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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why I Love Horror Movies

As a 15-year-old horror movie lover and the daughter of a movie freak (sorry, mom but it's true) I have seen a large variety of movies from The Exorcist, to Rosemary's Baby to Saw, to Ju-On, 28 Days Later to The Hills Have Eyes. I’m writing this target audience members view of what makes the movie good to the kids that are actually going to watch it. There are a lot of different things that make up a horror movie. There is the simple horror formula, something that all horror movies need and that can be used without being cheesy and keeping that originality. Another important thing is your subgenre. The subgenre of the movie will define just how the formula works, and how your script can be made into something more than what has been done in the past.

The horror movie formula, (thank you, Scream), is simple. You need at least one survivor, the virgin. They have to be good and wholesome, yet strong enough to eventually face off with the villain. Other characters, especially in teen flicks, need to be drinking beer and being mean and what not, because they will all die. The villain has to be mysterious, but scary at the same time, and somewhat relatable to real life (that makes it a lot scarier). The one thing with the formula is it’s SO hard to take it seriously. I’m laughing while I write it, but honestly, without it, a horror movie just isn’t horror. I think that what some people don’t realize is that horror is definitely not a serious genre. Not that it doesn’t count, but when writing something scary, it’s good to have a little fun with it. Make it a little campy, and you’re giving it more potential. Take the Nightmare on Elm Street series, possibly the campiest series I’ve ever seen (sorry, Robert Englund) yet one of the most popular franchise horrors yet.

The subgenre of the movie is hard to kinda spell out in a blog, so forgive me if I didn’t do it in perfect format. Basically, you have your main subgenres which include Monster movies (the Thing, the Descent, the Wolfman, ect), Slashers and Serial killer movies (Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween) Supernatural (The Ring, The Shining, The Amityville Horror), Zombie, yes it has it’s own subgenre (Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead), Demonic (The Omen, The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), and of course, the small but vibrant category, Vampires (Lost boys, Dracula, Nosferatu). When you know what subgenre of horror you’re writing, it is a lot easier to find guidelines, suggestions, and history on the theme. For instance if you’re making a zombie movie, you need to know the “evolution” of zombies. You need to learn what the difference is between Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later because if you don’t you’ll be WAY behind.

Whenever my mom talks about a horror movie, she always uses the term "the pop-out moment" because you see it a lot in horror movies. This is what some people think of as a crucial thing in horror movies, but actually, if you’ve got a good story, I would not suggest using a lot of pop out moments. Although they startle the audience, the movie is twice as frightening if you can work the fear in without using too much standard stuff like that. My mom and I watched The Orphanage a couple of weeks ago, a horror/thriller with maybe one or two pop-out moments. And the moments were really scary because there were only one or two of them.

The horror movie that has scared me the most out of everything I’ve seen was the first Saw movie. It scared me because while it wasn’t exactly realistic, it was possible. I related to it and that kept me up for nights. There’s the same kinda thing going on with The Strangers and Misery. Is it likely that a random person is going to capture and kill you? No, but the idea that it is possible is a lot scarier than say, The Ring. We know that there is no such thing as a video that kills you, and even though supernatural movies are scary sometimes, the fear goes away quickly because you’re so aware that it’s not real.

Something that people don’t always take into consideration is a memorable villain. Would Halloween be the same without Michael Myers? Probably not. You need somebody that people will think about and make into an icon. You need a characteristic they always have (Jason’s hockey mask, Dracula’s fangs, Leather Face’s chainsaw), The villain also needs a good back story. Basically all Hannibal Lecter Fans know the creepy cannibal psychiatrist’s story, and that goes for any good movie villain. With a good back-story the fan base will build up twice as much. Another thing to do is to make the villain connect with a basic fear. Like fear of the dark, or of something hiding in your closet. Make the viewers remember when they were young and had to sleep with night-lights on.

In the end, if you’re looking to write a horror movie, do your homework. Find your subgenre, watch some previous films similar to yours, use the formula, and have fun with it. And remember that in horror movies, especially supernatural ones, almost anything goes. I hope this was a helpful article and I’ll look forward to seeing some good new horror movies come out!

- Mini W

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JPS said...

Here's one you might really love. Though it's not strictly speaking horror, it's a zombie movie, in fact it's titled "I Walked with a Zombie", and though that sounds idiotic, to say the least, it was made by Val Lewton, the man responsible for "The Cat People", a beautiful little mood piece, and whose films have had a great influence on filmmakers who came after him.

Working with a small budget (and second-hand sets), he was able to achieve his effects with the use of clever lighting and subtle performances.

Recently Martin Scorsese put together a documentary on his work.

Anonymous said...

Horror's not a serious genre? I disagree. I don't think it's taken as seriously as it should be.

Julie Gray said...

Anonymous, this last post was written by and through the perspective of a teenager and for many teenagers, horror movies are FUN like a roller coaster ride. That's why they like to watch them - for the thrill and for the nervous laughter that follows a real scare. I think when you get older and have kids and/or various adult responsibilities and you feel you have a lot to lose in our life, horror is less fun and more cautionary. One could write volumes about this genre; about the misogyny present in so many horror films, about the way that monsters reflect social anxiety, about the way in which horror reflects the zeitgeist (28 Days Later: prime example), etc. It's a fascinating topic. But a great deal of horror is aimed at teenagers and man do those kids pack the theaters for this stuff. So the point of view of a viewer in the target age bracket is valuable and fascinating. Teens don't think of horror movies in the scientific or mathematical way that screenwriters do - they just react. And too, maybe camp (which is not present in all horror, to be sure) somehow makes it okay for teens to digest what they are seeing. I do think that some horror really crosses a line (Hostel, Captivity) and I cheer the (seeming) death of gornography.

Dave "Coyote" Shepherd said...

Psycho had two pop-out moments, in the cellar at the end and when the detective is climbing the stairs.

Other than that it's all suspense.

You need a sense of humor. Humor helps release tension. You can only build tension so high before people will start to unconsciously protect themselves by making witty comments. You need to use humor to reduce tension so that you can build it up a bit higher the next time.

It's like tickling someone. If you don't let up on occasion they stop laughing (and breathing). You need to give the person a chance to catch their breath before tickling them again.

Be careful with backstory too... too much of it is a bad thing, it can dilute the character.

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

Did you get any horror or/and thriller scripts the recent contest?

More horrors than thrillers...?

Julie Gray said...

So far, in the first 100 scripts I have read - yes, you read that number right - I have had a small percentage of horror scripts but I LOVE THEM and they have advanced. Not just because I like the genre but because they are inventive and really fun reads. We had have a large number of dramas and CRASH-type ensembles as well. Haven't seen much in the way of super hero stuff or romcom, interestingly enough.

E.C. Henry said...

Mini W, your post did a great job of things to consider if you're endeavoring to write a horror script, BUT you failed to answer the question posed by your title, "Why I Love Horror Movies."

So why do you like horror movies?

Now, I don't LOVE horror movies per se, but I do go see them occasionally to deep my craft as a screenwriter. I feel that to be a great screenwriter you need to feel confortable using all the emotional colors on palate: comedy, romance, thriller, drama, horror, socil consciousness). Pros mix and match seamlessly.

As a kid the '78 "The Amityville Horror" freaked the shit out of me. And if that wasn't enough, then I watched "Halloween" and got freaked-out yet again. Stayed realitively "freak free" untill I wandered into a multiplex a few years ago and watched "28 Days Later." Still, having nightmares centered arround that one. My point: you need to guard your heart, and be discerning as to what you let your eyes gaze on. As I've found out the hard way, there are reprocussions when you let the wrong things in...

Still, of all the horror movies I've ever watched the one that influenced me the most was Halloween" (1978). For what it is, it was masterfully done, and there's plenty in it to reverse enginer if you're a student of the game.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

dgm said...

Interesting, Mini W. When I was your age, I loooooved horror movies (except for the supernatural subgenre--those have always freaked me out). Now, as a grownup, I cannot stand to watch them because they will give me nightmares for weeks. It's kind of sad, really.

Have you seen "Sean of the Dead"? I loved that because it was deliberately over the top, poking a finger in the eye of zombie movies. But still, I had trouble sleeping after I saw it.

dgm said...

D'oh! I meant to say "Shawn of the Dead."

Diane Stredicke said...

Hey Mini,

Thank you so much for making your contribution to this blog. Your perspective is invaluable. I write horror. And yes, I do have the tendency to take it all too seriously. That is, until I try to tell someone the story, and then I realize how outrageous most of it is. And THAT is why it is so much fun to write and to watch!

Three cheers for Mini.