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What Creates Fear In Horror Movies?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5034 words Published: 12th May 2017

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Why I am frightened?With my dissertation, I don’t want to explain the entire horror cinema story, nor mention all the important directors or the actually best movies in this genre. My aim is to know what makes the people scary in a movie, what are the elements that really creates a feeling of anxiety and stress.

To achieve this goal, first of all I will analyse the beginning of the cinema (the silent movies) in order to know which is the ground of our current horror cinema culture. I think before trying to analyse any topic oneself must know the origins of this specific topic, the reality because this topic it’s like it currently is. After that, I will make a quick review of the horror films of each decade until the appearing of the first horror film in first-person perspective.

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This is because I think that the first-person perspective horror films are the culmination of our research to scare the public, I think that kind of movies are our current best bet in this issue.So with the help of the analysis of this kind of movies together with the analysis of the origins of the horror film genre, I expect to know how and what really makes us scary.

Before first-person perspective horror

The horror film genre born at the same time than the cinema, although did it unintentionally. “L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat” (Arrival of a train at the Ciotat) recorded by Lumière Brothers at 1986,showed simply the arrival of a train in a platform at a railway station. Despite of it, the public who went for the first time to see the film, became frightened and ran out of the room believing that the train would come out of the screen and run over them(Martin Loiperdinger and Bernd Elzer, 2004).

That first feeling of terror using a filming was because the viewers in those days didn’t know anything about cinema, camera shots and audiovisual language in general. So, from then on, it would be necessary to find new ways to scare and stress the public, more deliberate ways. This result in the birth of the horror film genre, whose objective is to make feel the public in danger, scared, frightened, like the audience who was watching the train arriving in the Lumière’s film.

Silent Movies, the beginning

Logically, the first horror movies were in the field of silent films. Thus, the first horror movies were silent, in black-and-white, and they used to be closely linked to the fantasy genre, prevailing mythological or legendary characters who lived among the society. Here are some outstanding examples:

Frankenstein (1910)

Director: J. Searle Dawley Country: United States Duration: 12 min.

Plot: Film adaption of Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein”or also called”The modern Prometheus”, published in 1818. Victor Frankenstein is a young student of 35 years old who is trying to create the ultimate creature. However, his experiments led him to create a terrible monster, deformed, which constantly attacks the people around it. But the creature disappears when Victor Frankenstein falls in love.

The film was recorded in fixed camera and using long shots during all its duration.

“Der Golem” (The Golem)(1915)

Director: Paul Wagener Country: Germany Duration: 84 min.

Plot:Film adaption of Gustav Meyrink’s novel with the same name. The rabbi Loew sees in the stars a sign of that a catastrophe will engulf the Jewish people. Meanwhile, the emperor of Prague gives a command to expel the Jews of the city. The rabbi decides to create a clay figure, the Golem, which what will save the Jews’ ghetto.

This production is divided into five chapters and has two sequels, “The Golem and the Dancing Girl” and “The Golem: How He Came Into the World”. Both are also inspired in the medieval Prague but they don’t belong to the same genre as the original one.

“Das Kabinett des DoktorCaligari” (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1919)

Director: Robert Wiene Country: Germany Duration: 51 min.

Plot: Two friends, Francis and Alan, visit a fair in Holstenwall town (north of Germany). Once there, the mad Dr. Caligari and his faithful somnambulist friend Cesare announcesthat they are able to divine the future. Alan asks how long he has to live. To which question Cesare replied that he will die before dawn tomorrow, a prophecy which is fulfilled. After that his friend, Francis, begins to investigate the seer (Cesare) and the sinister doctor to find out the truth about what happened.

In this film most of the plot is presented like a flashback told by Francis, the friend of Alan. “The film it is a radiating example of German Expressionist Cinema’s foremost forays into the genre of psychological horror and is also one of the first films to include an anti-climatic twist at the end of the story”(BrokenProjector.com, 2007 ,n.p.).


Director: F.W. Murnay Country: Germany Duration: 94 min.

Plot: An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel. Year 1981, the German estate agent Thomas Hutter goes to Transylvania to visit the count Orlok in him castle to close a deal on the land purchase. During the visit happens a series of mysterious events that makes Thomas suggest that the count is a vampire. Unfortunately, in that moment the contract is already signed and Orlok is going to him new mansion in Wismark (Germany). Thomas Hutter fears the worst about Ellen, him wife.

Nosferatu it’s also considered a German expressionism film. Despite of is not the first vampire movie. Nosferatu is maybe “one of the most influential vampire films of all time” (Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc, 2010, p.13).

In this early age of the cinema, the silenthorror films get used to narrate a history about a mythological, legendary or non-natural character. The golem for example, is not simply a fiction character created by Gustav Meyrink in his novel; the golem is also a medieval folklore and an old Jewish legend. The first stories obaut golems date back to the beginning of Judaism and they say that the golem is created from clay and a divine spark that gives life(Karina García, 2007). So, the golem is a mythological character of popular culture since centuries, in the same way that the figure of the vampire, myth in the folklore of many cultures since immemorial times. Despite of it, the word “vampire” (in their different language forms) began to be used in the medieval era being associated, for example, as a victim and, even, the cause of the many epidemics and diseases occurred in the eighteenth-century Europe(Carol Senf, 1988). In the other hand, characters as Frankenstein are more recent and, although nowadays it’s a character of the popular culture, originally were simply a fictional character created in 1818 by Mary Shelley’s.

In any case, all these characters are characterized by not only be fictional characters, but because they are mythological and legendary creatures (Frankenstein maybe not exactly) present in popular culture for centuries. So much so that, for example, until the early twentieth century there were killing vampire kits which were given to travelers to protect themselves from vampire attacks(UsaToday.com, 2003). That’s it, the people of that time really believed that they could be attacked by a vampire or see a golem next to a rabbi. In the case of Frankenstein, the belief was not in that particular character, but in the possibility of the existence of similar monsters in the reality due to advances in science and, above all, the technology in the nineteenth century.

In the case of Caesar, the somnambulist of Dr. Caligari, is not exactly the same case but the basis are the same. Caesar although is not a monster acts as one. He sleeps in a coffin, him look is supernatural and frightening, he doesn’t have willingly and, above all, he can predict the future. Maybe Caesar is like a pythoness or a witch, enough to scary the superstitious people of that time.

In conclusion, the fear generated by these films was due the superstitious of the people and, more generally, because that films also provide a revealing mirror image of the anxieties of their time. “Nosferatu (1922) is not simply a tale of vampirism, but offers heart-rending images of a town beleaguered by premature and random deaths, echoes of the Great War and the Great Flu Epidemic fatalities” (Karina Wilson, 2005 ,n.p.)

Regarding technological aspects of these movies, they are strongly motivated by the theater. Thus, they were trying to immerse the viewer into the story through the use of different melodies (always present throughout the film, there were no voices)with different purposes. On one hand, there were the atmosphere melodies, used most of the time as a resource that remained in the background to create the desired feeling depending of the location or the type of action that is described in the film. In the other hand, there were the mystery melodies, used to intrigue the viewer or stressed in the principal scenes of the movie.

Referring the camera, the shots were prone to be quiet long and statics, only interposed by close-ups shots of the characters but rarely by close-ups shots of the actions. Maybe the influence of the theater was still quite strong on this aspect.

Sound films, born the scream

Opposed to the silent film, a sound film (or talkies) is a motion picture with synchronized sound which appearedin the mid- to late 1920s, although it was not until the early 1930s when this technique turned habitual. Films such as “Dracula” (1931), “Freaks” (1932), “King Kong” (1933), “The Wolf Man” (1941), “Cat People” (1942) or some of the adaptions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels, like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931),”The Invisible Man” (1933) or “The Body Snatcher” (1945) are good examples of the horror films which the people used to watch in that time. These films maintained the base of the silent movies but giving now much more importance to the human-monster of the story, which is now its indisputable protagonist. Now these characters were, in most of the times, purely fictional, and the way that used to get terrorize the public was simply thanks to their appearance and their screams or, simply, their horrific sounds. The use of close-ups shots was increasing, in these days the real claim were the monster itself, so the events of the films was far removed from the everyday realities and the approaching war.

In the decade of 1950s, the beginning of the post-war era and the cold war, the people lived continuously with the fear of war. In this era films like “Godzilla” (1954), “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955), “The Fly” (1958) or “The Wasp Woman” (1960) were the stars of the horror film genre.All these films tell the story about an animal which is converted into a giant or repugnant creature because of reasons such as radiation, technological advances or advanced biological experiments. The relationship with atomic bombs and the anxieties about nuclear weapons is clear, one of the most common fears in the people of the time (Marc Jancovich, 1996). Furthermore, at the end of the decade was the born of the movies about UFOs, aliens and in general foreign forms of life threats. So in 1947 occurred “The Roswell Incident”, born the acronym “U.F.O” and all of that maybe originated the fear of people about alien invasions. Movies like “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” (1956) or “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1958) are good examples of that although there is another theory about the fear of alien invasion in that time that argues that is merely a code for fears of Soviet Union aggression (Marc Jancovich, 1996). although this type of films will raise through decades, with films like “Alien” (1979), “Independence Day” (1996) or even “Paranormal Activity” (2007), among many others. This is an example of a fear which is constantly scaring people during the decades, more or less intensively depending of the actuality.

Modern times, the fear became human

Teens of the time hadn’t experienced the war, the social stability was a fact and the pop culture had born, welcome to the 1960s. Hitchcock was still alive and the films “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963) were proof of this. Horror films and thrillers had intertwined by one of the maters of the cinema. The people were afraid of losing their stable life, but not because attacks ofthe monsters or failed experiments, but because people of flesh and bone. Some of the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and other films like “Blood Feast” (1963) are a proof of that.On the other hand, the films about ghost and living souls grew in popularity, films like “Carnival of Souls” (1962) or “The Haunting” (1963). And not far from the ghosts were the zombies, “Night of The Living Dead” (1968) of George A. Romero, a classic of zombies and dead livings movies.After the optimism of the 1960s, the 1970 was marked by a certain frustration. The fear apparent in the horror films of the 1970sis the fear of children and the often fatal process of childbirth; “Eraserhead” (1976) is a good example of that. Now the enemy was not in the space or in the Europe with the war. Now the fear was among us, inside our home, our mum, our dad or even our sister. Films such as “The Exorcist” (1973), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), “Shivers” (1975)”, “Halloween” (1978) or “The Shinning” (1980), narrates the story of murders that occur in our neighborhood or home for people more or less close to us. In that time, there was a social deep-seated paranoia that the moral shift of the 1960s had creates a culture of young monsters without moral capable of killing.

And in the year 1980 was when the first-person perspective horror film appeared.

3. Terror in first-person perspective

After a century of horror films, nowadays we are witnessing an important quantity of films narrated in first-person perspective. Is not a fad, nor a trend, but gradually this type of products has grown in number and, especially, in popularity. “The Blair Witch Project” or, most recently, “Paranormal Activity”, are good examples of this situation. Both films were able to make feel the audience terrified when it comes out of the cinema. But this achievement was no thanks to a wonderful special effects, or thanks to the presence of very well made monsters and nor thanks to a heartbreaking melodies. That was because the audience really thought that the story was real and that they could be a victim of a similar experience(Manel E. Diaz, 2010). They probably discussed the facts narrated in the movie with a family member, a colleague or a friend a few days after the viewing. In fact, the movie hit them deeply, turning into an everyday fear during maybe a week after have watched the movie.

First-person perspective horror films

Here some examples of this kind of horror movies, most of which are recorded as a mockumentary or also called mock documentary. Originally the mockumentarieswere used as a television genre to analyze or comment current events becausethe realism of the stories were higher when this format was used.Soon the mockumentary wasalso used by the cinema, movies as”David HolzmanHYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Holzman’s_Diary”‘HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Holzman’s_Diary”s Diary” (1967), “The Rutles” (1978) or “Man Bites Dog” (1992) among many others, are a good example of that. Butit was precisely in the genre of horror movies where their use seemed to have a greater impact on the public.

Cannival Holocaust(1980)

Director:RuggeroDeodato Country: Italy Duration: 95 min.

Plot: The movie tells the story of four documentarians who deep into the jungle (Amazon Rainforest) to film the life of the indigenous tribes with cannibal habits. Two month later, after they fail to return, the anthropologist Harold Monroe travels to the place to try to rescue the documentarians. Unfortunately, Monroe and him team discovers that the documentarians has been murdered and eaten by the indigenous. Surprisingly, they could recover the lost can of films which reveals the missing documentarians fate and all them experience into the jungle, including how they died. The supposed content of that can of films is part of the film itself.

The film was presented by the director as whether all the length were real; everything you see in the movie is real, even the deaths of animals and people. That’s it, the documentarians are really dead and were really tortured and murdered by the indigenous. These statements together with the content of the supposed rescued can of films and the format in which the film was presented (like a documental, with an important number of camera-in-hand scenes) achieved that the public believed that the story really happened. Despite all this, the whole content of the movie is fiction, except perhaps the animal deaths(Randy Malamud, 2010 : 2-3).

In the year 1988 appeared a sequel of the movie called Cannibal Holocaust II;this one was more really like a “Giallo” rather than a documentary.

Alien Abduction Incident in Lake County (1998)

Director: Dean Alioto Country: United States

Duration: 93 min.

Plot: An American family is celebrating the dinner of thanksgiving when suddenly the fuses are gone and the house goes dark. Some of the members of the family decides to go outside to check the fuse box, but something mysterious happens: an unidentified flying object lands near them. This event will mark the beginning of a nightmare night when the aliens will try to abduct the family.

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The whole film is presented as the recording of the family’s son, who films all the events occurred during the night with his new camera because he wants become a cinema director. This fact makes that the public thinks that the filming is real, although in the end of it they can see that all is fiction. Instead of the previous films, this one is not made like a documentary (although it has various elements typical of this kind of format), but it’s presented as a real home video.

The Blair Witch Project(1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez Country: United States

Duration: 86 min.

Plot:”In October of 1994, three student film makers disappeared in the woods near Burkittesville, Maryland. One year later, their footage was found” (The Blair Witch Project, 1999 :n.p.). With this statement the film starts. So, the story is about those three students who were recording a documental about a local legend about the Blair Witch.

As in “Cannibal Holocaust” the film was presented as whether all the footage were real, as the students were really dead in the end of the film and the content of them footage was the film itself (but the whole film is fiction). The technics resources used for this occasion were the same as in “Cannibal Holocaust” (camera-in-hand scenes, story tell in first person perspective as the camera were the eyes of the character, documentary form, low image quality to make the story more believable,…). Despite of it, unlike “Cannibal Holocaust” the film “The Blair Witch Project” managed to be a really commercial success being one of the most profitable films in the story. Perhaps the innovative viral marketing campaign that succumbed before the release of the film was one of the reasons of for its success.

In the year 1988 appeared a sequel of the movie called “The Blair Witch Project 2” which was simply a common horror movie.Apparently, it is already preparing a second sequel that would be more faithful to the original.

REC (2007)

Director:JaumeBalagueró and Paco Plaza Country:Spain

Duration: 85 min.

Plot:Every night Angela and her cameraman, who works for a local TV channel in Barcelona, have to make a report about the routine of one collective of the city. That night they must go along with the firefighters of the city to cover an apparently minor incident in a building in the center of Barcelona. Once they get there, they realize that the residents of this building appear to be infected and that the building has been quarantined, a night of nightmare has started. The whole content of the movie is presented as the footage recorded by the cameraman who works with Angela.

There is an American film called Quarantine which is a Hollywood remake of the spanish original movie. In 2009 premiered the sequel, REC 2, which replaces the idea of an infection by a curse. Currently the directors of the original film are working in the third part of the film.

There are more horror filmthat uses the first-person perspective,films as”Diary of the Dead” (George A. Romero), “The Last Broadcast” (Stefan Avalos), “Cloverfield” (Matt Reeves) or “Paranormal Activity” and its sequel (Tod Williams).The most part of the films exposed used the documental or mockumentaries format, instead of some of them like “Alien Abduction Incident in Lake County”which uses the formatof a home video or REC, which uses the format of a TV report.

4. Format & Topic, the key for scare

As spectators, we have always felt protected from the dangers that are shown in the horror movies. That is thanks to the border of the diegesis, that fine line, the thickness of the screen.When we enter at the cinema we know that everything we will see is fiction, drama, a trick to scare us in the case of the horror films. We can imagine the camera and all the casting and the crew filming every scene of this movie. However, when we watch a documentary for example, our feelings are totally different so we are really convinced that every action showed in the screen really happened and, in general, we are convinced that the whole reality showed in this documentary is the same reality as ours. This fact makes us quickly empathize with the protagonists of the documentary because we already know that we can life and feel the same experiences that they are showing on the screen. In the other hand, if the documentary is in Africa and is about the danger of the snake bites, is probably that a European spectator doesn’t feel as much empathy about the events showed as an Asian one for example.This is because be attacked for a venomous snake is much more possible in Asia than in Europe. So there are two things that mark our level of empathy with what we’re seeing on the screen, the type of visual narrative or format used and the topic of the film.

The most part of the films exposed in the previous point have used the documental or mockumentaries format, instead of some of them like “Alien Abduction Incident in Lake County”which uses the formatof a home video or REC, which uses the format of a TV report, it doesn’t matter. What is really important is the use of a format that we associate with the reality. Every day we see in the news reports about local or international events and, for this reason, when we watch a film narrated with that same format we feel that the story is real. By chance, this type of formats (these are normally used to tell the reality) used to get the camera perspective to show the information, as the home video uses the same perspective to show the quotidian life of a family for example. Soin the case of the horror films in first-person point of view is not the perspective what makes us feel in danger, but the format.

About the topic, as happens in the silent movies, will cause more or less fear depending on what level it’s close to us. So nowadays a first-person perspective horror movie about vampires won’t scare us much as if was about the Flu A for example. In the other hand, there are some topics which scare us during all our history as for example, alien invasions. But inside every topic there are also a wide variety of manners of reaching the viewer. In the film “Alien Abduction Incident in Lake County” for example, the people who is attacked live in a rural area away from the civilization and, for this reason, they can’t ask for help. However, in the film “Paranormal Activity” the people is “attacked” by aliens when they are sleeping. So is reasonable to say that “Paranormal Activity” has potential for scare more many people than “Abduction Incident in Lake County” because not everyone lives in a rural area, however, everyone sleeps. The same example it’s attributable to the film “Cannibal Holocaust”. The nightmare lived for the documentarians happen in the Amazons… How many of the spectators have never been in the amazons? A large minority of them, sure. However, how many of the spectators have been sleeping during the night in a forest like the students of “The Blair Witch Project”? Surely a lot of them, maybe families with them children or friends making a picnic or a bivouac during the summer. Although the film could have been even scarier if for example it had occurred in a neighborhood in the outskirts of big city. So a really large part of the audience would feel identified with it and, maybe, when they would return home they would be a little bit afraid at least.

So, in the same way that throughout the history of horror movies, nowadays we are scared about those topics whose are close to us. But not only nearby topics, also films with characters wholived situations that we can live in our quotidian lives. During the history of the horror films we have seena large amount of films about issues of concern to the entire population, global issues. Instead, to really scare the public it’s better to find closer topics, more personal, all this bearing in mind that a movie is a commercial product that should appeal to millions of people.

In conclusion, for make a really terrifying movie we have to speak about a fear which can be felt by the people in their everyday life and furthermore, we have to use a format which is used to link to the explanation of real events, a format like the documentary for example. The horror films in first-person perspective uses this formats, but not always speaks about the most terrifying topic thus its depends of the global issues that there are when the film is released.


After more than a century of watching films, the human as a spectator feels so comfortable that it’s difficult to scare. The people goes to the cinema knowing that the reality showed in the screen is not the same reality that the one they lives. And also knowing that the characters who are in the film are well-paid actors. In fact, they expect to enjoy with a good dramatization, a well narrated fiction story and, maybe, some spontaneous scare.

As did Orson Welles in his radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” in 1938, the key for scare the public is to catch them off guard. And it has to be made inside their own reality, without allowing them to protect themselves with the diegesis of the fiction. The history has shown us that the best way to achieve this purpose is to narrate a fictional story using the same techniques that we would use whether the story was real. In fact, “L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat” (Arrival of a train at the Ciotat) recorded by Lumière Brothers at 1986 it’s a documentary (in its way), not a fiction movie.

So,the first-person horror movies uses this techniques to scare the audience, but that is not the only thing to keep in mind. The topic of the movie is also important,a really terrifying movie has to speak about a fear which can be felt by the people in their everyday life, something that can really happen to them. This is a human fact, the people always has felt fear by the dangers of his surrounding, of his country, of his town, of his neighborhood, on his lives.


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