People often debate what is or isn’t horror. Good horror taps into our deepest fears, but what makes horror scary differs for everyone.
What makes horror scary?
Is this a question that you have ever asked yourself? What makes the hair on the back of your neck rise up in fear? And what makes your heart start to beat twice as fast as it should?
I ask myself these questions time and time again. I need to, in the hope of writing… and making each of my novels scarier than the last.
When I was a kid growing up in Liverpool, we were lucky enough to be one of the first on our street to own a VCR. I remember the very first full-on horror film that I watched was John Carpenter’s The Fog.
Now, it hasn’t really stood the test of time, but I still remember the start of it. It is almost a montage piece. We can see the fog slowly moving in towards the small coastal town in the USA. We know that the fog is menacing — basically because of the name of the film and because of the scary music that is playing. Then, we find out that we are listening to a radio station, and the DJ announces that it has just turned midnight…the witching hour.
I remember wanting to go to the toilet at this point, but as the toilet was upstairs, I was far too scared to go. I remember waiting until someone had wanted a cup of tea before I left the room and zoomed up the stairs. If I remember rightly, I was far too scared to aim correctly, and I left a right mess all over the seat (probably too much information).
But this stands out in my memory as one of the scariest moments in a film. There have been others, but they are few and far between. One such moment is the dream segment in An American Werewolf in London, where the hospital bed is in the forest. He goes over to it, and the patient in the bed is himself. Then he opens his eyes, and they are wolves’ eyes. Another memorable moment is the head coming underneath the boat in Jaws. These jump-scare moments got me at the time, but I always think back to The Fog.
So, it occurred to me as I grew older that what scares me is the unknown. Alien is a lot scarier than any of the other films in the series, as are Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street (these more for obvious reasons).
Now, when I’m alone in my house, it’s 3:15 am, and I hear a noise from downstairs, my initial reaction isn’t that it’s Jason or Michael coming to get me. Nope, not bothered about them. What I am bothered about is the unknown.
What could that noise have been? I love the foreboding, the build-up of tension, the feel of my heart racing in my chest. What was that down there?
My top three scary films are as follows (although some people may not agree with these, and I might take some stick, but here goes anyway):
- The Blair Witch Project – Totally and mind-numbingly petrifying. You don’t see any monsters or ghosts, but there is SOMETHING there. Love it.
- The Others – I love it when the protagonist is at the forefront. And in the background, there is the very slightest movement, maybe just the moving of a door or something falling to the ground — especially when combined with a very claustrophobic atmosphere.
- The Woman in Black – Pretty much for the same reasons as above.
So, when I’m alone and there’s a noise, I don’t think that it’s Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or Freddie Kruger. My mind has a whole host of other, unworldly delights that it can send my way; at least until I realize that it’s just the heating coming back on, and I can go back to sleep.
I like to write my books that way, too.
The Twelve is a homage to The Others and The Woman in Black. In the Mood… For Murder is a thriller, but it’s also horror. It’s the kind of horror that, if you think about it too much, can be the scariest of all. It’s real-life horror. We’re not talking about a monster who wears a mask here. We’re talking about your best friend, a family member, or anyone. The monster is hiding in plain sight.
Then Crack is about what a person can become through no fault of their own… again, another horrific scenario.
I’ll leave it up to you to answer the question about what makes horror scary. Because, deep down, it’s very personal.