Horror movies and the art of subtlety

Kelly Tompkins
Nov 18, 2019 · 5 min read

It’s not all slashers and gore flicks.

What makes a movie scary? When asked, most people say jump scares. They may not call it that but they get scared by the parts that happen quickly and randomly. It would be the monster suddenly appearing or running towards the character from the darkness.

That’s like comparing horror movies to someone hiding behind a corner and startling you. Because that’s all it is. It startles you, might leave you uneasy but only because you don’t want to get startled again.

But where’s the dread? The knowledge that the protagonist in your story is not going to make it out alive?

The movie should make you uncomfortable for reasons other than your fight or flight response kicking off every now and then. That foreshadowing has painted a tale you don’t want to see the outcome of.

The rise of the cheap jump scare

Jump scares have been around for years and were made popular by movies like Carrie or popular slashers. They were done during times where you feared for the protagonist’s safety. The silence in the music would put you on edge and when it began again, you would jump in your seat. But there was a reason for it, it helped you connect to the character more and were more invested.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of movies misuse the jump scare. Using it too often creates tension but it’s creating it out of the same energy that your local haunted house uses. No substance, only scare after scare to keep you on edge. You don’t feel for the characters and you’re not invested in the story.

The Nun was a good example of a movie that had zero substance yet could sometimes keep you on the edge of your seat because of how it startled you.

I actually like movies with jump scares but they aren’t the movies that will stick with you after you’ve finished them. They’re quick and fun, but they never linger.

The haunted house effect

These movies are what people think of when you mention you like scary movies. These aren’t subtle. In fact, I think that we need a new word or phrase for these kinds of jump scares. I would call it the “haunted house effect”.

With a haunted house, you know exactly when the end is coming because things have been laid out for you. You’re even faintly aware of when a jump scare might happen because the movie sets it up perfectly for one.

With movies, these would be the ones that I would show other people. They don’t do a deep dive into the human psyche and their run time isn’t that long. I won’t show them the over two hour long movie that would be considered a “slow-burn”.

I love a good movie that takes its time to weave a story into the horror that you’re seeing. It’s a way of making a movie that takes skill and precision. The slow burn effect that leaves you uneasy because nothing has happened yet but it will.

These are the thoughts I have when I watch a horror movie and guide my opinion on how good it was.

Do I care about the protagonist?

Take the TV show on Netflix, Haunting of Hill House.

If you’ve read the book by Shirley Jackson, there aren’t a lot of jump scares. It’s a story that’s crafted slowly, throwing subtle cues of what’s to come if you’re able to see it. The TV show version takes that concept and skillfully executes it in episodic form.

At the end of the first episode is your first glimpse into the type of scares they have in store for you and spoiler alert, it’s not a jump scare. It’s subtle and if you weren’t paying attention to the very end, you would have missed it.

There are multiple protagonists in this show and each one, you want to know more about their personal lives. While some of their initial backstory might follow a trope, they themselves are fully fleshed out characters being woven into the story. There wasn’t a character in the story that I didn’t like to follow along with and learn more about the overall story through their experience.

Is there a story?

The point of me watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game is to get lost in a story. I want to get swept up in an adventure. You might argue that a haunted house has a story. If you go to one, it might be called “Hospital of Terrors” but then at the end there’s a mummy. It’s inconsistent and just look for things that we naturally see as unsettling to startle us.

A Tale of Two Sisters would be a great example of a horror movie that has a consistent story and ropes you into it. From Wikipedia’s description of the movie: “The plot focuses on a recently released patient from a mental institution who returns home with her sister, only to face disturbing events between her stepmother and the ghosts haunting their house — all of which are connected to a dark past in the family’s history.

Movies like this focus on the story causing unease than any jumpscares. It’s categorized as a psychological horror movie because it relies on unsettling you with the character’s emotional or psychological states more than explicitly trying to scare you.

This may sound like I’m saying to never watch a horror film that has jump scares or that I’m against them in some way. I do prefer psychological horror more than any other genre but I love all horror.

Most horror has a set of rules and it’s nice to see movies that follow them. Tropes are tropes for a reason and you understand the mistakes that a character is making. This is for the people who only see horror as a movie full of cringey tropes or full of gore. There can be subtlety and it can be a slow burn. And it’s worth it.

Keeping it spooky

For anything and everything horror

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