Now that I’ve survived watching and reviewing the Top 50 Scariest Films of All Time, I thought the whole experience deserved a post-mortem, if you will.
When you spend 50 days – hundreds of hours – immersed in the world of Horror, you begin to see things differently. From an innocently inanimate butcher knife on the kitchen counter, to the neighbor’s cat, to the panel van parked down the street that hasn’t been moved in awhile, the world around you is suddenly filled with potentially sinister intent.
Correctly executed, horror films identify and exploit the most primal, base fears present in a majority of the film going audience. In doing so, horror films provide an invaluable venue for us to safely face our fears, and hopefully, have a little fun doing it.
Action (or inaction by choice) will almost always result in consequence. One of the most used horror film storytelling methods is to describe an unwanted behavior and then show the (almost always negative) result of that behavior. Teenage promiscuity, drinking, and general irresponsibility are usual culprits and in the 70’s and 80’s were an almost certain death sentence for a character found to partaking in them during a horror film.
Good girls finish last. It is true for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and it’s true for Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Staying calm and staying “pure” will almost always ensure a female character’s longevity in a horror film. This is a welcome change to hysteria-prone female protagonists who, somehow, always managed to trip in an open field and fall victim to the film’s villain. This motif almost always speaks to a character’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for others.
Those that stay together don’t get slayed. In other words, don’t split up. Think Friday the 13th, in which, owing to the base, sexual drives of the teenage camp counselors, everyone splits up and eventually almost all of them perish. Staying together works for the survivors in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Frank Darabont’s The Mist. This is a common theme and one that is often ignored by the film’s characters much to the audience’s chagrin, leaving them to audibly plea “Don’t split up!”
Occasionally, bad things happen to good people. This is typically the case in supernatural or paranormal horror films. To inject the illusion of choice, so the character must make a decision to act or not to act, which is necessary for creating culpability because it heightens tension, some characters are presented with opportunities. These opportunities present the character with simple choices that may ultimately change their fate. Familiar examples range in scope from the opportunity evacuate an affected area (The Amityville Horror) to the simple decision as to whether or not to turn on the lights (Paranormal Activity). These choices ultimately help to decide which character deserves what they get.
Be afraid of the dark. That’s where everything lurks. From Michael Myers, to Buffalo Bill, to the xenomorph in Alien, you can rest assured that the filmmakers have put something in the shadows, just beyond the light, and they’re biding their time waiting for the right moment to reveal it. The fear of the unknown is universal. Especially powerful thanks to our imaginations, it’s a screen onto which we are invited to project our own worst fears. What makes a horror film truly great is when what lurks in the dark is actually worse than anything we could have ever imagined on our own. In this sense, we not only face our own fears but get another step closer to conquering our fear of the unknown.
I want to hear from you! What are your favorite horror film elements? What do you hate when it happens in a horror film? And, most importantly, what’s your favorite horror film?