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The Horror genre has been massively successful, despite most films being made for budgets far lower than other genres. The key to success? Fear.

Some of the most popular horror films of all time are produced on shoestring budgets. Below, we have a list of some of the most popular horror films and their budgets:

  • Blair Witch, 60,000 USD
  • Paranormal Activity, 11,000 USD
  • Night of the Living Dead, 114,000 USD
  • Friday the 13th, 550,000 USD
  • Halloween, 325,000 USD
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 140,000 USD

Then, I compared those to well-known films with larger budgets such as Iron Man, made with 140 million USD and Die Hard, with 28 million USD. Accounting for inflation, the difference was still clear: horror movies have always been extremely successful even with comparatively smaller budgets.

How are there such a large number of films that are so massively successful while still being low-cost?

Why were the “godfathers” of horror such as Halloween and Friday the 13th so successful despite competing with blockbuster movies of their same time with much higher budgets?

Because the driving force behind every horror movie is fear, and fear is cheap. Everyone experiences it, some more than others. But fear is a part of every one of our lives. Films capitalize on the most common of fears, often originating during our childhood. This can also be why there are so many characters that are children in horror.

The psychology involved in horror is what makes a movie; this allows a film to successfully tap into some of our most primal fears.

Horror triggers the fight or flight response and gets our adrenaline pumping. For example, the dark is a common fear, so films take place mostly at night to exploit that. Many of us grew up afraid of some kind of a monster in our closet or under our bed, so horror movies gave life to that monster. They capitalized on what’s contained to the corners of our rooms as children, washed away by our trusty nightlight, and put it on the street. They gave us monsters that the light doesn’t wash away, without changing the victim.

Movies like Halloween took the “boogeyman” and gave it a human form. Filmmakers took great evil and inflicted it upon people who look and act as the viewer does. Friday the 13th gave life to the shadows that creep in the dark just outside your campfire. These movies not only had everyday characters being killed, but they showed it happening. They allowed us to relate to them and then die with them.

Other films rely on taking something associated with safety and turning it into something evil or dangerous.

A children’s school bus becomes a deathtrap for those inside, taking what should have been a safe and stable mode of transport and making it something perverse and dark (Out of the Blue, Dirty Harry, Jeepers Creepers 2).

A child’s toy that is suddenly allowing them to talk with the dead will make most viewers look twice the next time they see one. Some movies even transform children’s playthings into killing machines (Dolls, Child’s Play, Poltergeist, Demonic Toys). Simply by making our everyday safe items unsafe, these films can create a feeling of unease that lasts long after the credits roll.

Horror movies’ connections to children is another way filmmakers add a sense of terror.

Halloween gave us a babysitter that must fight off the boogeyman while she protects the kids. Friday the 13th and Madman lets us watch counselors getting slaughtered, leaving the children under their care potentially at risk. Movies like Children of the Corn go a step further and make children the perverse and evil thing that is coming for you.

It’s Alive pits its viewers against a newborn baby while Rosemary’s Baby gives its viewers evil inside the womb. Be it the viewer’s fear for them or of them, children are a strong part of the horror genre regardless of budget.

On a deeper, more psychological level, many horror movies pit people against unknown and unseen forces.

Films like The Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity create a villain that we never truly see. With well-shot angles and dark sets, the viewer is thrust into a new level of terror; pepper in some jarring jump scares and the viewer’s adrenaline will really get pumping.

All of these tactics are cheap because they play off an audience’s most common fears. If you throw in some eerie music or sounds, you’ll have the viewer on the edge of their seats waiting for the next thing to happen. Horror doesn’t need anything flashy to keep people entertained.

All it needs is something to go bump in the night, and our imaginations will take care of the rest.

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