What makes a good horror film?

By Jay Krieger

Brad Pitt in the 1995 thriller “Se7en”

My opinion:
Horror (noun)
An overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear.
Growing up most of us couldn’t sleep with the lights off or without completely concealing ourselves – even during scorching summers- in our blankets. If we didn’t do these things the monsters would surely get us. Monsters taking the form of thousand-year-old Transylvanian men that drank human blood, or shambling corpses that had risen from the dead, hungry for human flesh. But in the end it didn’t really matter what form these monsters took. It was more about the fact that these monsters’ sole purpose was “to get us”, though we were never sure what “get us” actually consisted of. While most outgrew nightlights and fortification walls made of cloth, that sense of fear still lingers inside all of us. While we’ve all grown up, that sense of the unknown and mystery behind monsters and horror films still unnerves most film goers.
But what makes a horror film memorable? What makes a horror film stand out from the laundry list of b-horror films and cheap cash-ins that are released every year? Typically, most people find films that have monsters jumping out at characters (jump scares) as the most frightening. Personally, I find these scares temporary adrenaline pumping fixes, as the scene made me jump, but chances are, if memory serves me well, that scene and the initial illusion of fear are gone. This also applies to the recent surge in films that fall into the Splatter category of horror, such franchises as “Hostel”, “Saw”, and the most recent and bizarre film, “The Human Centipede”,  have capitalized on audience members’ love of over-the-top gory content. These are the types of films that I don’t take much away from besides, “wow, that was gross.” There isn’t a lot of lasting, or memorable, substance to these films.
Shot taken from the 1999 horror film “Audition”

This is why I’m partial to psychological horror films, as these are the types of films that I leave the theatre thinking about long after the credits have rolled. Sometimes the most frightening films aren’t the ones that’s focus is based on the amount of on-screen gore, rather the state of a person’s psyche. A film that examines the sanity, or lack thereof, in a character, that makes the audience think, “Are there really people like this out there?” Films like “American Psycho”, “Se7en”, and “Audition” are films that come to mind when examining the horrific acts that a “normal” person may or not be capable of. These aren’t films that scared me based on the countless murders and mutilations; rather, they left me fearing the common man/women. The idea that the person sitting in the theater next to you is capable of a despicable act, such as murder, and you wouldn’t know it by looking at them is truly a frightening thing and to the film’s credit, makes you question humanity.
An example of a television show that embodies this notion of fearing the capabilities of humanity is AMC’s “The Walking Dead”. The show follows a band of survivors during a zombie apocalypse, and while initially the zombies are the only threat, that quickly changes. The real antagonists of the show are other survivors and the lengths they’ll go (or have gone to) to survive becomes apparent. People are unpredictable and most, when faced with an apocalyptic scenario, wouldn’t think twice about gunning you down for a bottle of water.
Regardless of the plethora of ways to scare viewers, it’s undeniable that cultures around the world have a fascination with bringing peoples worst fears to life on the silver screen. I think our obsession with recreating one of the darkest and worst emotions a person can feel really says something about our society, and only reinforces my enjoyment of horror films that analyze “normal” people and their frightening capabilities.
I spoke with some of my roommates about what elements of a horror film stand out to them.
Junior, Kyle Madej:
“There are a lot of things that make horror films frightening, but for me it’s not the typical scary monsters and villains. That stuff just isn’t scary to me, but the stuff that truly terrifies me are movies where people become possessed by spirits or the devil. The thought of someone having no control over their body or actions is a truly frightening feeling. To be honest, I don’t really like horror films, but the ones I have seen that stand out to me are“The Shining” and the “Last Exorcism”.
Junior, Sean Gravel:
“What I think makes a horror film standout is the essence of fear itself; as the movie has got to make people jump or startled by what’s going on, on screen. I feel a horror movie is best when it’s based around a person, creature, or an event that could actually happen in real life because it makes a person consider and ponder, “what if this really did happen?” Thinking about a movie of which the events could unfold in reality , is much more effective at striking fear into viewers, as the events on screen are actually plausible, more so than some fantasized monster going around tearing people apart. Movies such as “Friday the 13th” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, just to name a few, are the type of movies I’m talking about. The reality is that there could be a serial killers out there , dawning a hockey masks and machetes or faces of dead victims for masks with a chainsaw and hunting people down and killing them. These types of atrocities have been happening long before horror films ,which makes fear in these horror movies truly frightening.
In conclusion, what makes horror movie really frightening is the fact that it has to be based on some realism and not something completely outside the realm of possibility, such as monsters or demons coming to life and engaging in a killing spree.”
Junior, Christine Puza:
“It takes a lot for a horror movie to actually affect me. Recently I saw Sinister in theaters, and it was by far the greatest horror film I’ve seen since I was in 5th grade and saw The Ring for the first time. Not only was the plot strong, but the jumpiness throughout was overwhelming. When it comes to scary movies, jumpy scenes are my favorites. A little bit of gore is good, but if you can make me squeal out of fear, you’re doing something right.”