13 classic scenes that explain how horror movies work

by Todd VanDerWerff on Oct. 24, 2014

During Halloween season, horror movies are everywhere — on cable, in theaters, and in endless marathons you curate for yourself at home. But what makes scary movies tick? What sort of techniques do directors use to make you scream? Here is a broad overview of those techniques, using 13 classic horror-movie scenes.

    Light and Dark

  1. The grandfather of horror

    Nosferatu (1922)

    The grandfather of horror

    Any discussion of how horror movies work must begin in one place — the battle between light and darkness. And if we're beginning there, then there are few better places to dig in than German Expressionism, a movement that arose in post-World War I Berlin that depicted complex emotions through the use of heavily visual language and symbols. Take, for instance, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, a film that's basically a bald-faced ripoff of Dracula. This vampire, though he's made up to be a horrifying ghoul, connects to the monstrous side of our own sensuality, the part of us that feels as if it could do anything when out of control with longing. Notice how Murnau balances light and darkness throughout. It's not what we might be accustomed to in the modern era (when we can film in very low-light situations fairly easily), since this vampire story seems to be set in broad daylight, but the most famous sequence — the creature ascending the stairs to assault a young woman in her bed — is all about the interplay of light and dark. There is a great, big beam of light, and in the center of it, pure black malevolence. There's not a better single shot to explain what the horror movie is.

  2. Crossing the threshold to evil

    The Exorcist (1973)

    Crossing the threshold to evil

    This list focuses mostly on directorial techniques, but it's important to toss in some literary techniques as well, ones that horror movies took from the literature of the weird throughout the ages. One of the most important is the idea of crossing the threshold — of entering a place that cannot be exited. You leave behind reality and cross into the realm of the monstrous, or even the evil. There are few better examples of this than The Exorcist, wherein the threshold is the door to a little girl's bedroom. The film spends almost its entire running time wearing down your arguments against demonic possession, so that it may finally unleash this assault upon the senses. It's not terribly subtle, but it doesn't have to be. The priests choosing to exorcise this demon made the choice when they entered that room. (Keep an eye out for the demon's true face toward the end of the clip.)

  3. The Reveal

  4. How to reveal your villain

    The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

    How to reveal your villain

    So much of horror is about the reveal, the moment when the characters realize they've stumbled into a very, very bad situation. That reveal can take a movie that seems to be in another genre into the realm of horror, or it can take an already scary movie to another level. For my money, the best single reveal in horror history is the moment when one poor guy gets his first look at Leatherface, the killer at the center of Tobe Hooper's masterful Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What's so brilliant about this scene is the way that it perfectly sets us up for the usual slow creep into a dangerous place. We know this house out in the country is bad news, through cues both subtle — the way the camera keeps its distance — and not so — that tooth that the poor kid finds. But just when things should slow down even more, as he enters the house, Hooper speeds up the pace, and we're suddenly lost in a world of disconcerting choices, as the kid runs toward a back room filled with skulls and meets his doom. And once Leatherface is done with him, he slams the door shut. What started out on familiar ground has become something very, very sick and wrong.

  5. The monstrous intruding on the ordinary

    Halloween (1978)

    The monstrous intruding on the ordinary

    Another great monster reveal comes in director John Carpenter's classic, which essentially codified the rules of the "slasher" subgenre, wherein a bunch of horny, substance-addled teenagers are stalked by some primal force of death. The sub-genre eventually devolved into goofiness. But the original remains one of the best, purest horror movies ever made, if only because of just how long it takes for it to have the villain — murderer Michael Myers — start killing people after a short prologue. Carpenter's technique is in full force here, as hero Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) finds her descent into terror beginning with a single thing wrong: her bedroom window open. Notice how a cut to her reaction after seeing a strange figure standing in her backyard allows Carpenter to suggest that Michael Myers didn't just walk away. He literally disappeared.

  6. Long takes expertly build dread

    The Shining (1980)

    Long takes expertly build dread

    A lot of horror derives from anticipation, the dread that we feel when we're certain something bad is about to come. And that necessitates the use of the long take, an uninterrupted camera shot that we're waiting to see disrupted by something horrific. Any discussion of long takes is best served by The Shining, Stanley Kubrick's ode to one man's madness. Kubrick took one of Stephen King's best novels and turned it into something entirely different, yet very much of a piece with the book's icy heart. Ironically, this scene doesn't use as long of takes as some of the others in the film, but it still exemplifies how Kubrick allows the horrors of the Overlook Hotel to punctuate the movie's otherwise stately pace. Young boy Danny pedals around the Overlook on his Big Wheel, the camera keeping a remove, almost like a leisurely stalker. And then he turns the corner and sees ... two girls who shouldn't be there. Just when the eeriness of that settles in, Kubrick punctuates the long shots with brief jump cuts to unimaginable brutality, and the stakes for the film are heightened.

  7. Using long takes in first-person horror

    Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

    Using long takes in first-person horror

    A recent, major trend in horror is the idea of the "found footage" film, wherein the movie is made up of clips taken from "source" footage, usually shot by some enterprising would-be documentarian who stumbles into a bad situation. The purest — and possibly still best — example of this is The Blair Witch Project. But this film, the best in the Paranormal Activity series, isn't far behind. The great thing about found footage is that it necessitates the use of long, long takes, which means directors really get to play with what Kubrick was doing above. Here, in a technique the film scholar Scott Eric Kaufman calls "third person objective," we literally become the camera as it rotates on a fan's base, looking between two rooms. The subtle imbalance between a human presence in one room and nothing in the other becomes more and more pronounced, as we wait for something to fill the other room. And then it does. This clip doubles as a great primer on the use of physical space in horror films.

  8. Actually, maybe quick cuts are better?

    Psycho (1960)

    Actually, maybe quick cuts are better?

    Of course, the opposite is true as well. There is occasionally an argument to be made for cutting around the terror, for suggesting what's happening more than actually depicting it. And when it comes to that technique, there's no better place to start than with the master, Alfred Hitchcock, and the famous shower scene from Psycho. The scene is one of the most well-known in film history for all it accomplishes in such a short time, from the killing off the heroine midway through the movie to getting the audience to shift its sympathies to a brutal killer simply by understanding basic rules of storytelling. But it's also famous for how it suggests the brutality of Marion's death. You never actually see the knife plunge into her skin, but Hitchcock's jump cuts and Bernard Herrmann's shrieking strings suggest it so well that you think you do. And that's enough.

  9. The chase

  10. Show the monster as little as possible

    Alien (1979)

    Show the monster as little as possible

    At their heart, many horror films are long chases, where the heroes run and run and run, trying to escape the monsters. They never truly can, though, because the monsters are somehow all around them. There's good reason for this — fear of being pursued by an unstoppable force is an incredibly common nightmare to have, and scary movies are always pushing to tap into our deepest fears. What's brilliant about this chase is both how it upends everything you think you know about Alien and how it uses another dimension than we're used to. Tom Skerritt's character Dallas, up until this point, seems like the film's hero, so when he ventures into the monster's lair, we expect him to at least get one up on the beast. What he doesn't count on is the added dimension of height, of the fact that the monster is stalking him from, literally, below. (Down, of course, has tons of subconscious associations with evil in our minds.) Notice how director Ridley Scott cuts immediately from Dallas's death to the face of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Here's the film's true hero, hiding in plain sight.

  11. Actually, maybe show the monster a ton

    The Host (2006)

    Actually, maybe show the monster a ton

    Alien keeps the monster chasing the hero offscreen. The Host manages the arguably even trickier feat of having the creature onscreen all of the time. It almost has to, since the film is such a political work that needs the audience to continuously contemplate the consequences of South Korea's relationship with the United States, humanity's failure to care for the environment, and all other manner of things. That means a constant assault of images of the film's central fish monster. But this works because director Bong Joon-Ho speeds things up, ratcheting past your natural suspicions to tap directly into the part of your brain that has had the dream where you are being chased by a relentless force. He also makes excellent use of laughter, punctuating this scene — the monster's initial appearance — with lots of great shock scares that have the rhythm of comedy bits.

  12. The chase can be slow and relentless, too

    The Devil's Backbone (2001)

    The chase can be slow and relentless, too

    Here's another chase; this one slower-paced. It's from Guillermo del Toro's great ghost story, which situates the tale of the specter of a young boy against the background of the Spanish Civil War. There's much of the logic of the zombie film here. The young ghost moves slowly but is relentless, constantly closing in on the film's protagonist (also a child), but unlike in zombie films, del Toro wants the audience to feel real sympathy for the ghost, who died before his time. Indeed, though he's a spooky figure throughout the film, all he wants — in the classic ghost story sense — is to put some unfinished business to rest. This scene is a great example of how to keep a chase going even when the pace is slow. It's also an excellent example of how to build a kind of inherent sympathy for the monster, while also keeping things scary.

  13. Using sound to scare

  14. Finding terror in silence

    The Innocents (1961)

    Finding terror in silence

    Clearly, images are central in horror films, but sound is just as important, whether it's dead silence punctuated by something eerie or a constantly ascending cacophony. This great British ghost story aims for the former, as our hero — a governess untangling the mysteries of an old estate and the children who live there (or maybe just a woman going mad) — hears strange, unearthly noises throughout the house in the middle of the night. What's brilliant about the sound design here is the way that it gradually flips. The sounds of reality are overmixed at the beginning, with the ghostly noises sounding faint and far-off. But as the scene goes on, the ghosts become more prominent, and reality swirls into nothingness. It neatly pulls us into the protagonist's headspace.

  15. Finding terror in the noisy din

    Freaks (1932)

    Finding terror in the noisy din

    Here's an example of the relentless onslaught technique, which also doubles as a lesson in the audience's own prejudices. Tod Browning's early ‘30s film wasn't made very long into the sound era, yet the director's technique relies on sound. Much of Freaks up until this point has played off the viewer's own innate lack of comfort with people who do not conform to the usual standards of human shapes and sizes. It plays off our tendency to stare, in other words. And as the film's titular sideshow attractions begin to chant "Gooble gobble" at a wedding feast, welcoming an unfaithful, beautiful bride who has married her groom solely for his money into their ranks, the sound design becomes all encompassing, and it's not hard to sympathize with the woman as she snaps and yells horrifying things at them. But that's the film's point — she is the true villain, and the freaks are the true family, the true caring ones. By prejudging them, we side with her, and who wants to be that person?

  16. Pulling it all together

  17. Everything all at once

    The Descent (2006)

    Everything all at once

    Here, in director Neil Marshall's terrific 2006 film about a spelunking expedition that goes very wrong, we see all of the above techniques brought together masterfully. Despite the lack of murderous, supernatural beasties in this scene, it's still scary as hell, using the image of our heroine getting stuck in a tight tunnel deep beneath the earth to play off our very common fears of claustrophobia. This scene has it all. It's got light piercing the darkness just barely. It's got long, long shots of the woman struggling to get free. It's got the distinct sense that something is coming, even if it's just a cave-in. And it's got some masterful use of sound. Even better: this scene sets up almost every major conflict in the movie to follow. Just masterful stuff.