Building Better Horror

Want to make spooky things? Make them right!


“THE OCTOBER COUNTRY …that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…”

-Ray Bradbury, The October Country


It’s October, and we’re being greeted once again  by Pumpkin Spice everything and a gaggle of new horror film and television. I’m sure I’ll be assaulted by facebook lists of how *this* year pumpkin spice has gone too far, and no we don’t need seasonal pumpkin spiced enchiladas or cheeseburgers, but no one is going to step up and cry out against the endless barrage of tired, boring, derivative horror. You see, the two go hand in hand, horror is the pumpkin spice of genres and dammit it should be better than this. This month we are going to be treated to no less than three additions to existing horror franchises on top of a Blair Witch sequel. And I thought I could be done with having to take dramamine before going to the movies. Did anyone want a third American The Ring film? A second Ouija? A Fifth Underworld?

I understand the sequel problem is an epidemic in Hollywood. It’s certainly not just limited to horror, and  if handled well, mega franchises can actually put out some excellent things. But in horror there’s a secondary problem: it’s cheap. The first two movies I mentioned above have budgets under $10 million dollars. In Hollywood money that is ridiculously low. It costs $40 million just to make Robert Downey jr put on an Iron Man suit. This makes horror something studios usually see as being profitable, and thus, something to keep as cheap as possible to maximize cash. It also makes the genre attractive for new directors, as they can usually get something off the ground easily. Steven Spielberg, Chris Nolan, James Gunn, David Fincher, all got their start making horror. Not everyone can be one of those guys, and that’s fine. But the vast majority of horror suffers from the same illness as it’s light-hearted sibling, the romantic comedy: god-awful writing.

Admittedly I have one specific complaint. It’s a stylistic choice to be sure, and I’m sure there are many out there who disagree, but if it was addressed I think horror would be ten times better. Most horror movies don’t make you afraid. There is literally no fear coming out of these movies. It’s like they’re playing a symphony with aggressive the drums and shrill flutes. There are missing pieces. So instead of telling you what Pumpkin Spice items are worth your time (River City Pumpkin Ale if you’re wondering) I want to tell you what I’ve learned about fear, and how we can build better horror stories.

What Fear Isn’t

Back to the flute and drum I was talking about. Most horror films in recent memory don’t give us Fear so much as one of two things: shock or disgust. Disgust is the domain of your recent gross-out gore fests: Human Centipede, Saw, Hostel. You’re not really feeling fear when you watch these movies, you’re feeling the dread of having to watch something gross. You can probably think of even more examples of gross-out, torturous horror and really when you think about these things, what they’re really doing is giving you a cheap fear alternative. To be fair some good movies use this and I will say for them that these kind of horror movies are the realm of some of the best makeup artists in the film business. There are some really amazing technical achievements to be lauded, the transformation scene from An American Werewolf in London for example.

On the other hand, your PG-13 horror mainly deals in the other side of the coin: surprise. Surprise is fear’s short-term, fast burning cousin, your stereotypical jump-scares. These are pretty much only good for ten seconds of shock, the equivalent of your sister jumping out from behind the shower curtain while you brush your teeth. Not that I’d know anything about that. I certainly don’t need to give an example of this if you’ve seen any horror movie trailer ever. You’re being scared, but it’s kind of in a cheap, unearned way. Drums and flute don’t make a symphony, and you can’t make someone feel afraid with surprise and disgust alone. You at the very least need the strings, and it’s a rare fright when someone breaks them out.

Simpler and More Powerful

“The fears of children were simpler and usually more powerful.”

-Stephen King, It

We don’t allow ourselves to be afraid as adults. We’re always trying to remain in control, to put on a brave face, or to rationalize through our fear to find courage. When we were children however, we didn’t have these skills yet, so we could find ourselves wallowing in an ocean of irrational, unbelievable fear. There didn’t have to be a reason for it, and it didn’t have to make sense. I put forth the proposition that nothing makes you more afraid than a fear that makes no sense, and that is why we could be so afraid of stories as children. If you want a good example of real, honest fear, I only need to look back to every Saturday night on Nickelodeon, when my parents determined that this show was perfectly fine for me to watch:

If you grew up in the 90s, I dare you to walk out of your house tonight, and down to the end of the block after watching that. You won’t get to turning off the house lights. Are You Afraid of the Dark? was the kids equivalent of The Twilight Zone and I do not know one person who watched this show who doesn’t have an episode they hate to this day. And yet, when I bring over my DVDs, there’s always someone who whispers, “Do you have the one where…” because they want to to be scared like a kid again. Perhaps like me you used to spend an hour or so scared unnerved by shadow people from The Tale of the Super Specs.


Or maybe you spent the night curled up under a blanket worried about Zebo the Clown from The Tale of Laughing in the Dark.



It’s still in some ways just as scary as it was when you were a kid. That kind of fear is still there in the back of your head, waiting to be unleashed again, and remind you of the things that never stop being frightening: being alone, and helpless. It’s definitely not fun feeling these things for real, but when you get a piece of fiction that really gets it, nothing makes a more perfect horror movie. They might use disgust, they might use surprise, but the real, overwhelming emotion of any perfect horror movie is the same irrational fear that makes us all a little bit afraid of the dark.


I hadn’t felt this in years, it had been a while since I’d watched Are You Afraid of the Dark? And the other movies that used to terrify me had become my halloween staples, but then one night I sat alone in my room, at 2am and I put on an episode of Doctor Who that I hadn’t seen before:

“Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast, faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and don’t blink.”

Now if you haven’t seen “Blink”, stop reading this and go watch it, now. No I will not recap it for you. Back? Good. Now maybe it wasn’t as scary for you, maybe it was because I was watching it alone on my laptop. Maybe it was because I had an Angels and Demons tie in calendar on my wall that featured all angel statues. (My sister worked at movie theatre.) Or maybe it was because the monsters in Blink have rules that sound just like the kind I would have come up with as a child. When I watched that episode I remembered watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? It’s been my favorite episode of Doctor Who ever since.

So after all this what’s the point? The point is we can build better horror, we can make stories that chill the spine and make everyone want to run away, until they come crawling back for more. And luckily for us as consumers there is better horror out there, you just have to know where to look.

Laughing in the Dark

These recommendations aren’t going to include a few things, for the simple reason that most people have heard of them before. The Shining for instance, has plenty of wonderfully suspenseful moments. Psycho, of course does as well. Generally if something is considered a horror classic I’m going to leave it out. But there are a few new and not-so-well-known things out there that will have you looking over your shoulder until you’re ready to go back again. I’m also going to stay away from horror-comedy, basically because everyone tells you to watch those.

It Follows

Last year’s critical darling, about a curse passed along through sex. Once you have it, a creature will be following you, all the time, no matter what, until you pass it along to someone else. Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell uses some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in any film of the past few years. And the trailer only gives you a brief taste of the amazing synthesizer soundtrack. Upon further viewings you get past the std smokescreen and see it for its real thoughtful messages about growing up and mortality. Not to mention if you show it to a room full of grown adults you get to watch them looking through their fingers while they whisper, “Ohshitohshitohshit.”


Marble Hornets

If you think found footage is awesome, give this a try. If you really want to get the full effect, watch this on your laptop or your phone, with headphones. I wouldn’t recommend trying to watch it with friends. Marble Hornets is an immersive YouTube channel that presents itself as being video footage from a friend’s abandoned film project, which very soon becomes something very, very sinister. There’s a whole tie in channel and a new (unrelated) series out now, so you have plenty of material.

Alice Isn’t Dead

Sometimes you don’t even need video to be totally creeped out. Joseph Fink, one of the creators of my beloved Welcome to Night Vale recently teamed up with Fringe’s Jasika Nicole and composer Disparition to produce this amazing, creepy tale about finding America and your dead wife while avoiding being devoured by inhuman monsters. If you want to know about horror elegance Fink is working at here, he tells you someone is a monster simply by what they eat, and you do not question it. It’s all free, but if you like it, throw them some money so they can make Season 2.

So there it is, my giant horror opus. Horror can be better, and it’s already out there for you to find. I think that if more creative people put their minds to horror, it can have the same kind of genre renaissance that sci-fi has had. So go watch, listen to, or write some good horror, and stay tuned later this month for when I catalog a whole section of the worst of it: Every terrible version of Frankenstein.