After I have a character and a horror concept as the engine for a film, (whether it's a short film or a feature), I always like to look at what I consider to be the four fundamental tenants of creating horror. They're building blocks, tools, paints for your palette. There's a ton more, but these are just the bare basics - the primary colors of terror.
In no particular order, they're isolation, darkness, helplessness, and finally, the uncanny. They're concepts that make you uncomfortable. And discomfort is the key underlying sensation of almost all good horror.
First let's look at isolation. All of these tenants go back to early childhood fears and this one (along with darkness) is probably the most primal, and the most basic for all of us. Every time mommy leaves her toddler in the playpen for a minute to go grab the laundry, we can thank her for creating another horror fan. We're pack animals and it's in our nature to team up to face adversity. So when we're alone and in trouble it goes against the very essence of our instincts. Remember that. In horror, that's what you want: go against the grain of the audience's comfort zones.
If you can isolate your character, you immediately create pathos and empathy with your audience, who are hopefully sitting there watching, going, "Oh no, I'd be shitting my pants if that were me." Get that from your audience and you win. Isolation is found in nearly ALL horror films, but it's the main component in Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Saw, The Orphanage (pictured above), Strangers... God, the list goes on forever. It's as prevalent as blood or sharp instruments.
The only thing worse than being alone is being alone in the dark, which brings me to the next horror tool.
Darkness is self explanatory and is the main ingredient in almost every horror film. It's the perfect tool because it creates both literal fear - "What's in the dark with me?" - and metaphorical fear of The Unknown.
Rather than list the films that use darkness well, let me rather point out one film where the director patently refuted this tool. In Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, he almost spitefully disregarded this tenant. In that film, Light WAS dark. Brightness was evil. How did he do it so unfuckingbelievably successfully? Two ways. He replaced darkness with doors and hallways to represent the unknown. And he amped UP the isolation component of the story. But at the heart of his success was knowing the tools and choosing which ones to replace, disuse and add more of.
This can range from "the villain is in control" and you are screwed, (Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw - all "torture porn," really) to "you don't understand what's going on around you" and you are screwed, (Jacob's Ladder, Martyrs), all the way to more esoteric instances where the villain is abstract like the ocean (Open Water) or fate (Final Destination).
In fact, I'm at a loss to think of a good horror film where the villain (or evil abstract construct) is not in control. Just like darkness and isolation, helplessness goes against our grain, rubs us the wrong way. Makes us uncomfortable. True genius might be in creating a horror film where the protagonist is in total control, and yet we're still terrified. As I've said, these rules are made to be broken, but first they have to be fully understood.
One tool that you either love or hate is "The Uncanny." It's a component of supernatural storytelling and it's really a branch of the "what's in the darkness/unknown" kind of fear. This tool is used to throw shit at your audience that breaks their mind, makes them go WTF!?, and typically remains unexplainable at the end. This is where you fit monsters, ghosts, demons, outer planes, hells, and every conceivable kind of bizarre thing that doesn't fit into our known physical, rational world. It runs deeper than mere confusion or illusion, and goes right into felt-to-the-bone disturbing STRANGENESS.
If you use this tool correctly, someone in the audience will inevitably go "Oh my god, that's INSANE. I would totally shit my pants if I saw that thing." Something so wrong, so weird, so evil and so unexplainable to our tiny ape minds, that it sends our heads swimming.
Cronenberg in the 1980's was a master of this tool. In his 1983 masterpiece Videodrome, Cronenberg has people on TV interacting with viewers at home, shows a man insert a VHS tape into his gut, and even shows a sexual encounter between a giant pair of lips on a TV screen and protagonist James Woods. As you watch this film, it bends your reality, has you grimacing at the screen for 90 plus minutes. Now THAT'S uncanny...
Those are the very basic building blocks, conceptually speaking, of creating powerful horror. Just like paints, you can use the colors you like, mix them to make better ones, or just toss them out entirely and get new ones. But before you do, it's always good to know the basics. And once you play around with these Duplo blocks for a while, it'll be time to move on to the big-boy legos.
See you in a week, I'm off to the set of my new short, wherein I explore Isolation, Darkness, Helplessness, and the Uncanny. All in a little story about an evil Jack-in-the-Box and the little girl who loves it...
I'll tell you if I manage to pull it off. Or you'll tell me!
Gaudium per Atrox.