The Essence of a Great Horror Movie

Did you know that the horror genre only came into being in the 1800's? Seriously. It's that recent. It is not a long lasting genre. It hasn't been around forever.

You may be thinking that since the human capacity to get scared stretches back thousands of years, wouldn't it follow that our artistic expression and forms of art would reflect this reality?

Well, it turns out that Edgar Allan Poe is the first detective or mystery author and Mary Shelley is the first horror author. Mary Shelley, of Frankenstein fame, only became famous in the mid-1800's.

I raise this issue because a lot of people are thinking that horror movies just have to be scary. But the thing is, we've been scared for a long time. And that's not what constitutes this genre. That's not how you judge a horror movie. It's not just a question of being scared. You have to look at the essence of great horror.

What is the heart and soul of amazing horror movies? What separates them from each other? What makes one work of horror truly memorable and another one worthless and insignificant? Well, it really all boils down to the ability to sculpt, effect and produce suspense. In other words, narration is crucial.

Have you ever gone camping with friends and you tried to tell each other stories to scare each other? Maybe you would even hold a flashlight under your chin so as to cast a really scary shadow on the rest of your face? Do you remember speaking in really dark, ominous tones kind of like Darth Vader from the Star Wars movies? Well, it all boils down to storytelling.

Believe it or not, you can take the same story and have five different people tell the story, and one person will be far and away the scariest. Mind you, this is the same story. In terms of text, you're listening to the same stuff five times. In terms of content, you're listening to the same stuff five different times. Why is one guy scarier than the rest?

It really all boils down to rendition. In particular, it all boils down to pacing. How do you set up a scene? What kind of emotional hot buttons do you push when you say certain words a certain way? How does your pacing or the slowness of your pronunciation and the pauses that you put into the story create some sort of emotional space?

People who are able to scare others all day, every day, know everything about pacing. They know everything about creating the suspense that fits with people's expectations.

You have to understand that people process stories pretty much the same way across the board. It doesn't matter what country you come from, it doesn't matter what language you speak in the home, it doesn't matter how educated you are, we tend to process stories a certain way.

And great and masterful narrators and storytellers understand this. They know that there are certain illusions. They know that there are certain blind spots. When they exploit these, they would be able to tell very scary stories. And it all boils down to pacing and setting.

So I raise this issue because in our discussion of the White Noise movie, the reason why it succeeds and why it falls apart in certain aspects really boils down to its pacing. Pay attention to pacing. That's how you know you're dealing with a really great horror director or just somebody who's wet behind the ears.