There seems to be this common misconception that horror’s sole purpose is to terrify its audience, typically with the idea of making them jump in reaction to something startling. But horrors won’t scare everybody, and if you look back on a lot of classic horrors, they’re snore-fests for today’s audience (excluding Japanese movies, because what the fuck Japan? You’re too good at horror).
Since horrors can’t guarantee they’ll scare everyone, there needs to be something else for people to enjoy. A good horror story isn’t dependent on scaring you, but has something else to offer those who aren’t easily scared. Horror fails when it has nothing else to offer, but cheap scares (if that). Movies with dull attempts at creating tension and recycled characters alluding to a horrifying presence through generic dialogue like “I don’t think we’re alone” or “there’s something behind you” tend to rely on jump scares to earn their badges of horror. Now, that’s fine and good if that’s what you want out of your horror, but it’s not tapping into the potential of the genre all that much, and essentially is an drawn-out equivalent of Scary Maze games.
On the flip side of this, you have movies that use horror as its tone – rather than deliberately go out if its way to shock the audience, and instead preferring to have an engaging narrative with the sense of something horrifying lingering in the background. Take Alien for example, given the setting, atmosphere, and conflict for the characters, it’s fundamentally still a horror. They’re trapped out in space, and hiding for their lives, trying to escape from a dangerous unknown horror. The situation of being trapped in space is a horrifying predicament, even without the added bit of tension from the alien, for obvious reasons. Here, it isn’t so much the visuals that are terrifying as it is the idea of being in this scenario.
Horror doesn’t need to be scary toward the audience, but it should try to be believable for the characters to be afraid for their lives, and have understandable context and reasons behind whatever course of action the characters take. Fear is a great source of conflict and there are so many different forms of fear that can be used to great effect in storytelling: fear of death, fear of isolation, fear of confronting the incomprehensible, as well as fear of insanity, and fear of the unknown, and so on.
If it’s not intended to scare the audience directly, it should aim to evoke tension from the atmosphere, and place the audience’s fear on the characters instead. Of course, this would require having likeable and relatable characters. Another, for the most part, lacks this. Sure, the deaths are gruesome, but the characters are so bland and one-dimensional that there’s more of a sense of humour surrounding their deaths than horror. It doesn’t serve to terrorize the audience, nor does it place much value on the characters’ lives for us to care if they die. Occasionally, some sympathy might arise from otherwise nice enough characters being killed off for seemingly no reason, and that can evoke something akin to horror – in the vain that it’s horrifying to realize or remember that it’s normal for people to die for no reason. But these moments are cut short by the jarring tone and sheer ridiculousness of everything going on – so much so, that it becomes hilarious and more of a tragicomedy than a horror.
Higurashi, however, is a prime example of a horror story that while unnerving at times, might not be frightening for the audience, and embodies the concept of horror in its setting through talk of superstition surrounding the village and curses, while maintaining an air of tension through putting its characters in ambiguous situations. And the accompanying eerie soundtrack elevates all this. Higurashi has great characters and expertly crafts a mystery with a strong air of suspense in a really believable way. Whether or not it scares you isn’t what makes it a horror, because the elements are there. It’s a horror story for the characters involved, and horrifying for you because the characters are likable, charming or interesting enough to get invested in their lives and feel concerned or distressed by the potential danger surrounding them.
Then you have video games. This is your Fatal Frames, your Silent Hills, Dead Space, and so on. In a medium where the player is in control and has power to overcome almost anything with enough firepower, it can be difficult for developers to find a harmonious balance between this capability and what’s supposed to be a frightening or perturbing setting. But even though you can breeze through Dead Space on the highest difficulty without so much as a jump from the necromorphs, there is no doubt that it’s full of a horrifying creatures. The scenario is bleak and the atmosphere is dreary and the setting is disturbing. Dead Space is what I would consider an action-horror, where your level of competency in your weapons ultimately determines how frightening the experience will be. Games like: Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, and Dead Rising do this as well.
Fatal Frame, however, a game I still consider terrifying to play. It’s chilling because your enemies are disembodied spirits, your setting is an array of cursed and haunted locations (Japanese mansions), and your weapon is a camera. Taking photos with your camera is your defense against these spirits, and it’s always unnerving, because it doesn’t ever feel like a viable weapon against hostile, incorporeal beings. Oh, and unlike Dead Space, where you’re in third-person shooting away your fears without having to stare at them that long, Fatal Frame requires you face your fears directly by having you go into first-person every time you use your camera. Which is the only way of pacifying and capturing the spirits, and the only way of progressing in the game.
This feeling is to be expected of a game like Fatal Frame, as it is survival-horror, a genre where your situation and setting is made to seem as dark and unsettling as possible, while making you feel under equipped and unprepared for what is to come. It’s about taking away or minimizing as much power and control from the player as possible, while still making it playable and beatable. Difficulty isn’t so much to do with unfair mechanics, as it is the level of competency and courage you have to continue. Other games that do this well are: Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Eternal Darkness, Alien: Isolation, P.T., and Silent Hill.
Essentially, anything full of horrifying elements falls into the category of horror. It’s not a matter of if it made you tremble in fear or jump in shock at a split-second disturbing frame or unsettling sound. It’s a matter of evoking a sense of disturbance. A dark corridor filled with corpses with a flickering light revealing more gruesome horrors, and concealing lurking threats is disquieting.
While fear, mystery, suspense, and surprise are all important components of a good horror, they’re not the be-all and end-all of it. Having strong relatable, likable or interesting characters is a golden rule for any story, but in horror it’s more titillating because there’s a higher chance that they’ll die in gruesome ways. As is creating a believable setting with a strong atmosphere and convincing tonal shifts (i.e. broad daylight begins mystery, nighttime evokes an air of dread).
The real trick of horror is leaving it ambiguous and down to the imagination. Jump scares are good if all you want from horror is a cheap thrill of excitement, but it’s not all horror is or can be. Great horror doesn’t rely on triggering easily manipulable reactions. Great horror is able to seep dread into your head gradually and plant ideas of terror for you to dwell on the rest of your day or even weeks.