Elements of Horror EQ: Why do we have horror? What makes something scary?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Two genres specifically cater to the emotion of fear: thrillers and horror. Both genres focus on characters in peril, threatened by some outside force or antagonist. Both genres start with an abnormal "what if" scenario and explore it. What if the FBI needed a psycho to catch a psycho is the spine behind Silence of the Lambs. What if a dying man decided to teach moral lessons through torture and mutilation is the spine of the horror film Saw. As similar as they are, thrillers and horror are separated by one critical and foundational element: thrillers have a realistic situation and antagonist, while horror focuses on unnatural monsters.

The Unnatural

One of the most important elements of horror is the incorporation of the unnatural or supernatual, things that do not and could not exist in the real world. Horror antagonists need to be unnatural or supernatural in order to make the audience feel like they could also be a victim, no matter how strong or secure they are in real life. These monsters also play upon specific fears and insecurities of the audience--for example, vampires play upon fears of sexual intimacy, werewolves play upon fears of one's body image and self-control, and zombies play upon fears of losing one's identity and becoming part of a faceless crowd. Even human monsters have unnatural traits--Ghostface from Scream can seemingly be in two places at once while Michael Myers from Halloween and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th are unkillable, unfeeling, and mute.

Threat of Death

Next, the unnatural element has to threaten the protagonist with death. Said death can either be a physical death or mental death. Physical threats can include being stabbed, impaled, burned, drowned, suffocated, eaten, or dismembered. Physical threats can also be bodily additions or mutilations, such as a protagonist gaining monstrous attributes like claws or horns. Mental death can include being driven to insanity, like the woman in "The Yellow Wallpaper" or the mind games Hannibal Lecter plays with Clarice Starling. Mental death can also be losing control over one's mind or self through acts of mind control (like in The Stepford Wives), societal control (like in Midsommar), or possession (like in The Babadook). Without a threat of some kind of physical or mental death, the stakes are too low for the audience to feel true fear.

The Innocent vs. the Abominable

By being unnatural and threatening the protagonist with death, the antagonists of horror stories tend to be abominable, meaning they are so evil and irrideemable that they are meant to be hated. Ironically, most fans of horror love the antagonists like Dracula, Freddy, Chucky, and Pinhead as much as their victims, yet this doesn't change the fact that, to the characters in the film, these monsters cannot be redeemed. Even villains who were undeserving victims like Candyman or Jason cannot gain sympathy with their protagonists without the protagonists crossing over into the darkness as well.

To contrast from the abominable attributes of the antagonist, the story usually involves an innocent who is "pure of heart." Sometimes, the innocent is the protagonist, like Nancy Thompson in Friday the 13th. Sometimes, the innocent is protected by the protagonist, like how Tommy is protected by Laurie Strode in Halloween. Often, an innocent becomes a victim of the abominable monster, like Casey Becker in Scream. By contrasting the pure innocent against the abominable villain, horror raises the stakes and make who the audience should root for clear.

Just Retribution

However, not everyone in a horror movie is unrelentingly evil or pure as driven snow. Usually the opposite is true--horror movies operate in a fatalistic way, where the good are usually spared and those that are sinful are slain. This is the idea of just retribution. Look at the victims in the film Halloween: Annie does drugs and abandons Lindsey to fool around with her boyfriend, while Lynda and Bob use Annie's absence from the house to have sex. However, Laurie (who isn't promiscuous) survives, as well as the innocent kids under her care. Even sinful characters who don't die get their comeuppance, like the economic losses suffered by Mr. Teague in Poltergeist, who commissioned the Questa Verde development to be built on a cemetery. Just retribution allows an audience to escape the horror at the end--sure, these threats are unstoppable, but if we're good people, we'll be fine. The only wicked one who occasionally escapes justice is the monster itself--otherwise, how else could the story continue in sequels?


These deaths are not just necessary to ensure the film rewards the good and punishes the wicked, but are also used to create dramatic tension. These deaths act as foreshadowing of the final battle between the monster and the narrator. Foreshadowing is an indication of future events inserted by the author, and it often occurs through the incorporation of a harbinger, which warns of the danger before it occurs but is ignored. Often this harbinger is a character, like Dr. Loomis in Halloween, but could also be a metaphorical sign (like the bird flying into the window and dying in The Birds) or even a literal sign (like the Keep Out signs at Camp Crystal Lake).  A monster can even curse victims and become its own harbinger, like Freddy Krueger's curse upon the parents of his victims in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Foreshadowing is crucial for dramatic tension, as it makes the audience more involved, yelling at the characters to "don't go in the basement!"


Foreshadowing also adds to the atmosphere of a horror story. Atmosphere, or the pervading mood of a place and situation, is a combination of stylistic elements and setting details that make something "feel creepy." In horror stories, these style elements include characters with wary or malicious tones, descript imagery, words that convey visceral reactions, and dialogue that is very abrupt and fast-paced in its syntax. Horror films use mise en scene that looks old and falling apart, plain cinematography, lots of shadows and night shots, slow paced long shots followed by tons of quick cuts, and unsettling music to create a terrifying atmosphere. Creepy settings are the norm--abandoned houses, farms, castles, and cemeteries often make for good horror settings--though sometimes horror stories pick a seemingly normal location and make it terrifying, like a home invasion, to prove that the audience isn't safe anywhere.


Why are all these settings abandoned? It adds to the element of isolation or separation from others. Isolation is required in a horror story--the tension will not be built if the serial killer is stabbing people in front of the police station in the middle of the afternoon. Rather, monsters come out in the dark and prey upon those who are alone. This is why most settings are isolated from readily available help, such as abandoned buildings, forests, and farms. Even settings in neighborhoods are isolated by having the phone lines cut, the lights go out, and possibly the neighbors as monsters themselves. Isolation isn't always physical either: Carrie White is isolated socially, which leads to the disaster at Prom Night. Joanna Eberhart is the only wife in Stepford not turned into a machine, keeping her in a constant state of isolation.


All of these elements build suspense, the glue that holds a horror story together and keeps the reader interested. Suspense does require one element to work: mystery, an element that the characters or audience can't explain. Without a mystery pushing the story forward, the suspense has no purpose or punch. In Saw, the mystery is why the two gentlemen were put in the room. In Scream, we want to know who the killer is. Sometimes the audience knows the mystery that the characters don't, like where Marion Crane has disappeared to in Psycho, and the suspense is in waiting for the characters to figure the mystery out. Sometimes the mystery is as simple as wondering who will survive.

A good horror story requires all these elements in order to be effective at purifying built up emotions of fear. A good horror story doesn't even necessarily have to be scary to be effective, as not every member of the audience fears the exact same monster. I may be terrified of, say, clowns while clowns don't affect my friend in the least. In watching a clown horror film, I may be petrified and he relaxed, but the story will still engage both of us in the purging of fear. Even cross-genre piece like comedic horror or sci-fi horror help engage our emotions in fear response should the text employ all of the aforementioned elements.

Horror Subgenres
  • BODY HORROR: In body horror, the threat is not an outside monster, but one's own body rebelling against the protagonist, turning the person into a monster.
  • SLASHER: Mostly a film genre, this subgenre revolves around suburban teenagers and an unknown mystery killer picking them off one by one. By the end of the film, the killer's identity is revealed and the killer "dies," is arrested, or escapes. The protagonist and enough characters are left surviving to mount a sequel, as slashers are always serialized.
  • GOTHIC HORROR: Gothic literature is a mix of nineteenth century Romanticism and Horror. While Gothic Horror is more a literary movement than subgenre, some modern texts still use Gothic tropes like brooding castles, appeals to God and religion, and European traditionalism vs. New World liberty.
  • Every type of monster has its own subgenre, as each monster has its own fans and rules for how they operate. For a full list of the types of monsters in horror, click on the link below.
Created By
Brandon Coon


Created with an image by isabellaquintana - "clown all-in-one character"