As a fantasy and horror author who used to tour a lot before the plague ruined everything, I’ve sat on a lot of horror panels. I’ve fielded hundreds of questions from horror fans all over the US.
The one question I get asked more than any other also happens to be one of the most complex questions out there: what actually makes something scary? Whether it be a book or a movie or something else altogether, what does it? What gets the blood pumping?
I’ve heard a lot of great answers over the years from my panel comrades. I’m a huge horror fan myself, so I’ve come up with a few of my own answers, but more often than not, I find myself going back to the same explanation.
The problem is: I don’t really have a good word for it. Instead, allow me to explain with a movie.
The Horror of Horror
I like to think I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, though I know some of my friends like Michael Knost, Michael West, and Mike Leon (why are all horror writers named Mike?) could easily put my movie knowledge to shame. Regardless, it is fair to say I’ve seen a lot and the same one stands out over and over no matter what else I watch.
Directed by Scott Derrickson—the genius behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose, another all-time favorite—and released in 2012, Sinister was one of the first horror movies that genuinely scared the absolute shit out of me. Years later, probably after I watched the somewhat lackluster sequel, I sat down, watched the movie again, and really tried to figure out why the movie had such a lasting effect on my mind.
What Makes Sinister So Good?
Firstly, the run time won’t kill you. Under two hours, it keeps a fast pace and can hold your attention better than The Exorcist or any of the four It movies.
Secondly, Sinister generally lacks a soundtrack. That took me more than one viewing to realize, and when I did, I understood the power of having an understated score. The scariest scenes are quiet. They’re so quiet that your own breathing tends to be the only thing you hear. If not music, we’re given some kind of low drone that is beyond unsettling. If you’ve seen Sinister, you know that the real scares take place when the protagonist watches Super 8 film reels in his office. Super 8 was originally a silent film format, and Sinister maintains their lack of audio. Quieting the soundtrack is a great way to force the audience to pay closer attention, to lean in and really listen.
And thirdly, going back to those creepy Super 8 films: they are just perfect. Sure, the infamous “Lawnmower Scene” relies purely on jump scare, but all in all, the film doesn’t use nearly as many jump scares as most other horror. What makes the Super 8 films so perfect is epitomized in the “Pool Party” scene. The footage is presented differently to most other found footage (with the sole exception being the birthday party footage from 2002’s Signs); it isn’t blurry or too dark or obfuscated in any other way. You see the horrific murders take place in the open, right before your eyes. There’s no second guessing, nothing to miss by quickly glancing away, and no way to avoid the sheer horror the characters are experiencing. You just have to sit there on your couch and watch.
By the end of the movie, you’ve witnessed half a dozen horrific murders, all presented more or less in similar fashion. The scenes are handed to the viewer without window dressing, given over for immediate consumption, which makes the horror that much more realistic. It lets everyone watching connect to the trauma on a personal level in a way that no slasher monster could ever achieve.
What Makes Something Actually Scary?
There isn’t one answer. I don’t think anyone could confidently put their finger on one answer. But, for me, what makes something scary, the answer, has to be somewhere in the presentation.
Present the horror well, and the human mind will flick that little switch in the amygdala that floods us with anxiety. To get that masterful presentation, you can’t rely on jump scares; you need something the viewer can actually see, comprehend, and understand; you need to eliminate possible distractions like nudity (looking at you, old school slasher movies) or an over-the-top soundtrack. And, like the news footage in Signs, you need to show the monster for more than a split second. Show it out in the open. Let the viewer know deep down what’s happening.
And rest assured, Sinister isn’t the only movie that gets it right. In my quest to be scared to actual death by a movie, I’ve found a few others that hit the mark fairly well. I can confidently recommend A Quiet Place (my personal favorite in the sensory deprivation subgenre), Oculus, Gothika, Dark Skies (probably my second favorite horror movie behind Sinister), and Seven.
Stuart Thaman is the international best-selling author of a handful of different series. He writes epic fantasy, LitRPG, horror, a little sci-fi, and more. Check out www.stuartthamanbooks.com for more!