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The Top Ten Things That Make Horror Movies Scary

Which of these frighten you?

Horror movies play to our greatest fears and phobias. Which elements of horror movies scare us, and why?

  1. Fear of death. This is the ultimate fear, both existentially and psychologically. It isn’t really a horror movie if people don’t get killed.
  2. The dark. From our earliest childhood years, we've been afraid of the dark — not the dark itself, but what it hides. It makes horror movies even scarier to watch them in a darkened theater, or a dark living room, right?
  3. Creepy, crawly things. Snakes, spiders, rats, and other crawling things are scary in and of themselves, but when they touch the skin, in the dark, it amplifies this common phobia.
  4. Scary places. Horror movies are full of scary places – graveyards, old houses, overgrown forests, dungeons, attics, basements. These are dark places, where evil things can hide.
  5. Disfigurement. Many horror movies feature grotesquely disfigured antagonists (think Frankenstein’s monster, the Phantom of the Opera, zombies). Studies in early development have found that young infants will react with fear to asymmetrical or disordered faces.
  6. Dismemberment. Fear of dismemberment involves loss of a part of the self. The popularity (and horror) of the Saw movies involves self-dismemberment as the only way to escape death.
  7. Suspense (anticipation and expectations). The best horror movies are full of suspense (think Alfred Hitchcock). Suspense involves creating anticipation that something bad will happen, but not knowing when it will occur. Some of the most shocking horror movie scenes, create anticipation, but then violate the audiences’ expectations (e.g., the hero gets killed; the killer is the one the audience least expects, etc.).
  8. Spooky music. Music can create moods and elicit emotions. The music used in horror movies can be creepy, and can be used to accentuate the actions seen on the screen. Music intensifies feelings of suspense and shock.
  9. Lightning and thunder. Many people are afraid of lightning and thunder — sudden flashes of light, that can kill, and a sudden and deafening sound that accompanies the lightening. Flashing lights and loud noises create a startle response and they are a mainstay of the horror film.
  10. Fear of the unusual. We know that young children are often afraid of things that are different or unusual (such as a disfigured face), and highly unusual-looking things are often sources of fear. But a common theme in horror movies is to take something that is normally not scary (e.g., a doll, a child, a clown) and make it into a feared object. In other words, making the usual, unusual. This may explain the growing number of people who confess to a fear of clowns and dolls.
More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
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