It is a truth universally acknowledged that a horror film is only as good as its villain. So what makes an unforgettable scary movie baddie?
In the case of what is considered one of the most revolutionary horror of all time, Psycho (1960), young hotel host/mama’s boy Norman Bates started the tradition of schizophrenic homicidal maniacs, bringing for the first time to the screens the psychology of a villain.
But to be more frightening, you also need some style. With his burnt skin and razor-bladed glove, Freddy Krueger was every teen’s worst nightmare – literally in the case of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series (1984-2003), where youngsters were stalked in their dreams by a villain who became iconic.
Halloween’s Michael Myers (1978-2009) just wouldn’t die, and unlike the quiet talkative Freddy, he became so scary without saying a world, only thanks to a big knife and a white mask. Child’s Play’s Chucky (1988-2016) took everything to another different level, making us laugh and shriek at the same time, while Ghostface in Scream series boosted the teenagars slaughtery to a self-referential territory in horror movies.
And last but not least, Saw’s John Kramer (aka Jigsaw, 2004-2017) seriously messed with our minds, as we wondered what we’d do to stay alive…
Different things scare different people. For some of us, it’s spiders, for others, it’s getting buried alive. Throw in creepy kids, being alone and an abandoned cemetery next door and you’ve got yourself a real cross-section. The point we’re making is that there’s no one ‘thing’ that will terrify all of the people all of the time.
What all great horror movies do well, however, is get their timing right – case in point: the ‘jump scare’. This classic horror technique has been used to frightening effect in everything and can be broken down into three rough steps, for example:
1. The protagonist hears a strange noise in the house. Gasp – could be somewhere or something in the house? Let's go go to find out, obviously.
2. He/she investigates and discovers it’s just a window shutter, banging in the breeze. Phew. Relief all round (for them and us)...for now!
3. Our hero turns to leave and – bam! – the killer, or ghost or whatever strikes!
Something else classic horror movies have in common is music – really wonderful music. Few things manipulate our emotions like music, especially when it’s deliberately written/chosen to terrify! You can create an anguishing atmosphere only with the right soundtrack and without any drop of blood.
The simple yet terrifying score from Jaws (1975), composed by John Williams, hypnotises you and it really captures the essence of danger (the shark) without even seeing it. Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells in The Exorcist (1973) makes you shiver and matches perfectly with the sense of mystery you’re absorbed in during the first part of the film, as anticipation for all the horror and gore coming up.
The final piece of the horror puzzle is an effective promotional campaign, as with 1999’s found-footage horror The Blair Witch Project – one of the most successful independent productions of all time.
In the run-up to the film’s release, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez built a website where they documented the history of the movie’s villain, the Blair Witch, from 1785.
The site also included snippets from missing protagonist Heather’s journal, interviews with family members and photos from the police search. The only thing anybody knew about this film was from this website, or word of mouth – and thus people went into cinemas genuinely thinking what they were about to watch was real!
For a more recent example of an innovative marketing campaign, you only have to look at Stephen King’s IT. When Warner Bros. announced the remake a few years back, the response was lukewarm at best, but smart promotion – hand-painted billboards featuring Pennywise’s face, red balloons tied to storm drains and a perfectly judged online campaign – ensured interest was at a frenzy by the time the film was released.