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What makes a film scary

Why do some horror films stay with you days after you watched them, haunting you, while others are gone from you’re mind when you leave the cinema? If you take a lot of horror movies these days, they don’t actually scare. They shock you.

When we were all younger I used to scare my cousins. ‘Scream’ had just come out and we had the mask from the movie. I remember waiting patiently for my younger cousin and sister to be playing innocently, before jumping out from behind the door, shouting, and making them jump. This would shock them, like many horror movies these days do – with a sudden jolt of music or a figure jumping out. I wasn’t scaring my cousins, as these films don’t scare their audiences. They simply screamed and then laughed. So I shocked them momentarily.

Shock is defined as an unexpected, intense, and distressful experience that has a sudden and powerful effect on somebody’s emotions or physical reactions. It doesn’t stay with the individual though, and after one shock is exposed in a lame horror, another will come soon after with another burst of loud music.

I did however scare my cousin and younger sister another time. This time, instead of jumping out, I appeared in the doorway behind them (again wearing the mask), were they were playing and simply stood there, watching them in silence. They soon both felt my presence and turned, to which they started to laugh. I simply stood there though. After a minute, their laughter subsided into pleads of “stop it!” and their laughter was replaced by terror, and in the end racking sobs and trembling. So now that I’ve made myself sound like a cruel freak, I’ll get back to my point. This time they were frightened, they were terrified. I’d scared them. It took them about an hour to calm down even after I’d removed the mask and they were in on the joke. Scared is defined as a feeling full of worry or fear.

So when people leave a cinema after watching a horror and say “That was so scary, I jumped like five times!” They weren’t scared – they were shocked, so much so, they usually laugh after they jump - at their own silliness. This isn’t scaring someone. You know when you’ve seen a really good scary movie, because you can’t get the images from that film out of your head for days, you want to sleep with the light on. It gets to you on a primal level.

The last film that really creeped me out was ‘The Grudge’, it stayed with me after the cinema, and I had to leave the light on that night after watching it. A film that has always creeped me out and still does, is ‘The Exorcist.’ I can’t watch that film alone; I tried once and quickly ran up the stairs after witnessing Regan’s spider-walk for the first time, turning off the TV on my way. ‘The Exorcist’ really got to people, people had to leave the cinema, people became obsessed with the idea it was cursed, that the film itself was evil. This is an extreme case, but still, it did what horror should do. It haunted the audiences.

More examples: Just like ‘Jaws’ did to beaches and swim fans, ‘The Ring’ did to VHS and TVs. ‘The Ring’ struck an emotional cord with audiences, it left people sleepless at night and scared to be alone. When Samara crawled through the TV set, it was unexpected, but not jump- like shocking. That sequence was truly a terrifying moment on film that the movie had been building up-to throughout, and it left people in the theatre screaming in genuine fear. It had scared them.

There is a difference between shocking an audience and scaring them, and people don’t seem to see the difference enough. That’s not to say that a good horror won’t have shocks, because it will, but it will mostly count on the building sense of dread and horror.

So next time you watch a horror movie, ask yourself did it really scare you? Did it freak you out? Is it going to stay with you? Or did it simply make you jump a lot? A true horror fan will know the difference between these two horror types, and will respect the genre and films that scare you, much more than the ones which simply make you jump for a moment.






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Content copyright © 2013 by Steven Casey Murray. All rights reserved.
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