The horror movie industry is arguably the most industrious, innovative and generally captivating genre in all of film.
After all, the majority of horror films are fiction. This leaves plenty of room to create imagery of a real world event, and do so in a fictitious setting with scary monsters, zombies, serial killers, and more. Take AMC’s “The Walking Dead” for instance — this is pretty obvious political commentary, where most of the world consists of brain dead zombies (the general populace) and the actual humans left have shown to mostly be hostile, conniving and generally malicious and evil (politicians in general).
Horror movies have mostly done a good job portraying a zeitgeist or, “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time”.
However, there’s more to horror movies than just the background message — the movies themselves have to be entertaining as well. Few people would spend $20 to go attend a simple, boring lecture after all. The expectation when attending a horror movie is that the viewer will be at least disturbed, perhaps excited, left in tension, or all of the above.
Let’s be blunt: most modern day horror movies suck. A lot of them, such as most iterations of “Paranormal Activity” just spend the whole movie throwing listless action and ‘scary’ scenes in your face. Movies like “Unfriended” lack any sort of real depth.
But the biggest crime of all modernized horror films tend to commit is the methods of which they try and scare you.
Films like “Insidious” tend to just try and go right for the jump scare. These periodic jolts of startling the viewer don’t have the sustainability to truly create a scary or memorable experience.
Let’s have a look at a film which did things the right way.
“Jaws” is arguably the greatest horror movie ever made. Why is that? The movie doesn’t show its hand within the first ten minutes like modern films do. In fact, we don’t actually see the shark until well over halfway through the movie. That may seem like it could bore the viewer, but the first half of the movie is spend hyping up the existence of the shark- enacting the fear of “oh crap, this thing’s gonna rip me apart — BUT WAIT, WHERE IS IT?”
Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear out there. If you suspected a serial killer was going to visit your house tonight, I bet you’d be a lot more terrified of them if you had no idea how they planned to break into your house than you would be if you knew their intention was to just kick down the door.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is another example of a masterfully done horror movie. The build up in that movie is incredible, and it makes the actual terror and shock when Leatherface finally arrives all that more meaningful.
In “Unfriended” the killer spends practically the entire film making their presence known and directly interacting with the characters. The movie makes it extremely obvious who’s going to die, when they’re going to die, and tries to toss in a few cheap jump scares to compensate.
“Insidious” had tremendous amounts of potential to try and maintain “fear of the unknown”, and their sequels actually did an okay job at this. Most of the commotion caused by the devils haunting various homes is done when nobody is looking, and is also usually done by an invisible apparition. Bingo, there’s your plot room to hide the antagonist and take the time to build up the hype.
In terms of modern day movies that got it right, look at “The Invisible Man”. As the title clearly suggests, the main antagonist can’t be seen and doesn’t make an immediate presence in the movie. The movie does an okay job at hyping him up, and the very idea that he is invisible and could theoretically be literally anywhere is what causes most of the fear that the movie incites.
To wrap it up, maintaining the fear of the unknown for as long as possible has consistently made for some amazing horror movies. It is very much possible to keep a viewer hooked without throwing cheap blips of a jump scare in their face every ten to fifteen minutes.