5 Things That Make A Horror Movie Genuinely Scary

5 Things That Make A Horror Movie Genuinely Scary
Image: Universal
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Coming into Halloween you might feel like watching a scary movie. There’s no shortage of options for your horror-viewing pleasure, but what should you look for if you’re after a genuinely scary experience?

A lot of research has gone into what makes for a legitimately chilling horror movie. Many have tried and failed to do it, and as such, the market has become saturated with reboots, sequels and re-tellings of things that once incited fear in audiences.

To help cut through the masses of movie options this Halloween, we spoke to an expert in all things horror.

Dr Adam Daniel has a doctorate in film and media and is also a skilled writer and filmmaker specialising in the horror genre. When it comes to what makes a good horror film, he said it’s a subjective experience.

“I think there are many elements that contribute to a genuinely scary experience, and they are also very subjective. If there is some universality it would be around watching representations of death, illness, and bodily harm – all things we are genetically hardwired to fear outside of film watching.”

It may seem strange but there are plenty of reasons people are drawn to seeing terrifying acts on screen. If you’re part of the percentage of people that enjoys having the shit scared out of you by a movie, you don’t want to waste your time with a film that can’t deliver.

Here are some qualities that make up a good horror film and which ones do it the best, according to an expert.

What makes a good horror movie genuinely scary?

1. The creation of dread and tension

the ring horror movies
MacDonald/Parkes Productions

Two core elements that make up any good horror are dread and tension, Dr Daniel explained over email.

“Dread to me is one of the most powerful emotions horror can create. Tension is of course a central part of that equation. Dread draws the viewer into the film, immersing them in the world of the character. It’s a different emotion from direct horror, in that it’s all about expectations of what is coming, both for the characters and for the viewer.”

One film that does this well is The Ring (2002).

“The ticking-clock of The Ring’s narrative conceit – watch a haunted videotape and seven days later you will die – infects the film with escalating tension. The Ring is a masterclass in the slow-build.”

Watch The Ring on Stan.

2. Blurring of reality and unreality

hell house llc horror movie
Image: Cognetti Films

There’s a reason the found footage genre has become so popular in horror and it’s all to do with that blurring of the lines between what is fact and fiction.

As a fan of the found footage genre, Dr Daniel said he fondly remembered the genuine questions raised by the marketing campaign of The Blair Witch Project.

“Nowadays viewers are, of course, much more savvy to the tropes of the genre, but there is still a real joy in leaning into the constructed reality and watching these films as if they were real artefacts,” he said.

Dr Daniel pointed to Hell House LLC as a film that does this particularly well by making the audience feel like they’ve stumbled into a real haunted house.

Watch Hell House LLC on Amazon Prime Video.

3. What is left unseen

Image: Universal Pictures

Sometimes a scary movie doesn’t need to show us the monster to incite fear.

“Horror film, as a genre, has a long history of manipulating the viewer through the unseen (although sometimes heard) presence of the monster.” Dr Daniel said.

“The unseen taps into the ‘push-pull’ of the desire to look versus our fear in doing so. For me, some of the best horror films are those that strategically withhold the monster, allowing our imaginations to conjure more terrifying bogeymen.”

Jaws is a perfect example of this, which as Dr Daniel explained, was actually helped by production issues with the mechanical shark. This forced the director, Steven Spielberg, to emphasise what we couldn’t see under the water for large parts of the film.

Watch Jaws on Stan or Amazon Prime Video.

4. Strong identification with the protagonist(s)

the exorcist
Image: Warner Bros.

You can have all the jump scares in the world but a horror film is worthless unless you actually care about a character’s survival.

“It’s difficult to create fear and tension if the audience doesn’t care about the characters at the heart of the story,” Dr Daniel said. “The stronger our identification, the more we are willing to vicariously go into the darkest places with these characters.”

For this one, he referenced an all-time classic: The Exorcist (1973).

“The power of the exorcism sequence resides not just in the groteseque and intense transformation of the possessed Regan MacNeil, but more so in the audience’s deep empathy for the once-innocent Regan, her anguished mother Chris, and for the conflicted Father Karras whose waning faith makes him a vulnerable combatant in the battle with the Devil.”

Watch The Exorcist (1973) on Netflix.

5. The irrational and intangible nature of the supernatural

Image: Universal

A lot of horror movies involve the supernatural in some way, shape or form, and there’s a reason for that.

“The most intense horror often emerges from a conflict which doesn’t follow the rules of logic or science. This is one reason why the supernatural is such a common source of fear in horror; it’s unknowable and uncontrollable dimensions can make for the most terrifying antagonists and situations.”

There are plenty of examples of this in action, but one of the most iconic is the Halloween series.

Dr Daniel credits Michael Myers as one of the best horror movie villains:

“Myer’s inherent unknowability allows us to project our own fears and anxieties onto the blank slate of his white mask. He can also seemingly move from one place to another without being seen or heard. And perhaps his scariest quality is that he seemingly cannot be killed. The power of Halloween is in its balance of realism and otherworldliness, and this is why Michael Myers is truly terrifying.”

Watch Halloween on Stan.


Now that you know what goes into a good horror movie, it’s time to go forth and pick one to watch.

We can help you find the best horror movies on each Aussie streaming service or you can go and check out the latest Halloween film in cinemas.

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