blood bursting from the elevators) — that’s the trick.
The first movie that ever scared me was “Wait Until Dark” (a psychological thriller, not a horror movie) — seen at Camp Skylemar in Naples, Maine (the sleepaway summer camp I went to) sometime in the late 1960’s.
Audrey Hepburn plays Suzy, a blind woman who lives with her husband (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) in a basement apartment in NYC. A doll with heroin inside it ends up at the blind woman’s apartment. The bulk of the action takes place as the vicious criminals the heroin belongs to try to get it back from the unsuspecting couple. In the end, there’s a kind of showdown between Audrey and the head criminal Roat (played by Alan Arkin). Suzi’s leveled the playing field by throwing a chemical at Roat’s face and by turning off the apartment’s power. Regardless — and like every great horror movie villain — Roat stalks her in the darkness regardless, a monster with an agenda with only one way to stop it. But Suzi has been stalking Roat, too, trying to use the (familiar to her) darkness to her advantage. Suddenly Roat leaps out at Suzi from behind the refrigerator door.
I have a distinct memory of the entire audience of campers (aged six to sixteen plus counselors) leaping to our feet, hands at our mouths. Whether or not we all really did suddenly leap to our feet, that’s how it felt. That’s how that manufactured moment impacted that audience. Stories don’t have to “be” horror to play by horror’s rules.
Second quick example (and it’s my favorite “horror movie that’s not a horror movie”) — Nic Roeg’s brilliant “Don’t Look Now”.
Donald Sutherland is art restorer John Baxter. Julie Christie is his wife Laura. As John begins a restoration project on a church in Venice, Italy, he and Laura are still mourning the recent drowning death of their young daughter Christine. At a restaurant, one night, two elderly sisters — one a blind psychic — approach Laura when she goes to the bathroom: the psychic sister insists she “saw” the Baxter’s dead daughter standing by them at the table — and wanted them to know she was happy. That (understandably) freaks Laura out. She wants to believe it. John is the cynic. He insists it’s all nonsense. Thus the spring and all its uncertainty is set up. Does the blind psychic woman really see Christine? Is Christine really trying to warn her parents — her cynical-about-the-sisters father especially? I won’t give away the ending, but the red coat Christine wore when she drowned plays a critical role in building the dread that the audience begins to feel about John. Water… the color red… grief and how it plays inside the grieving — it all builds to a truly breath-taking — and outright horrifying — crescendo.
And it’s not a horror movie.
Whether it’s the zombies of “Walking Dead” or “Train to Busan” or the cult in “Midsommar”, the uncertainty their threat poses to our heroes — that’s the spring. The longer the storyteller can hold the audience while coiling that spring, the better. And, if the coiled spring can resonate outside the story environment itself? Never mind turning your keyboard into a cash machine. You’ve just reinvented Bitcoin.
Maybe the best (smartest) recent vintage horror movie is Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”. The uncertainty/spring: Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris (he’s black) visits the home of his white girlfriend’s family to meet them for the first time but realizes that something body snatchers-like is happening to all the Black people in the community where they live. Chris’s slowly building dread is the spring being loaded. See? The simple formula works regardless of characters or story environment.
There ya have it: “how to write a horror movie”. I expect I’ll be hearing shortly from every other person who made a buck (or tried to) in the horror biz, pissed off at me for giving away trade secrets. I expect — being crazy to begin with — a few of them might actually begin to stalk me. What if one really got all Annie Wilkes (the hero of King’s “Misery“) on me? Geez — what kinda goddamned can of worms have I opened here?