When a horror movie is bad, it’s often not scary at all, with poorly crafted characters and a concept that feels like it has been done countless times before. Fans of the genre have seen many dull films that are nothing to write home about, and when a film comes along that is particularly well-written, fast-paced, creative, and engaging, it’s definitely exciting.
Fans have taken to Reddit to share the elements of horror films that make a movie stand out, as there is an art to telling a scary story that requires many important building blocks.
The idea of “show, don’t tell” is common writing advice and it applies to horror movies particularly well. Audiences want to see the action, not hear about it from characters talking to one another. There are many elements that matter here, from pacing and plot points to a general sense of tension and good dialogue.
One Redditor thinks that a great horror movie has “Visuals and good editing move the story forward” as they don’t like when characters have “long winded exposition to explain what’s happening.” The monsters in The Cabin in the Woods create a chilling atmosphere and the film is fast-paced while letting audiences know what’s happening.
For Redditor methodcomic, an excellent horror movie “takes an element of our lives that feels safe and shows us how quickly it can be unsafe” like Laurie Strode and her friends babysitting in Halloween.
When Laurie and her friends Annie Brackett and Lynda Van der Klok walk home from school and get ready to go to their babysitting jobs, it’s scary because it seems so normal and like something that anyone could experience. The characters are chatting as if it’s a regular day, enjoying the nice fall weather and getting ready for a fun night. They have no idea that Michael Myers is out there and that their lives are going to be in danger.
Filmmakers know the exact right time to show audiences a creature, monster, demon, or evil spirit. There has to be a build-up of tension before this point so it’s as terrifying as possible. If a monster popped up at the very beginning of the movie, it might still be creepy, but it wouldn’t make audiences want to keep watching.
Reddit caseyfoor wrote that they “enjoy only getting glimpses of the monster/demon/whatever” and mentioned that The Blair Witch Project was creepy because audiences are only told “the locals’ descriptions and strange noises during the night.” This is definitely a good example of a movie that has a chilling atmosphere as the horror lies in what the audiences doesn’t see but knows is there.
Some horror movies are more in the science-fiction realm and others feature realistic characters in small towns or cities, going about their regular lives and coming across a killer, villain, or creepy situation.
One Redditor likes the latter, writing that a great horror movie is “(semi)believable and relateable. Something you see and think ‘that could happen’, or I would have reacted the same way.” The Scream franchise feels like it’s in that category as the original Scream talks about teenage life and Sidney always feels like a regular person. The movie also does a good job of creating Sidney’s world, from her friends to her dad to the high school that she attends every day.
Redditor liminalsoup posted that “I have to care about the characters” in order for a horror movie to be great. It’s true that well-crafted characters separate an incredible, impressive film from a boring or corny one that doesn’t need to be watched again.
In Us for example, audiences are invested in Adelaide Wilson’s story and her ties to Red, and Midsommar works because fans want Dani Ardor to be okay after dealing with a family tragedy. These characters have rich backstories and audiences know who they are and why they’re doing the things that they’re doing.
For Redditor Burtmaclin2, a scary film needs good music. The fan wrote, “A great score can make or break a horror movie. The score sets the tone of the entire movie.” Whether a movie uses a memorable, popular song or a score was written specifically for the film, it definitely makes a difference.
Fans of the genre love John Carpenter’s Halloween score as every time Michael Myers appears on Laurie’s street in Haddonfield, Illinois, audiences hear haunting and beautiful music. This increases the tension and makes it feel like Michael can pop up at any moment and kill someone.
Redditor Yaohur likes when horror movies are “about something,” adding, “The Exorcist was great because it was a movie about faith and doubt” and noted that “Get Out I think will become a modern classic” because it has something to say. The fan wrote that the best horror films have a “raw, uncensored examination of the human condition.”
Even the best slasher movies have a main storyline that discusses topics that are meaningful and important, and this always makes a horror film better as it gives audiences something to think about.
There’s nothing worse than a horror movie that doesn’t explain the rules of the monster, creature, or terrifying situation at hand. Audiences want to be able to enter this world immediately and understand exactly what’s going on. A film without rules feels distracting as it can be hard to focus on the main story and characters when there are so many questions left unanswered.
Redditor sorahart praised It Follows because it allows fans to “understand how the monster ‘works,’ and it has a clear set of rules that it doesn’t break. Establishing this is important.” While where the curse came from remains a mystery, the movie still makes sense.
Kill counts are of course high in slashers, and sometimes supernatural films have a lot of gore as well. For Redditor Lightalife, it’s best when a horror movie doesn’t have very bloody scenes. The fan wrote, “Gore should be used to enhance an action or scene.”
While the nature of the slasher genre means that audiences are going to see some gruesome death scenes, that’s not the case for every subgenre. There are many great horror movies without gore and it’s always a welcome surprise. The Conjuring and also the Annabelle films are incredibly creepy and tense, but these supernatural-focused stories don’t have much blood.
Horror fans are used to many cliches, from characters saying “I’ll be right back” and then rushing right into the killer’s atmosphere to a character falling while running. It can be tough to see these being used time and time again.
Redditor burritoburglar appreciates Sinister as an “original story with very spooky aspects and a lot of very suspenseful scenes.” Ellison Oswalt discovers the horrifying history behind his new home and by the time he realizes the danger that he’s in, he feels powerless to stop it. Sinister stands out and every scene feels unnerving.
NEXT: 10 Horror Movies To See If You Loved Sinister