Horror movies play to our fears and phobias. So often, the horror genre is dismissed as something juvenile not to be considered by serious movie-goers. The truth is that horror movies, perhaps more so than most other genres of movies, requires getting into the heads of the audience. You can put gore and scary imagery on the screen, but if it doesn’t play to innate fears, those images come across as unrealistic and even funny, or worse, goofy.
If you want to get into people’s heads, it takes a real knowledge of the psychology of fear. Nightmare on Elm Street worked when it came out and it still works today because it played to the audience’s real fears. It made you afraid to go to sleep!
What are the elements of a horror movie that scare us the most?
Fear of Death
Right from the top, the Fear of Death. This is the ultimate fear. Death is forever. It is not only a psychological fear, but an existential one. There is no coming back from death and it puts everything else in to perspective.
Fear of the Dark
When you talk about innate fears, you have to talk about a fear of the dark. As an infant, the fear of the dark is already something that is inside of us. Parents put night lights in our rooms and we are never truly in a place completely devoid of light. The darkness itself is not what was is so terrifying, it is what is inside the darkness that is the fear. Darkness leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed. We are at a disadvantage since we are helpless when we cannot see. Fear of darkness was actually an evolutionary advantage, since we instinctually avoid places that put us in danger.
We all know the line: Snakes. Why’s it have to be snakes? Besides the fact that a bite from a snake or a rat can actual be fatal, these animals are terrifying. Even in the Book of Genesis, the epitome of evil is represented as a snake or a serpent. Snakes show up again in Exodus in Pharaoh’s Court and again in the wilderness in Numbers. In the New Testament, Jesus and John the Baptist both condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by calling them a “brood of vipers” and “snakes”. In fact, there are over 80 mentions of snakes in the Bible, including Revelation where Satan is referred to as an ancient serpent. Visually there is also something unsettling about bugs, snakes, or rodents when they are moving in a group. The ground seems to be moving and you feel like you can be engulfed with no place to go. The aforementioned Raiders of the Ark along with its sequels used snakes, bugs, and rats to great effect to create the scariest or creepiest scenes in each of the those movies.
Disfigurement or Dismemberment
Next to losing your life, one of the biggest fears is losing a body part. There is the true story of the mountain climber who got caught in a rock formation. His arm had been crushed. The only way out was to literally cut his way out. Using a pocket knife he severed his crushed limb to free himself and save his own life. The story itself, while heroic, is cringe-worthy. The reaction from most people was that they would never have been able to do that and they would have probably died on that mountain. However, if you are ever stuck in the situation where you have to make that sort of life and death decision, you have no idea what you are capable of doing. Oddly enough that fear and that decision that seems so impossible is the whole premise of Saw movies.
When you think about horror, you tend to think about movies like Saw, as we just mentioned or Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. Movies by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock are on a completely different level of horror. With these movies, you do not get the jump scares as you do with newer horror movies. Hitchcock movies are not the torture porn movies we have now. These movies start with the theme and they build up the suspense and anticipation to the point where you are quite literally sitting on the edge of your seat with your heart pumping.
What makes these movies so frightening is that in most cases, we have set expectations of what is going to happen, and so often, our expectations are violated when the movie or scene takes a completely different, yet totally satisfying turn. The psychology here is also extreme since the twist has to be satisfying or you risk losing the audience, and when it comes to the psychology of horror, if you lose the audience, you are finished.