It’s summer so there is currently nothing going on in the world of horror so, while I intend to do ‘retro’ reviews a lot of the time I figured I would start by giving some important rules for horror. Now I don’t mean the stupid ones you get in the ‘Scream’ films; I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a horror film in which the black guy dies first (but then I don’t watch many American slasher films as they are balls so maybe that’s where all that stuff is going on) but things which actually make something scary.
So here we have:
Eli Martin’s rules for scaring people.
1) Jumpy is not scary, a film cannot be called scary simply through the feat of startling people. If my dog was to suddenly and unexpectedly bark I would jump but I don’t exactly call it a horrific nightmare, (though her bark is quite piercing). So if I were to ask you, ‘Was that film scary’, and you reply, ‘Yeah it was really jumpy’, I will instantly stop talking to you as you are clearly an idiot. The very worst candidate for this ‘horror’ are the ‘Paranormal Activity’ films and ‘Sinister’ I was told by countless people that these films were scary and as I’m on a constant hunt for things which will stop me sleeping I, like a fool believed them. These films are terrible, they are so slow paced and when something happens it is just a loud noise or a face suddenly looking at you, this is not scary people! You will, maybe jump for a second and it’ll be over. Real fear sticks with you!
2) Suspense and atmosphere are incredibly important to make something scary; it’s what makes the ‘Silent Hill’ games so good. You create a world or a situation that makes people terrified what happens next but here’s the twist something occasionally has to happen. This again is the problem ‘Paranormal Activity’ has, NOTHING HAPPENS you can’t do that people aren’t going to be on the edge of their seats for an entire film unless you give them a reason to be there which that film just doesn’t. Bangs and crashes are about as scary caused by a fluffy kitten as they are caused by the nothingness which haunts that film. But it isn’t just them, so many horror films use the same stupid music to ‘create’ suspense, but anyone who watches horror knows what it means; the screechy violins will play and then abruptly stop when the character reaches something and relaxes because nothing was there and the lo and behold there is the monster/serial killer/ghost right behind them. Horror films are a lot more effective when they don’t have music at all, the audience don’t want to be told when to be scared by a clash of percussion, they want to see something out of the corner of their eye and not know what it is.
3) Over exposure will ruin your entire concept even if you’ve done a brilliant job building up fear. The human imagination is far more terrifying that anything CGI or tons of makeup can create, so let it do its job. Give your audience some credit and let them scare themselves. Obviously you have to give them something to imagine, ‘Paranormal Activity’, I’m looking at you again. This is how the film ‘Mama’ lost me, it had a pretty good build up, we saw shadow and ruined children and thought what’s going on? This could be good, but the last…20 minutes?… of the film just ruined everything with its stupidity. Things are not as shocking as you think they are so let the audience decide what would be scary for them. The same thing goes for gore, it’s unrealistic and it isn’t scary at best it’s a little bit gross don’t rely on it to make your film scary because it just won’t work.
4) Avoid the clichés of horrors past. Even if something was heart attack inducing when we first saw it by the time we’ve seen it 600 times it has lost all effect. No one finds the little girl ghosts and the long black hair coming out of things scary anymore, let it die. The way to scare people if through surprise if you do something unexpected then people are more likely to find it scary. If your audience can tell what’s going to happen before it happens it’s not going to shock them, another reason to drop the crappy horror music. Most horror films have some kind of twist which is good, but only if you’re intelligent about it a twist has to be difficult to figure out in order to be effective. This was the one that redeemed ‘Sinister’ for me, the twist was intelligent, it’s a shame the rest of the thing was written by a bunch of blind monkeys.
5) Mystery is important, which of course links with the last two rules only now we’re talking about plot. Remember horror films are generally at least 15s so idiot children shouldn’t be watching them, so don’t cater for them. Let your audience work things out for themselves. This is kind of a general rule for all films and books and any story really. Keep your audience thinking that way they will be more immersed so when you do subtly shove your ghost into a shot without focusing on it they will notice and wonder what they saw. If your audience switch of from you boring story they won’t notice these things, let them notice and you won’t have to tell them it’s happening with your music. See? All the rules work together. Now again I’m not saying don’t tell them anything ‘Creep’ is the worst film I can think of for this if you don’t give reasons why there would be a weird creepy monster in the underground then people aren’t going to accept it; if they don’t accept it, it won’t scare them. So give clues but don’t solve the puzzle for them.
6) This rule only really applies to horror games but it is so very important that I cannot leave it out. Make your game hard! No matter how scary your monsters may be they aren’t going to scare if we just have a rocket launcher to explode them with now are they? ‘Dead Space’ I’m looking at you. Any game with big guns with which to easily blast things is a shooter, or at best an action game and not a survival horror. Survival horror by definition needs to show a struggle to survive, so your character needs crappy combat abilities or preferably no combat abilities at all. ‘Haunting Ground’, despite having a god awful story is so scary because there is nothing you can do to fight off the things that are chasing you and you just have to hope they don’t find you. The second that music stops (to indicate whoever is chasing you at that time is close) your heart stops and you better run as fast as your unsupported E cups will allow. Amnesia is of course another fine example of this but everyone knows all about that already.
So there you have it. There are of course plenty more important rules on how to make things scary but I feel these are the most important; after all I don’t want to over explain things. (see what I did there). I hope you’ve learned something today and if all else fails you can always sell your terrible film for its comic appeal.
Remember: a chainsaw is an ineffective weapon during a zombie attack; it’s too heavy and chunky and takes way too much valuable fuel, besides you don’t want to get close enough to use it.