Horror: why it works

I love horror. It’s as simple as that. Yet, nothing can ever be that simple, can it?

The first horror movie that I remember truly being fascinated by was The Ring. In retrospect that sounds like a terrible movie choice, but give me a break, I was eight. I was young, impressionable, and didn’t really want a dead girl coming out of my TV. It was understandable. I was always a little on the morbid side growing up into my teen years and then, of course, into my adult years. In my opinion I have always loved horror, but what are the underlying reasons? I did a bit of self-reflecting on this and came up with a few ideas why I think horror just works. The following is all about the reasons I adore horror and why it is my favorite movie genre. Enjoy!

*There will be spoilers ahead of various horror movies*

Simple Horror

To me, the simplest of horror ideas can have the most effect on people. Yet, these simplistic ideas can be completely ruined by a bad set of actors, bad jumps scares, and bad story telling. A simple horror story to me is for example, a story about an asylum. There’s a lot of value there, but little one can do with this idea that hasn’t already been done before. Take Mad House as an example. Here, we have a movie depicting a new psychiatrist in town all ready to observe and work along his new colleagues! But something is off about the asylum he is assigned to and something feels very wrong… *Insert sick girl here* and thus we have a love that may just be too “crazy” to work out. Reeling the viewer deeper into the craziness that is the asylum to only do a 180 on them to find out that the new doctor in town was really an escaped patient. Interesting movie plot line, interesting-unforeseen twist near the end, and you have at least a B movie!

But let me tell you about a completely different, unrelated film called Stonehearst Asylum. The plot here is again, that there is a new doctor in town either very concerned about the well being of the patients or is a little too into the experimentation that is obviously occurring in said asylum. The head of the institution seems cruel, out of place, and out of touch with what is humane. However, the head doctor seems to care deeply for his patients and they seem to care about him as well. The new doctor stumbles upon a pretty, young, and sick mental patient just waiting for their knight in shining armor. Once again, the movie flip flops and here you are at another plot twist that the head of the asylum is an escaped mental patient that took over the asylum! … I know you understand my meaning by this point. Yet, that is what I mean by “simple horror”. It isn’t a term (that I know of) that is used in the horror industry, it is simply a term that I have used to describe a plot that is predictable and overused. This can vary from a haunted house, to an asylum, or even to a killer on the loose.

In no means am I stating that simple horror is ineffective or bad. The two movies I used as examples above are two of my favorite asylum-based horror works of fiction. However, my point still stands as how this method can be duplicated in a way that people let slide because of the psychological horror it is based on.

Psychological Horror

The use of psychological horror is used more and more these days and for good reason. People love getting into the minds of others and having their minds “blown”, for lack of a better word. The psychological horror genre is one that is easily defined. Many can determine the genre of these types of movies because they have a feeling of great unease during the duration of the film. This is because the director has them sitting on the edge of their seat. A good psychological horror movie is one where the bad guys are pulling the strings. It leaves us feeling as Psycho once did. Once the audience thinks they know what is happening in the movie, the director pulls that idea right out from underneath them.

An example of a fantastic psychological thriller would be something like Saw. While the movie is known both for its psychological torture and its use of gore, the franchise keeps true to it’s original idea in which the story always comes around on itself. It’s a beautiful thing. Here, we have John Kramer, a man in mourning who also happens to be a creative engineer of torture devices. These torture devices all have mechanics in which the “player” can escape. It wouldn’t be a fair game if the select few chosen were not able to save themselves and others who share their same hell. That is where the psychological aspect comes into play. The players of Jigsaw’s games are people who have all committed a sin either against man, God, or society. Sins that Kramer deem fit for salvation. Some sins are worse than others, but at the end of the games there is usually an ideal of working together to win. Amid fear, panic, and confusion, however, the players sometimes don’t work out these fine details before its too late.

I know I don’t have to go over the Saw movies because if you chose to read a blog post labeled with anything regarding “horror” then I can probably assume you’ve seen them. They are as popular as The Paranormal Activities (and they’re all on Netflix)! Yet, Saw is a psychological thriller that is popular because it was genuinely good and a fresh idea when it was released. There are some psychological thrillers that simply fail to meet the viewer’s expectations and fall flat.

Take The Babadook for example. Yes, I know, and no, I’m not at all comparing The Babadook to the Saw series in any way, shape, or form. For the sake of talking about psychological thrillers, I’m using it. It could be questioned rather The Babadook was meant to be psychological or simply just horror but let me explain why I think it would fall under psychological. This is because the story is about a creature (or monster) of a children’s book. Never in the entire film do we see this monster. We are having to take it at full face value of the descriptions that we have been told within the movie with the story going as such (written by Jennifer Kent):

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look you can’t get rid of the Babadook

If you are really a clever one and you know what it is to see, then you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me.

His name is Mr. Babadook and this is his book.

A rumbling sound and then three sharp knocks… Ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!

That’s when you’ll know when he’s around. You’ll see him if you look.

This is what he wears on top. He’s funny. Don’t you think?

See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink. (Let me in!)

I’ll soon take off my funny disguise and once you see what’s underneath (take heed of what you’ve read…)

You’re going to wish you were dead.

For those who think, ‘that’s just for kids, this ‘thing’ is not for me.’

I urge you not to say those words, please take this seriously. (DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!)

There’s just no way you’re off the hook. If you’re all grown up when you read this book and you snub your nose with a civilized look…

You’ll appeal even more to the big Babadook (Let me in!)

And this is what he’ll say… “I’ll wage with you, I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny me the stronger I get. You’ll then be my puppy. My play thing. My pet. I’ll make you do things you’ll be sure to regret.”


You cannot get rid of me!

Dare to look me in the face. Try to put me in my place. I will cause you so much strife, but you might just get out with your life. (DOOK!)

Whether adult or child, best to give me a home. Put the welcome mat out with a room of my own and except that I’m here and from you I have grown. Keep me smaller in size, I might leave you alone. (Dook… Dook… Dook)

I only said might…

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.

The story, in my opinion, is a story of paranoia. The same description as Slender Man could get. Paranoia only can settle itself in if you let it in and feed it. Like the story says, it doesn’t matter if you’re a child or an adult, it will grow off of you with the ending stating, “keep me in smaller size, I might leave you alone”. Therefore, if you don’t feed into your paranoia and you make whatever is scaring you go away with rationality than it won’t bother you anymore. The story here is fantastic. I truly can get behind this kind of storytelling because the horror is just there inside each stanza. This is something that the movie messes up.

It takes what could have been an amazing horror film and turned it into a joke. With very shoddy actors, bad storytelling, and jumping around… It wasn’t very clear what the Babadook was, if he was related to (or was) the mother’s dead husband, or if he was an imaginary friend of the child’s. It was a psychological thriller that did not use the story it had to its advantage and was an opportunity missed. Psychological thrillers are by far one of my favorite genres within the horror genre. They can be so good and leave you thinking about them for days after you’ve watched them. However, they can leave you thinking about them whether they are bad or good (and there is always good in the bad). So, I say, watch them even if you know they’re going to be bad! What’s the fun in not?


Ah, yes. The use of gore in the horror industry. It is as beloved as slasher films and sometimes can be put into the same pot! Let me start out by saying that gore is not my favorite. Personally, I prefer a good horror movie with a story line that scares the crap out of me. It’s like a book. I don’t want just a picture book that is going to make me feel uncomfortable and possibly queasy. I want a book that is genuinely going to scare me by using its words alone, but that’s just me! I will say, however, that on the opposite side of my opinion, there are some exemplary gore-horror movies out there. Obviously, as I said before, I am a huge fan of Saw and while this fall under psychological thriller, it is a horror movie based on the use of gore.

Gore is something that taken too far can really bother me. So I’m going to be completely honest here in that my opinion of this subject is probably not the opinion of the masses, or even the opinion of the few in regards to people who enjoy horror.

I feel that the use of gore in horror movies is vastly different than the use of general horror because it uses a different kind of strategy to make you feel disturbed. But not just disturbed and upset, it makes you physically feel by showing you images and video that are repugnant both by moral and social standing. Unless you’re amoral, then by all means… Enjoy! As a movie example of gore-horror, I chose (shockingly) The Human Centipede. It is by far a movie that I can say I hate because it makes me want to puke! Puking is definitely not a feeling I like when sitting down at the end of the day and starting a good old-fashioned flick. But I digress… Yes, it is a great… Diverse… Genuinely messed up film. One could go so far as saying that a film the likes of if may never happen again (I hope). Humans are pretty messed up though, so my hopes aren’t high with this one.

If you haven’t seen The Human Centipede (or by other means, The Human Centi-pad, thanks South Park), then God bless your innocent soul. In short, a lovely surgeon creates a “three-dog” except this dog is made up three humans that are surgically connected and are forced to act in such a way. Connected via mouth to butt… Repeat that and you have a three dog! Yay! It’s what you’ve always wanted, I know (the sarcasm is real). This idea is completely disgusting which brings up a good question: why do people like watching these things? We are humans, this movie is about humans being unwillingly connected to another human being in the most horrific of ways, but it did win some awards and is praised for what it did achieve.

Another film of roughly the same standard without the amoral aspect of The Human Centipede is the movie Vile. A 2011 hidden gem. I will admit that viewing the first few scenes it seems like the movie was going to be a B-movie at best. However, it does redeem itself when the story picks up. Basically, a group of people get taken to wake up with little tubes connected to the back of their skulls hence the name: Vile. This movie brings up many moral questions, in my opinion. The entire plot is about filling those test tubes with endorphins – manly adrenaline. How is this done? Through inflicting pain on everyone locked in the room. They must accept their fate, and each take their turn in receiving and inflicting pain on everyone else. There are a few ways to think about this ideal, however. Much like the Saw 4 trials, they could each do as little pain as possible and give a little to survive. Of course, in the end they are all so terrified that they are all ready to kill by the end of it.

The amoral versus moral argument here is that how do you decide who is worth more pain or not. The characters are very reluctant to act as their captor has stated they need to or they will die. However, there is always one character that is ready to throw everyone under the bus to survive. Here is my dilemma, we (as viewers) watch these people inflict pain on one another and we cringe, grit our teeth, and possibly yell at the screen to stop hurting that person. Yet, as soon as the young girl who has been talking smack and ready to kill everyone else the entire movie gets thrown upon the table, we are pretty much yelling, “she deserves it” by the time she is getting hurt. At what point do our morals change because we deem a person as “bad”? It is in interesting question that comes along with the gore-horror industry that I find perplexing.

Except, this question could be the answer as to why these movies work. Why we watch them in the first place because we could never face something like the characters are facing in a gore film. Maybe it answers sick questions that we have deep down in our subconscious. Or maybe we just like watching fake people die fake deaths after a hard day’s work! We may never know!

I could talk forever about the horror industry. I could talk about why it’s my favorite genre, why what they do works with the audience, why people react the way they do to certain films and scenarios, and who knows, I might. For now, I’m going to leave this here. The horror industry is one in a million. While it sometimes fall in a slump like any other genre and find itself repeating age-old ideas, it always picks up with a fresh movie idea from a new producer that swings it back into action. I’ll leave you with a short list of my favorite thriller/horror films that maybe you can pick up and watch! (My secret is most of them are probably on Netflix) Here’s my list and I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts about the horror industry!

Chatroom by Hideo Nakata

Silent Hill by Christophe Gans

The Houses October Built by Bobby Roe

VHS by Matt Bettinelli

Haunter Vincenzo Natali

The House at the End of Time by Alejandro Hidalgo

Maniac by Franck Khalfoun

Before I Wake by Mike Flanagan

Circle by Aaron Hann

The Good Neighbor by Kasra Farahani

Old Boy by Chan-wook Park

Exam by Stuart Hazeldine

The Perfect Host by Nick Tomnay

Submerged by Steven C. Miller

The Shining Mini Series

It Mini Series

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