Your Voices: On What Makes a Movie Scary

Your Voices

Your Voices is a simple concept created to encourage conversation and opinions between movie lovers. It works like this: I throw out a certain topic. After that I’ll make my case or share my opinions. Then it’s time for Your Voices. Head to the comments section and let fellow readers and moviegoers know your thoughts on the topic for that day!


Throughout the history of cinema there has always been a place for scary movies. Dating all the way back to the silent movie era, horror films have drawn and maintained faithful audiences. Interestingly, over the years the horror genre has evolved and splintered into numerous sub-genres. It has significantly changed in many regards but one thing remains a constant – many people still love scary movies. Box office numbers verify this each year as more and more of these films are made. But what is scary to one person may not be to another. And I’ve heard some say they are terrified by movies that I almost laugh at. So what makes a movie scary?

Let me say that I like well done horror movies. I always have. But that said, I’m rarely scared by them. I’m certainly not beating my chest and claiming to be macho but horror movies almost never scare me. But I am fascinated by the different opinions of those who are scared by them. What kind of movies scare you? What is it about them that frightens you? In many ways horror films are like comedies – they’re totally subjective. But different films have different effects on different people. So now I ask you:

YOUR VOICES: What makes a movie scary?

Now it’s time for Your Voices. What makes a movie scary to you? Is it even a horror picture or are there other things in film that you find frightening? Please share you thoughts on today’s question and I’d love to hear some examples of movies you find scary.

48 thoughts on “Your Voices: On What Makes a Movie Scary

  1. I am not a big fan of horror movies because I am easily startled, even if it is a jump scare. A film I refuse to watch is Wolf Creek. I watched it at college and felt sick for days afterwards. I was scared of Wolf Creek because the main action didn’t take place until about an hour into the film allowing for more development of character and plot. It was scary because of the seemingly abandoned location and the people being lulled into thinking that the serial killer was their rescuer when the car broke down. I remember jumping out of my seat in fright several times during the course of the movie.
    Also, a great blog. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words and the comments. You have me really interested in Wolf Creek! That’s a movie I really know nothing about. Sounds like it definitely left an impression on you.

  2. I’m a massive wimp when it comes to horror films. I don’t know if it’s because I have an over active imagination but suspenseful stuff, particularly if it’s supernatural, freaks me out. I’m fine with slasher stuff but films about ghosts or anything like that scares me.

  3. What I don’t like are the jump scares…yes I may jump but these are too easy to pull off and have little lasting effect.

    The best scares come from horror movies that really get under the skin over a prolonged period. My favourites include The Omen, The Exorcist and The Shining. Each maintains the tension/suspense without relying on jump scares.

    I suppose the films that leave me thinking about the horror long after the credits role are the ones that incite the fears I already have. I’m quite happy to let me suspension of disbelief take me into some quite unbelievable situations so being far-fetched doesn’t mean a horror movie won’t scare me. Indeed, I’m more likely to be afraid the things I can’t explain (supernatural stuff, gothic monsters) than the serial murderers and gangs of psychotics.

    • Very well said. Jump “scares” have always come across as cheap to me. I too like those that get under your skin. Things that make you uncomfortable. In other words I prefer creepy over cheap.

  4. The horror films that scare me most are the ones that are plausible in the real world — home invasions, serial killers, murderous spouses, etc. I tend to skip watching those types of movies because I’m already the type to grab a large knife when I’m home alone and hear a knock on the door, haha. I don’t need any extra paranoia!

    Supernatural horror has its moments, too, but I find those films more fun/fascinating than truly terrifying. They don’t get many jumps out of me but I have a skeptical interest in the paranormal, so they’re my favorites to watch.

    • That’s a very interesting perception. I can see what you’re saying. Something that could realistically happen in our own world could certainly be more unsettling. Good thought!

  5. It’s funny but jump scares always work on me. Always. I know there are coming, I saw hundreds of horror films, but they still work. I think it’s the tension – you know something will jump on screen, but you don’t know what. There is also another type of fear – of something realistic that can easily happen – Contagion scared me a lot.

    • Contagion was a great movie! I was hoping someone would mention something outside of the horror movie genre. Contagion offered a different type of fright and unease. I really like that film.

  6. The setting always. Dungeons, attics, cellars, dilapidated buildings, that creepy person, and then throw in the music–I’m a gonner. The plot doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll jump at anything. 🙂

    • LOL! That’s awesome Cindy. My wife is like that. It doesn’t matter what she’s watching, if the scenery and environment is even the slightest bit spooky, it has her instantly!

  7. It’s really hard to pin-point one specific reason because, like you said, everyone has their own personal fears and reasons for terror, so each film affects each viewer differently. My theory is that any horror flick can be scary as long as it follows one simple rule. If the film can create genuine characters that evoke sympathy from the viewer, then the torture, paranormal, psycho, etc…tormentors they encounter and endure will equally affect the viewer.

    • Very insightful. I like that. Maybe that’s why so many of these movies that are filled with throwaway characters never get the scares they’re shooting for. Good stuff.

  8. I must say I understand your sentiments about movies not scaring. I don’t think there has been a film to scare me. I love one that is well done, and sometimes a cheesy one for the laughs is well worth it. I know a lot of people that jump scares work on, though usually that is just another scene for me, and I get perplexed by statements from people that they were terrified by something.

    What can make something more memorable is definitely less is more for me. I am all good at getting involved until you start SHOWING me what is supposed to be scary, and that is where I lost interest and quickly. That takes the psychological thrill out of the equation completely for me. A sound and conceivable story will likely stick around longer. I think the last horror flick that worked for me was The Conjuring. It was not scary, but Wan worked that angle of using less to give you more perfectly. It lost its steam towards the end maybe, but everything before that was great.

    I think I watch so many horror movies because I am looking for the one that will get to me on some level, and I have yet to find it.

    Love the post topic!

    • Thanks Zoë! I’m with ya. I just never find myself scared by a movie. A better word for me is unnerving. A movie has really had an effect on me when it crawls under my skin. When things are a little eerie. I don’t scare but sometimes the creepiness can be effective and satisfying.

      • I can understand unnerving. Scared, no. For me unnerving happens when they don’t focus too much on freaking you out and showing you something ridiculous or whatever. Then it is so great.

  9. I prefer paranormal over slasher style films. When a character is up against a real person it seems they will either live or die depending upon their strengths or weaknesses – its a simple equation. In paranormal horror, the nemisis doesn’t play by the same rules of physics, time and reality – that always seems scarier to me.

  10. Ahah, I’m a bad person to answer this question as I get easily scared. But I think what’s scary is a good suspense build-up and eerie atmosphere. For example, the entire movie of IT is way scarier than the ending, if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean. I agree w/ Joseph too, a good character development always helps in any genre.

    • Hey Ruth! You actually came to mind as I was putting this together. 😀

      I think there are several things that qualify as scary that don’t necessarily fit in the horror genre. In fact, I would go was far as to say that some thrillers are scarier than many of the popular horror pictures. I say that because, like you, many of those things don’t come across as scary to me. It’s the tension and the atmosphere that is much more effective for me.

      • Yeah, I think subtlety can go a long way in setting up dread and terror. I agree that there are thrillers that really terrified me, what humans are capable of can be utterly scary, hence 12 Years A Slave could be scarier than some horror films!

  11. Cool question! I don’t really go for horror, but movies like Gravity, I Am Legend and No Country for Old Men in which characters are isolated and all but helpless in the world are scary to me. Perhaps it’s an existential horror.

    • No I think that’s a great answer. As I said elsewhere, many thrillers are 10X scarier than some of these things that call themselves horror movies. Great answer.

  12. For me it isn’t so much the ghosts and demons but more the type of horror based around disturbed individuals and real possibilities. The likes of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games would be a good example.

  13. I am really easily scared and the paranormal stuff tends to get to me more. Anything where there are distorted faces gets me for some reason as well.

  14. Nice question. I’m really into psychological horror like The Shining and Eraserhead or movies that take place in a realistic setting like Funny Games. I feel horror films work best with stronger characters.

    • Yes! Strong characters are essential. These cardboard cookie-cutter characters that we often get add absolutely nothing to the movies and often times kill any potential frights. I mean if you don’t care whether a character lives or bites it your not going to be interested when their life is threatened.

  15. I watch a lot of horror, but like you, none of them truly “scare” me. Sure, I’ll jump at a “jump scare,” but that’s a fleeting moment that passes not anything I’ll think about once the credits roll. That’s said, a number of movies have disturbed me. Most of these are the best psychological horror flicks where character development is done right, or just tell tales that make you think and could possibly happen in real life. Someone mentioned Contagion, which I’ll argue is indeed a horror flick. The situation has enough basis in reality that it creeped me out pretty good. I don’t think I shook anyone’s hand for a couple weeks. And yes, less is often more. I practically grew up on slasher flicks so gore only provokes a morbid curiosity. Stuff that works on your brain is far more potent. Then again, it’s that way across all genres, in my opinion.

  16. I love horror films and if they scare me I love them better. Most don’t manage to do the trick because they try to visualize a horror that is worse in your head. Once a spirit or maniac or monster shows up the suspense moves down. The Haunting and The Uninvited are two old school films that work because they exist mostly in your head. The Exorcist was one of the few films that worked as the horror becomes more visual. Gore disturbs more than frightens, but a jump scare with some gore will usually scare me. Tension is not the same as fear in my head. High tension is desirable in a story but it needs to be something you identify with to be scary. Like comedy, fear is subjective, I know it when I feel it but it is hard to pin down why some things give you nightmares.

    • Great points. I can’t explain why but nothing in movies really scares me. I don’t get it. Still I always appreciate when a horror movie gives me the sense of unease. That’s when I know it’s worked for me.

  17. I think I like a little bit of both. Scenes that make me jump make me feel the story unexpectedly grab my attention, where as suspense lingers and makes me anticipate what will happen next. Scream is one of those perfect movies of someone that jumps out at you with the characters getting killed off one by one but also the question of who is the killer.

  18. I don’t get easily scared in horror movies. The gore/slasher films I watch just because.. they’re usually silly fun. Not for the scares.

    The Descent got me. It brought out a fear I thought I didn’t suffer from – claustrophobia. Honestly, the way it was filmed and the sense of utter doom. Jesus that was pretty terrifying.

    If a horror film can get under my skin by being clever with the fear… that’s it.

  19. Pingback: » Movie Review – Mama (2013) Fernby Films

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