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Stephen King’s hierarchy of scares remains the best explanation of how horror movies work

The new horror sequel Rings aims for jump-scares, not terror. That’s an important distinction.

Julia (Matilda Lutz) faces Samara in Rings

You can tell a lot about a horror movie by how it tries to scare you. Does it slowly build fear and tension, only to expel it all in a climactic release? Does it dwell on horrific acts of violence or scenes of gore, in hopes of making you cringe with feeling at the thought of experiencing such pain yourself? Does it explore bizarre imagery, or some supernatural concept? Or does it rely on simple surprise, loud noises and unexpected appearances intended to cause you to jump out of your seat?

Last weekend’s Rings, the third installment in the American Ring franchise, aims for a mood of surreal dread, but ends up leaning on lazy jump scares for most of its jolts. Unlike the 2002 Gore Verbinski film that started the franchise, which was built on creepy imagery and mounting psychological terror, Rings is content to startle rather than scare. Indeed, the new installment seems to lack a basic theory of fear; it has no sense of how and why the audience should be afraid at any given moment.

What, exactly, makes a movie scary or silly is different for everyone. But the best dissection of the various types of scares and how they work probably comes from the horror genre’s most successful modern practitioner, Stephen King. In Danse Macabre, his 1980 treatise on horror film and fiction, he outlined three essential types of terror and how they work. His categorization remains the best way to understand how horror stories work — and why some types of fictional scares have a more lasting impact than others.

Scares exist on a spectrum

Danse Macabre grew out of a series of lectures King had been giving as part of a college course on horror fiction. Most of the book consists of King’s observations on the horror films and stories of the era, from Roger Corman quickies to arty sci-fi horror masterpieces like Alien. (A 2010 update includes a new introduction that briefly looks at more recent entries in the horror genre.) It’s worth reading simply as a guide to how King thinks about the work of others who are trying to do the same thing he is — namely, scare the pants off of readers and viewers, and get them to pay for it.

The most resonant part of the book, however, comes near the beginning, when King discusses three different categories of scare.

On one end of the spectrum, there’s The Gross Out: the creatively gory or obscene image designed to engage your “ick” factor. In the middle there’s The Horror, which, as King wrote in a 2014 Facebook post summarizing his categories, is “the unnatural …when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arms.” And finally, there’s “Terror,” the panic you feel “when the lights go out and when you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against you, and you turn around, there’s nothing there.”

To King, these represent not only different types of terror, but a kind of craftsman’s hierarchy, with terror at the top.

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion…” he writes in the book, “and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” Terror, in other words, is what he aspires to, but he’ll go the gross-out route if that’s all he can manage.

King’s hierarchy is about as astute an explanation as you’ll find of how scares work, and it ought to serve as a guide for horror storytelling in any medium: Sometimes you have to give into the gross out, but true terror — the gnawing fear of the twisted and unknown — should always be the goal.

Terror exploits the way the human mind works

The reason that terror stands at the top of the scare-charts is that, when expertly applied, it offers something more than just a momentary jolt, or gag-reflex revulsion. That’s because terror turns your mind against yourself: It implants a terrible and troubling idea, and then nudges you toward dwelling on all of its horrific implications, turning them over and over in your mind. Terror is first and foremost psychological, a way of exploiting the way the human mind works.

King himself is a master of creating terror. Pet Sematary, which King has said is his own pick for his scariest book, tells the story of a doctor and father whose family cat dies and is given a dark new life after he buries it at a haunted Indian grave site. When his son dies, he begins to consider digging the boy out of his grave, bringing him back to life through the same process. The final 100 pages of the book are mostly an internal chronicle of how the father comes to justify his course of action.

The book has its share of gross-out imagery at the gravesite, and the murderous half-dead child who eventually comes back to life, but it works because dwells on the father’s state of mind. It shows readers how he is overcome by — and eventually carries out — this deeply disturbing idea, and makes terrifyingly clear how such an idea could become implanted in any rational mind. It’s the power of this deranged idea that makes the book so frightening. Like a pop song that gets stuck in your head, it’s hard to shake once you encounter it.

Rings devolves The Ring’s terror into base scares

You can see this same sort of idea-driven horror at work in many of the best horror films: Although King famously isn’t a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, it works as a story of an individual’s slowly deteriorating psychology. By the end of the movie, when Kubrick gives you a brief and disorienting glimpse of a man in a bear suit engaged in what looks like a strange act, you wonder if maybe you haven’t gone a little crazy, too.

The Shining
“Terror … when you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel it’s breath against you, and you turn around, there’s nothing there.”
Warner Bros.

Or take Alien, a monster movie dressed up as science-fiction, which works in part because of how little you see of the actual creature: The monster you imagine is always more frightening than the man in the rubber suit. (The same goes for Jaws.) Even a film as schlocky as the original Nightmare on Elm Street works from a similar sort of conceptual premise, the idea that you are vulnerable as soon as you fall asleep. It takes an ordinary part of everyday life and imbues it with new danger.

The same goes for Gore Verbinski’s original The Ring, one of the few American J-horror adaptations (in this case, of 1998’s Ringu) that brings its own style and tone to the proceedings. The premise — that innocent people can be marked for death by watching what is essentially a haunted videotape, and can save themselves only by forcing someone else to watch a copy — sounds remarkably silly on paper, but Verbinski made it work. The Ring turned the death-mark into a kind of virus, passed from person to person, playing up the terror of either facing one’s own death or exposing someone else to the same fate.

It was a movie about the allure of watching, the insatiable need to see something powerful, forbidden, and dangerous. Verbinski’s film had its share of standout shocks, but it was fundamentally a film about the frailty of human psychology. It was scary because of how its characters thought — and how it transferred those thoughts to its own viewers, who were themselves sitting in front of screens, watching something in order to scare themselves.

Rings, in contrast, doesn’t seem to grasp why the original worked so well. The movie takes the franchise into the digital age, replacing the VHS tapes of the original with copied computer files. But although it starts with a potentially promising idea involving a professor who studies the phenomenon, creating “tails” for each person who watches the tape, it quickly loses sight of the core killer-video premise. Instead, it sends its two leads, a young college-aged couple who become caught up in the professor’s experiments, down a rabbit hole to track the origins of a new video found hidden in the code of the old. They end up in a small town with a grisly secret history and a murderous priest played with characteristic gusto by Vincent D’Onofrio. In the end, there are a handful of sudden screeches and other loud noises intended to jolt, and a few produce the intended result.

Samara in Rings

But the young couple, played with stupefying blankness by Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe, are so devoid of personality and charisma that I hardly cared whether they lived or died — in other words, there is no psychology to connect with. And the reliance on jump cares is more annoying than frightening; it feels like the movie is constantly poking you.

But the biggest problem with Rings is that there’s nothing to hold it all together, no infectious idea to strike terror into the mind. It’s a horror movie that offers no reason to be afraid.

There’s no single right way to scare someone — and what scares one won’t always scare another — but the particular type of scare a horror movie chooses, and the effectiveness with which it’s delivered, reveals something about its ambitions and sense of purpose.

Although many horror films seek only to create momentary fear, the very best of the bunch — those that successfully manage to create King’s conception of terror — break through the barriers of our rational minds, burrowing into our psyches in ways that can terrify us for the rest of our lives.

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