I love horror movies. It is the moral lesson that appeals to me most. From the humble beginnings of the Grendel in “Beowulf”, the oldest extant work written in English, come all the psychos, monsters, spooks, and scares that we’ve become familiar with throughout the history of film. Horror films teach social and moral lessons the same way the story of Beowulf did when society was a collection of fragile tribes, by fear. From the thousands of horror films I have watched, I’ve identified five scares that horror movies utilize to make you afraid.
The most basic scare of horror films, The Jump, is contained in some of the other scares. The Jump is a jack-in-the-box type scare, where something pops out at the audience. This can be a zombie, the killer character, or even something like the eyes of a corpse snapping open. The Jump is almost always accompanied by a loud noise to increase the startling effect. The loud noise can be a scream, sudden unintelligible sounds, or orchestral sounds such as a sharp violin or a cymbal crash.
The False Scare
The False Scare uses the same sound cues as The Jump, to set the audience on edge. People are often tricked into thinking the scare is a real Jump, and react with fear. The scare is false because the sound cues mislead the audience into thinking a Jump is coming, but when the hero throws the door open it is a friend, or when the loud noise comes it is merely a car horn, warning the hero to stay out of the street. Sam Rami, one of the great directors of horror, made a true masterpiece in “Drag Me to Hell”. This movie uses all of the five scares and even compounds them. In addition to a Double Jump, he manages a Double False Scare, and possibly a Double Fridge Scare.
The Fridge Scare
I call it the Fridge Scare, but it can happen any time a door obstructs the camera. The “fridge” can be (among other things) a closet door, a medicine cabinet door, or a locker. I also refer to the Fridge Scare as the “Tupac”, because of the scene using a locker door in the movie “Juice”. When a character opens a door and blocks the camera, then closes the door and there is a Jump, that’s a Fridge Scare. Some Fridge Scares can also be False Scares, such as the opening scene in “The Ring”. Actress Rachel Bella opens the fridge door, and the background music becomes tense, leading our expectations, but when the door closes nothing is there. Conversely, if her friend or a family member had been there to give her (or the audience) a Jump, that would also be a Fridge Scare.
The Cat Scare
What I call the Cat Scare, is named after the orange cat in “Alien”, who jumped out and scared Sigourney Weaver and the audience more than once in the same film. The ‘Cat’ in the Cat Scare can be a snake, a rat, or even a flock of birds or bats that suddenly takes flight. The Cat Scare differs from a False Scare by its circumstances. Usually the character is imperiled by the Cat Scare, such as when standing on a high cliff ledge, defusing a bomb, or simply having to catch that darn cat while the alien approaches.
The Legit Scare
The Legit Scare doesn’t use any Jumps to make you afraid. There are no loud noises, nothing jumps out and goes, “Boo!” The Legit Scare fills you with a chill, a sense of fear or dread that unfolds right in front of your eyes without the tricks the other scares use. The Legit Scare is pure horror and is my favorite type of scare. It stays with you, because it doesn’t rely on the adrenaline burst of the Jump. There is a tiny Jump in “The Mothman Prophecies”, but the fear in that movie largely comes from a slowly building sense of dread that stays with you after the film is over. One of my favorite films from After Dark Horrorfest 4, “Lake Mungo” has no Jumps at all. Nothing ever “pops out” during the film and there are no musical or noise cues to make you jump, but after that movie was over, I wanted to turn on every light in my house.
I consider “torture-porn” type horror movies such as “Hostel” or “Ichi the Killer” cheap scares and poor storytelling, but this type of horror sometimes falls into the Legit Scare category. The important factor is the psychological impact or underpinning. “Hostel” relies heavily on the sound of the victims’ screaming to unnerve and horrify the audience; turning the volume to near zero stops the movie from being scary. Conversely, if you close your eyes and just listen, it’s still horrifying. That’s a Legit Scare, albeit a cheap and limited one. Gratuitous gore for its own sake, isn’t part of the five scares, it’s a cheap gross-out.
Joe Capristo has watched thousands of horror films, and is pretty jaded. He gives high marks to films that can still give him a good scare.