What Makes a Good Horror Movie?

Lon Chaney Sr.


What makes a good horror film?  What elements does it need to have to not only make it successful, but also make us want to watch them over and over again?

Here’s a rundown at some of the more familiar elements of a horror film and how they can make a good film.

Plot

Like most stories, a horror film needs a plot that has be as fresh and/or original as possible.

Since it is hard to come up with a plot that’s 100 percent completely original, the trick is to take something that has been before and try to put a different spin on it or do something no one else has seen before.

It also helps to have plenty of twists and turns to keep things going and keep viewers intrigued.

It sometimes helps to lay out the plot almost like a mystery, especially in a slasher film, with the hero/heroes tracking down clues to figure out who the villain is or what the source of the problem is.

Themes

Some horror films seem to try and throw in some theme or social commentary of some kind to send out a “message” to the viewer.

Zombie films are especially famous for this, in showing how society seems to be like even as it collapses to an “every-man-for-himself” state.

Slasher films, in particular the ones from the ‘80s, also rank up in there, with the victims often being the ones who drink, do drugs and alcohol and engage in pre-marital sex.

Characters

Like any story, a horror film needs to have a varied cast of characters, each with different traits and personalities to both keep things going in terms of interaction as well as create some side conflict when personalities clash.

Typical character types include a hero/heroine who takes charge, a damsel-in-distress, a jock, a bimbo, a doubter, and an authority figure who either knows what’s going on or tries to deny or put some logic to it.

One important character to have in any horror film is the jerk, that one person that no one can stand and makes the situation seem worse, but is usually one of the last people to die.

The Villain

Quite possibly the most important part of a horror film, the villain keeps the story going and gives the main characters a challenge to survive and/or overcome.

It can be a human killer whose identity is hidden until the end, keeping both viewers and potential victims on edge as to who he/she is and what their motivations are.

A supernatural force, like a vampire or a ghost, can serve two purposes.  For one, since it can’t be stopped by conventional means, it requires the hero to think outside the box to put an end to it.

It also challenges the characters’ view on reality when they’re faced with something that shouldn’t exist.

The Ending

Horror stories don’t always end in a way that’s necessarily “happy”.

True, there is a survivor or two, but they might end up scarred or affected in some way by their experiences.

There can also be a twist to the ending, like the body of the killer not being found, questioning the possibility of whether or not he’s really dead, or even thinking things are over but then learning what was thought would end things just made it worse.

It sometimes helps if the ending is left open and not truly resolved, leaving for the possibility of a sequel.

Types of Horror

There are different kinds of horror to be found, some more popular than others.

Monster films, as the name implies, deal with monsters of the supernatural variety, the most popular these days being vampires and zombies.

Survival horror, a type more associated with video games, is where the main characters have to survive against impossible odds.

Slasher films feature a select group of people being stalked by an unknown killer, usually motivated by revenge to a wrong either real or imaginary.

“Found footage” films, a recent popular type, are documentary-style stories where events are recorded by the characters as they happened, showing their final moments with the footage being “found” at a later time.

Psychological horror, which typically has a more realistic setting, plays with the characters’ fears and insecurities and are usually more subtle than other horror films.

These are just some of the more common elements of a horror film.

Done right, they can all be put together and make for a great story that will be remembered for generations to come.