It’s almost Halloween, so I would like to sit down with you and talk to you about fear. I don’t claim to be a master of horror, but I would defend that I am knowledgeable on the topic of fear.
Around this time of the year, there are always lists of the scariest films of all time, and usually they are topped by The Exorcist.
The Exorcist is a horrific ride when you first see it, particularly if you haven’t had any of the big moments spoiled for you. It is outrageous and chugs along with the pace of an action movie. It’s uncomfortable, and it feels real. But what comes home with you after?
If you had to pin me down and ask me what the scariest movie of all-time is, I would tell you it’s Nightmare on Elm Street. Sure it’s full of spooky moments, but my reasoning is not actually anything that has to do with what is on the film. This movie is the scariest because when you leave the theatre telling your friends “that wasn’t so scary,” and hop into bed that night; there is no possible way to not return to the film as you try to fall asleep. Even the most rational people are going to have increased heartbeats. It’s a rare piece of art that forces the audience to encounter the exact same problem as the characters. This is fear.
Most “scary” media forms of today are less built upon lingering fear and more focused on gruesome moments and jump scares. I enjoy a good jump scare from time to time, but those moments of fear are gone as quickly as they happen, made for you to throw your popcorn in shock in the theatre, not anywhere else.
If you’re a writer like me (yes this is another how to write piece from me) then you want to make your scary moments remain in the minds of the audience long after they’ve left the parking lot, and in this article we’re going to go over some ways to do that, using examples from some of the scariest movies of all time (most of them non-horror films).
Obsession Is The Scariest Human Emotion
The football movie Rudy really isn’t that wonderful, but it’s remembered fondly as a tear-jerker because we see a hero obsessed with one goal (playing football for the Fighting Irish) come up short for an hour and a half, and then finally when he gets a taste, we as the audience are emotionally exhausted. We’re in on the obsession. This is how scary movies should work too.
One of the biggest gripes about “scary” movies is that no one in their right mind would go down into the creepy basement alone. They have to go down there, because if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie. If you’re main character has an unhealthy obsession though, this rationalizes a lot of these stupid behaviors that move plot forward. The audience reacts by tensing their bodies. They know that Scotty should just love this new girl for who she is, not force her to be the dead ex-lover that she resembles. There is a real discomfort to this that transaction. Judy clearly wants to be her own self, but she is so wanting to be with Scotty that she lets his evil lust for his memory to take control of her life as well. There is A LOT of plot in Vertigo, but this scene is the one that I daresay is most remembered, the most visceral. It’s because we see two very normal human beings, including the best “everyman” ever in Jimmy Stewart, totally succumb to evil very easily.
When I write obsession, I try to make it unavoidable for the audience to put themselves in the character’s shoes. In Fears, Kenrick wasn’t exactly an everyman, but I made sure to space out the play with scenes of him reciting irrational fears. These were real fears that real people had submitted to me. My goal was that an audience member would hear one of these that resonated with them, and would instantly go into their own brain and become uncomfortable. I didn’t care if they left the world of the play for a moment.
The goal of the script was to make people confront what makes them stuck in arrested development, and obsessing over the smallest of fears constantly and repetitively the way I did it.
If you want to write an obsessed character, they have to be normal at the beginning. Think Jack Torrence in The Shining. He’s just a writer who wears sweaters in the beginning of the film. It’s that he is relatable that makes his descent into madness lasting for the audience.
Explaining Something Makes It Not Scary
What are humans most afraid of? The unknown.
This is why horror sequels tend to fail, because they demand to explain more and more of the mystique created in the original. This seems like a really easy rule of thumb, yet it is CONSTANTLY ignored in theatre and film.
We just talked about Vertigo in the last section. Full disclosure, it’s my favorite movie of all time, but even it falls to this rule.
In the second half of the movie Scotty starts dating a woman, Judy, who reminds him of the woman he loved and let fall to her death, Madeline. They do look alike, but the audience doesn’t know why for a short period of time.
Then, the worst scene in film happens. Judy sits down to write a letter to Scotty and a voiceover lets us know that she is in fact Madeline, and that she faked her death as part of a giant illegal plan of which Scotty was only a pawn. She intends to give this letter to Scotty, and then flee, but then she discards it. The scene is only there to let the audience know the jig is up, but this piece of dramatic irony let’s the audience off the hook in the most suspicious and tense points of the film.
There is a better way to go about this, just do as The Leftovers says and “let the mystery be.”
Not being able to solve a problem is what makes real live human beings afraid. The unknown, remember? It’s why people were so obsessed with Serial. The answer feels like it’s obtainable, but it’s never reached.
If you want to scare someone for a long time, don’t spell it out for them like in Vertigo. Instead, take the cue from a different Hitchcock and Stewart Picture.
Rear Window is mostly a fun, thrilling romp about the dangerous of voyeurism and amateur detecting, but it has one incredibly scary moment that can get stuck in your mind.
Jeffries is our hero throughout the whole film, and other than his irrational feelings that he shouldn’t settle down with Grace Kelly, we mostly go along with him. He’s a hero, he is trying to bring a murderer to justice!
But when the murderer comes across the street to confront him, that’s Hitchcock forces us to look at our sick selves for a moment.
The villain of the film is forced to ask “what do you want?”
Jimmy Stewart, our hero, our audience surrogate, doesn’t have an answer. He’s just been snooping, as we have been snooping, for this entire film. The truth is, we don’t know why we are so obsessed with putting our noses where they don’t belong, and for a brief moment, our lack of an answer forces us to shame ourselves as an audience and as people. It’s a cold, scary thought that sticks above the rest of the joy of the film.
There is a clear motive for the hero, to capture the man who committed a crime, but to write something scary there must be a more cerebral motive that can’t be explained. Or if your terror comes from a supernatural base, the less we know about it, the better. Write a script that is scared of the dark, but don’t write in any night lights, force the audience to try to do that themselves at home.
We Must See The Ending of Someone’s World
This doesn’t mean that we need a body count. Most horror film deaths are funny rather than frightening. A lot of horror franchises survive and thrive on how creatively funny they can come up with deaths. This isn’t scary though.
Someone doesn’t need to die for their world to end. Look at Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. She has committed murder and gone crazy in front of many witnesses after being unable to deal with her loss of fame and creeping mortality. Rather than call her crazy though, the people around her continue to enable her to the moment she goes to jail. This scene is tragic, terrible, and the most horrific example of the end of someone’s life that I can think of.
Some of you may not be all about these old films that I’ve been using as examples, so I’ll indulge you a bit and use a more modern example.
At the end of There Will Be Blood, Daniel has lost most everything, and the one thorn in his side coming back to try to claim some of what he thinks he is owed causes him to lose it once and for all. He goes full bad and any good that was there is gone forever. “I drink your milkshake,” is the line that went viral, but the scariest part of this scene is “I’m Finished!” It’s true about his life and his character. Daniel is gone now, and we have someone totally new here to terrorize the Earth.
This goes back to the human aspect of fear. To really be frightened by someone’s story, we have to see them as real so that on the drive home from the show we think to ourselves “that could’ve been me.”
To write a good world ending scene, you have to personify exactly what human conundrum drove the person to this point. In There Will Be Blood there is the opulence of beating someone to death with a bowling pin from your personal bowling alley bought with dirty oil money. In Vertigo there is the first great fever dream in film that cements Scotty as not okay by investigating the images he has seen. In Fears there is Kenrick drowning in a pile of his own fears. Sunset Blvd might have the best example though. Norma Desmond is obsessed with her past life as a movie star and her real life ends when she commits to living in an ongoing motion picture. The world can’t just end. It has to end because of the problem that our hero has ignored.
In the end, fear is really hard to pin down. A high-pitched singer might scare one person, while a candy factory might scare another.
If you want to scare a lot of people, the best way to do it is to hit on a primal human fear. If that doesn’t work, just make someone’s head spin.