Judging Criteria

We’re going to describe three facets by which we can judge horror movie effectiveness – how scary it is. This is outside the effectiveness by which any movie can be judged (whether the story made sense, whether the set pieces were skillfully built, whether the actors gave good performances, etcetera). Anyway, these three facets, critical to scary movies, are dread, shock, and horror.

“The Invitation” – a movie full of dread.

Dread is an ongoing atmosphere of foreboding, during which perhaps nothing overtly sinister is happening, but mundane aspects of life take on an eerie or threatening aspect. Dread is the emotional state upon which a horror movie coasts, ideally priming the pump for later, more intense thrills.

“Scream” – a good example of shock.

Shock is the cheapest currency a horror movie can spend, and many low-quality horror movies overspend it. It’s created by sudden outbursts, loud musical stings, even innocuous cliches like the ubiquitous “kitten scare.” Shock is a release valve for the dread built up during a film’s quieter moments, a burst of welcome adrenaline for an engaged audience.

Final scene from “The Blair Witch Project” – horror.

Horror, the sensation after which the genre is named, is a sense of visceral distress, a primal discomfort created in the audience, a feeling that the events witnessed have gone irrevocably wrong, that no one exposed to such circumstances could come away unchanged for the worse. While explicit, grisly violence is the most common and dependable vector for triggering horror, it’s a testament to the creativity to writers and filmmakers that so many different ways to create a feeling of deep, nauseous repulsion in an audience.