What Makes Effective Horror?

Yesterday I found a clip on YouTube that was described as a "mega edit" of multiple phone conversations all put together. Recently I had watched another mega edit where every club scene was put together in a roughly eight-minute video. Curious, I watched it. It was well put together although I don't think it had the desired effect. However one clip caught my attention.

"The call is from inside the house. He's inside the house!"

I was immediately interested and quickly searched the quote on Google and found that it was from the original When a Stranger Calls. Doing a bit of research I found that it was based on the urban legend called "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs". Now with social media such as Facebook and with alternative ways of communicating through emails and texting, urban legends are fair easier to share. I have heard different versions of "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs" ranging from the man being dressed as a clown sitting in the corner to even one featuring a Weeping Angel from Doctor Who (and I'm not kidding about that). Despite that I had been told the story before, reading about it and the different versions creeped me out.

I remembered being home alone when I was younger and the instinctive fear that someone might be lurking in the house, unseen, had kicked in plenty of times. Of course I quickly used logic and the fear went away but nevertheless, the fear had once been there. Last year I had the house to myself for a week when my family went on holiday and even in my 20's there was always that nagging thought in the back of my head that kept reminding mew that I might not actually be alone. All this has made me ask an interesting question. 

What makes an effective horror story?

In my review of the first seven episodes of the MTV Scream I mentioned that although some of my favourite films are horror (specifically slasher) that I'm not an actual fan of the genre. Why? Because it's usually lazy as a genre- or at least the filmmakers are. How can I say that? Because horror goes through phases. There will be one film that does something interesting, is successful and then is followed by a series of copycats.

In 1978, John Carpenter gave us Halloween, and while it wasn't the first slasher film, it did bring it to the mainstream audience. Before Halloween there had been Peeping TomBlack Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all famous, well received and, in the case of Peeping Tom, highly controversial, but neither of them had the lasting impact of Halloween and this shows in the rip-offs or in this case one in particular, Friday the 13th. The 80's were full of slasher films and the one series that released films almost annually was Friday the 13th. While the original film managed to stand on its own with its own identity, the sequels are almost carbon copies of Halloween: teens being stalked by a masked killer. It's nothing new now and in fact its a staple of the genre, but Halloween was the one that made it popular. Soon Nightmare on Elm Street arrived and while it wasn't a rip-off, it was made due to the sudden spike in popularity of the genre. The 80's was very much the slasher era of horror.

The 90's was what I call the Scream-era. Although it's an extension of the slasher era, Scream was the film that made it popular again. Before Scream the genre was in the toilet. People had grown tired of the genre and Scream revived it. What followed were rip-offs of Scream with Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend. The early 2000's were the supernatural era with The Grudge and The Ring. It didn't last long and was swiftly followed by the torture-porn era and the remake era. We had to suffer through endless Saw sequels, Hostile, direct-to-DVD Wrong Turn sequels and sit through terrible remakes of classic slasher films.

Now we seem to be in the era of "found footage". While it's not exclusive to just the horror genre, it is being utilised by horror filmmakers more and more because it's a cheap way of making films and can easily triple its budget. One film even took place entirely on a computer screen! But what all the eras have in common is that they have a film that starts it all because its fresh and it makes a last impact. Slasher era: Halloween, Scream-era: Scream (duh), supernatural: The Ring, Torture-porn: Saw, Remakes: Halloween and Found Footage: Paranormal Activity.

But why are they so effective?

Halloween very much deals with the idea that there might be a stranger in your house while you're all alone. It's a natural fear and everyone can relate to it. Nightmare on Elm Street plays on the fear of dying in your sleep. Everyone has heard the story of "if you hit the ground when you fall in your dream then you die" and it's an idea that can easily be exploited because everyone has had that falling sensation.

Scream's tagline is "Someone's taken their love for scary movies one step too far" and that explains its hook. Media is so quick to blame films and video game violence for people's actions that its easy to fall in that mind set or to believe there is someone who would genuinely take what they see and try to recreate it. That's even the underlining theme of Scream 2. One of the two killers want to create a real-life sequel to the movie-in-a-movie and then blame cinema violence. 

When it comes to the Torture-Porn era it's based on the fear of acts of extreme brutality. The media is so focused on reporting news of violence that it's understandable why horror filmmakers would take advantage of it. While we've thankfully never seen anything to the level of Saw it's still an ongoing topic even today, especially after recent extremist attacks on soldiers in public places. 

Found footage films are meant to given you a sense of immersion in the story. Everything is meant to feel authentic, from the sounds and lighting. While this was effective in The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity it's a genre that quickly overstayed its welcome, especially since it quickly felt unnatural in the string of PA sequels and film makers used it as a cheap filming method while also adding in cliché elements like jump scares and even non-diegetic sound (e.g. adding in a soundtrack) that take the viewer out of the story. Despite the genre outstaying its welcome with reviewers and die-hard horror fans, its still a profitable genre thanks to casual viewers who go in knowing it'll be a bad film. Plenty of people go into films knowing they'll be terrible just to laugh at them. I openly admit that I've watched all the Sharknado the day they first aired, although admittedly it was with friends, junk food and alcohol.

Despite certain types of horror films managing to continue to make money and sequels (Saw somehow managed to get to seven films), audiences are always seeking fresh content. This year we had the surprise of having It Follows and Goodnight Mommy both land in cinemas, although with limited release. Both were welcomed warmly by the critics and horror community. Goodnight Mommy was even labelled of having the scariest trailer ever, and I understand why. I watched the trailer at ten in the morning in a brightly lit room and I was genuinely unsettled by it- after I got over just how amazing the cinematography was. I'm not kidding. My first thought was how good the cinematography was, quickly followed by "OH MY GOD THAT IS CREEPY!!!" but it then reminded me of something else from my past. I remember being taken to school and saying goodbye to my mum. Once she was out of sight I then had a sudden thought: what if the mum that picks me up isn't the mum that dropped me off? What if parents were actual like robots and they were swapped over to recharge? It's a stupid thought in hindsight but at the time it was something that I actually considered and it genuinely frightened me.

Goodnight Mommy has a story where two little boys are convinced that the woman living with them is not their real mother. She went off for facial surgery and comes back with her entire head completely bandaged up. Just the look of her is creepy enough, especially when she gives them a cold dead look. Her eyes, which are pretty much all that we see, are scary as hell. We're meant to believe that they could actually be living with a complete stranger, and that is a terrifying thought and it's one that I once had. It was relatable.

Moving on from films, a great example of good horror is surprisingly a number of Doctor Who episodes from Steven Moffat, most noticeably the episode "Listen". It was an episode that dealt with a familiar theme: what if someone is watching us? The episode was dimly lit, had a creepy atmosphere and is left completely ambiguous. We never get an answer. We're given possible explanations throughout the episode for certain events, such as a knocking somewhere in the space ship just being the pipes cooling but the bit that was properly chilling was so simple that some people would scoff at the idea of it being scary. A little boy called Rupert is scared that there is something under his bed so Clara tries to calm him down by going under the bed and tells him to go under too so he can see that there's nothing to be scared of.

They're hiding under the bed and she confidently tells him "there's nothing to be afraid of" and in that moment something sits on the bed and the mattress lowers. Clara questions Rupert if someone entered the room and he says no. They climb under the bed and someone is sitting directly in the middle of the bed with a blanket over them. They say nothing despite being questioned as to who they are. Clara asks if its just another boy from the orphanage trying to scare Rupert. No reply. The Doctor arrives and tells them to look away from it and to pretend its not there. They turn away and the figure gets off the bed and stands behind them, still completely silent. The blanket is removed but we never get a clear look as to who or what it is. It was an episode that was centred on the idea of something being under the bed that grabs your ankle when you go to get out of bed. Again, this is something most people have thought of. It's a common fear.

After the release of my novel, I asked people what their favourite scene was and surprisingly most said the same thing: the horror scene in the library. It was described as terrifying and really scary. I was confused at first. Even though I did include horror elements in the story, it was never intended to actually be that scary. I'm not an expert in writing horror. I'm far too early in my writing career to say that but I know what is scary and what is effective. Horror films now believe that huge amounts of gory violence and jump scares makes an effective horror movie, but it doesn't. I watched the trailer for The Women in Black 2 and there was only one part that creeped me out and it was the bit where a child is looking up at a hole in the ceiling and he thinks he can see a hand sticking out. In the trailer it is completely silent. The boy looks up, we see the hole and the hand...and then it moves and disappears into the darkness.

In my library scene I tried to play on basic fears. There is a part where they're travelling through a completely dark tunnel. Lucy and Scott use their wands to light their way but Jewel falls behind and is left alone in complete darkness. Then she starts feeling hands grab her. Later they're in a small corridor and, in what was a homage to Nightmare on Elm Street, the walls start moving. Again, this is a basic fear. There have been many stories of someone being murdered and then hid in the wall or someone moving along the other side of the wall to move about the house and to either kidnap or kill someone.

It Follows, although not actually strictly saying that this is what it is about, is very similar to a stalker situation. The entity in It Follows can take any shape and look like anyone. It, as the title suggests, follows you. Scream Queen Danielle Harris said in an interview that she had a stalker, but she has no idea what he looks like. She has never seen him and, although she has a restraining order on him, that he could turn up to any of the horror conventions she attends to get an autograph and she wouldn't even know it was him. The idea of someone following you is again something many people have thought of. Many people walking home at night have had that feeling when someone is walking behind them. Some people even have it when they have a car that seems to be following them when they're driving.

Horror is most effective when its relatable. I will always say that Halloween was more effective than Texas Chainsaw Massacre because Michael Myers started out as a normal man in a mask. He was surprisingly durable and acted as an almost unstoppable force but he was a still a man. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured an entire family of cannibals and while it wouldn't surprise me if there were at least one strange family like that somewhere, its not something we actually worry about. I don't sit at home thinking "Wow. I really hope I don't run into a cannibalistic family" but I have been known to worry that someone might sneak into my home when I'm asleep.

The one horror film that has had a lasting impact is a horror film that I'm surprised to find isn't even considered a horror film anymore and that's Jaws. As a kid I loved the ocean. My childhood film was Free Willy and every year I would go to Tenerife and go swimming in the ocean. I went on a boat trip to see dolphins. Then I watched Jaws and I haven't been able to go in the ocean since. I get up to my waist and that's it. I have to get out because I fall into a state of near panic. Ironically my favourite animal and the one I fear the most are both from the ocean and that is most probably why it had such a lasting impact on me.

I keep saying this but it was effective because it was relatable and even more so than the possibility of having a masked mass murderer arriving in my house. In my mind I could have easily been Alex Kintner and let's just say that even now I'm determined to never let that happen!