What Makes Good Horror?

I’ve just finished watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds*, and it got me thinking about horror books and movies. I like horror, but I tend to have rather intense nightmares, so I have to be careful when and where I watch or read it. As a result, I don’t do much, although I enjoy Steven King and Alfred Hitchcock (and yes, I did spot his cameo).

So, fellow Dopers, what elements do you think good horror stories have? I’ve got my own ideas, but I’ll wait until the thread gets a little further along. Besides, like I said, I don’t watch that much horror and I’d rather wait before making a fool of myself.

Who is now surreptitiously glancing to make sure robins aren’t massing outside her window!

I’ll say that the main element that makes for a good horror story, in print or on film, is subtlety. Don’t whack someone over the head with the concept, and don’t show what King called “the monster at the bottom of the stairs” until you absolutely have to. Sometimes, that means you never show the monster at all. This technique results in some of the best horror stories I know, such as King’s From a Buick 8, David Searcy’s Ordinary Horror, and the film Jacob’s Ladder.

The mistake that Signs made, and I think the reason that so many people left that film disappointed, was in showing the creature (badly) so explicitly at the end of the film. Perhaps M. Night’s point in showing the creature was to illustrate that it’s never as bad as what you can imagine… but I don’t know thaat for sure. Either way, that film lost its way when it stopped being subtle. Up until that point, it had a really good thing going (much like The Birds).

Another important factor for me is imagination. Clive Barker is a big winner in this department; his horror stories nearly always border on fantasy, because off the heavy imagining that goes into them. His short story “In the Hills, the Cities” is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying in its concept, and perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about. It’s comparatively easy to make a slasher movie or write yet another vampire story. Brian Lumley fails because while he puts lots of gore and action in his books, there is little real imagination in them. On the other hand, Dan Simmons can write a vampire story (Children of the Night) or a ghost story (A Winter Haunting) and make it original. That’s because he uses his imagination and comes up with a new take on an old subject… something many horror writers simply don’t bother doing. George R.R. Martin’s short novel “The Skin Trade” is another fine example of this. Imagination often begets originality.

Imagination and subtlety are what do it for me. Put those two together, and you’ve got the beginnings of a great horror story. Ignore them, and its probably crap.

Well, the reason I enjoy Stephen King so much is because he takes little “normal” things and makes them scary as crap. There’s something to be said for the little things just creeping in when you’re not paying attention.

Like the bushes moving outside your window? Totally the topiary scene in The Shining.

As far as movies go, you can’t have a good horror movie without the creepy music in the background. It sounds funny, but try watching any scene in any horror movie without the sound turned up. It’s just not as scary.


The best horror movies make you jump even when you can see the thing coming from a mile away. The fact some things move slower than others just makes the trip that much more aggitating and great.


Not necessarily in the scenario, but in the actors’ reaction to the situation. If they don’t seem to believe they’re in the situation, niether will the viewer.

Use of light (or more precisely, shadow)

Watching The Thing last night, one of the great things about it was it’s use of shadow. When things were dark, they weren’t just filtered to look dark…they were black! Good use of shadow and light can make simple things distorted and frightening, and really help build suspense.

Knowing when to pull your punches.

Really good horror knows when to show you the scary bits, and probably more importantly, how much to show you. The best horror movies tend to be the ones where you never really get a good look at the creature of the horror of what’s going on (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for example…one of the most horrific movies ever made, but the majority of the violence was off camera). Leave it up to the imagination of the viewer, and a sock on a stick will be more terrifying than any computer generated monstrocity.

Hitchcock himself often described the difference between suspense and surprise, as follows: Two people are sitting at a table, talking, and all of a sudden a bomb goes off under the table – BOOM! and you have a few seconds of horrific surprise.

Now, take the same two people sitting at the table, talking, and SHOW the audience that there’s a bomb under the table. Now the two talk about something, say baseball, and the audience is thinking, “Don’t talk about baseball, you fools, there’s a bomb under the table!!” … and you have ten minutes of suspense.

I also think that horror best leaves some things to the imagination. The classic movie “M” with Peter Lorre, about a child murderer, never shows a murder onscreen, but the villain is horrific and terrifying nonetheless.

King writes quite well on the subject in Danse Macabre.

Terror is the sound of the old man’s continuing pulsebeat in “The Tell-tale Heart” – a quick sound, “like a watch wrapped in cotton.” Horror is the amorphous, but very physical “thing” in Joseph Payne Brennan’s wonderful novella "Slime"as it enfolds itself over the body of a screaming dog.

But there is a third level – that of revulsion. This seems to be where the “chest-burster” from Alien fits.


Different levels to evoke different reactions. And when used with discretion, all three can and, IMHO, should be combined whenever possible.

And plenty of gray area too, no doubt.

What pretty much everyone else said. Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but the fun of his stories is waiting for things to get weird. And the fact that a lot of what happens is left unexplained definitely adds something to that.

I’m gonna agree with ** Avalonian**. Subtlety and letting the audience’s imagination fill in the gaps seems to work best for me, as well as a new spin on an old story.


Take American Werewolf in London for example, one of my favorites. Landis does a great job with a witty script and while he does supply gore for the audience to squirm over, the audience never really gets to see a complete shot of the werewolf itself. The closest we get is the pan shot after the initial transformation (which still looks great, even 20 years later) and the shot of the wolf after the man falls at the bottom of the escalator in the London Underground, the latter mainly just to give the audience some scale so we can see how big the wolf actually is. Landis also put an original spin on an old tale with the infusion of humor and the contemporary setting. I also believe it’s the first time the audience got to see the transformation happen instead of hiding it in shadows or doing the layering effect.

Another of my favorites is The Haunting. Not the remake with Liam Neeson, but the original black and white version. In the original, the audience always knows there’s something in the house with them, but we never get to see what, and I think it gives the film a great creepy quality the remake lacks no matter how many digital SFX they add to it.

And lastly, there’s Poltergeist. This one tapped into basic fears most people have as children growing up, the monster in the closet (the gateway to the other world in the film), something tapping just outside the window (the tree that grabs the little boy), and something under the bed (the clown dummy at the end). Then they set the film in the suburbs. It could have been the house you grew up in, or had a friend who lived in a place just like that. Up to then (or even since then for that matter) how many haunted house stories took place in what could have been your neighborhood?

Tension and building. Signs is an excellent example of how to build tension with ordinary scenes. When he throws the rock into the corn field, the wind blows in the chimes, nothing happens. It is this scene, where we are made to think that everything is normal when things have been going so weirdly, that is tantamount to good horror. Later in the movie, I think that the birthday party video on the news was an excellent piece of released tension. Quick, blurred views of the creature after a huge build. You are expecting something minor, but instead are treated to full-on abject horror.

Are you sure that “Horror” is the appropriate adjective for this sentence?

IMHO, there was nothing scary about the creature seen in the Birthday Party video and it brought down the movie because now we know exactly what we are dealing with: naked grey guys. It was far more disturbing when it was just shadows.

People have already said that one shouldn’t reveal the monster for as long as you can, but this isn’t always true. In John Carpenter’s The Thing, the monster is revelaed in full light early on in the film and it still works damn well.

Good horror does indeed rely on the cooperation of the viewer’s imagination to achieve its full effect. It’s not so much the nonrevelation of the monster that makes horror work, but that the threat of the monster is concealed from the characters but shown to the audience. Alfred Hitchcock used that principle wonderfully in The Birds in the scene where Tippi Hendren is smoking a cigarette in the school playgoriund. The audience sees birds gathering en masse behind Hendren while she is oblivious to the imminent threat right behind her.

Great horror for me, whether in books or movies, almost always involves great characters. When writers, actors, and/or directors make me believe in and, better yet, care about a character they are going to put in some kind of danger, they have won half the battle. Stephen King, I think, does this very well in some of his books–-I really like some of the people he creates; King’s written more than one Yankee monster-killer I would like to invite over for dinner.

The second half of the battle, I suppose, is making the danger in which the main characters eventually find themselves both frightening and believable. In horror, there’s not much point in making me fall in love with a character if you’re going to pit him or her against something my grandma could defeat. I think a good example of a believable monster is Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Watching Silence of the Lambs for the first time, I believed that Hannibal Lecter was a real threat to Clarice Starling–-her soul, if not her body, seemed to be on the menu. As much as I liked Lecter (I know, I’m a sicko), I was worried about what he might do to Starling. When the cast and crew of Silence of the Lambs persuaded me to believe in Lecter and Starling for a couple hours and convinced me that the one posed a threat to the other, they not only created good suspense but the setup for some really good horror. Sadly, the good doctor ceased to be believable as a monster, at least for me, in Hannibal–-I don’t know if Grandma could take out an old English actor doing a serial killer parody, but I think I could (as could your average FBI agent, Italian thug, or herd of pissed-off and hungry swine).

To horrify me, I must believe in the monster (due to good acting, good writing, good special effects, and myriad other things I can’t do) and it should pose a threat to somebody I can (or could) care about. If well done, a demon against a little girl or a savage alien against a small crew of people trapped on a small ship in outer space are both great recipes to put me on the edge of my seat.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Have a great day everybody. After all, it’s your last . . .

The responses in this thread have answered a question I’ve had for years, about my reaction to a Lovecraft story.

The story didn’t have the horror elements that make a story work for me – some level of familiarity (it could happen here) and three-dimensional characters that I care about.

But At the Mountains of Madness scared the bejezus out of me and I’ve wondered why, since I couldn’t relate characters or setting to anything in my own life.

Well now I know, it was the unseen threat and the tension building that made it work. If someone had asked me, I would have said that wouldn’t be enough, but it did work very well in this case.

Two movies that scared me silly were Alien(and it’s sequel) and The Silence of the Lambs Both had some gory scenes(obviously!) but for the most part they relied on buildup and suspense. In *Alien/I] there was the famous chest burster sequence, and then, almost until the end of the film, there was little gore. You’d see the alien confront someone, or know it was lurking around the corner. And since you didn’t see the deaths your imagination made it even worse. In SotL Anthony Hopkins, as Hannibal Lector, was such a good actor that even when confined behind glass inches thick he scared me. Good acting and a director that is into suspense and sublety, that’s a good horror movie.

For anyone interested, we had a similar discussion about a month ago in the thread Do Horror Movies Pull Their Punches?. Some good ideas were tossed around there.

I just read The Haunting Of Hill House, which I picked up at a book sale for a song (and a few toonies, songs not really being currency around these parts. It’s a shame, really). And it frightened me so badly. I finished it this afternoon, by the fire, set it down after reading the last page, and felt ill.

I liked its originality. I liked Jacksons’ unconventional theory on how people are “haunted” by the houses that they are in. I also liked the way the reader was horrified by not just the malevolence of the house, but also by the perversity of the people in it. I guess what was so creepy was that I wasn’t repulsed by the supernatural; I was made to be repulsed by humanity.

That, my friend, is horrifying.

Another great example of horror is the original Evil Dead, just because so much happens off-screen, and there are a lot of places where tension is built up and nothing happens. But the tension is still there.

What makes good horror?

Tentacles. Lots and Lots of slimy tentacles.