Horror: Seeing vs. Imagining

I’ve been working on an outline for a new horror screenplay the past couple of weeks (and neglecting my updates) and I’ve decided to take a different approach from my slasher/gore fest.

I got to thinking about what is scarier, what someone else thinks is scary, or what you personally think is scary. The answer is obvious of course, which is why when you’re laying in your bed late at night you’re way better at giving yourself the heebiejeebies than any movie could muster.

That lead me to come up with a list of movies that don’t reallyshow you anything scary but instead let your imagination run wild – and really create a much more memorable experience because of it. The monster isn’t the star such as a slasher movie, but the location, the feel; the sense that something is wrong and you want to get the hell out of there.

The Haunting (1963)

This movie doesn’t show a thing in terms of monsters/ghosts/etc. It merely sets up the scares, increases the tension and then lets you do the rest. You watch the characters reactions to what’s going on around them and they’re just as in the dark as you are. One scene that really sticks out is when the large, wooden door is being pressed in, almost to the point of breaking – you’re sure that whatever is on the other side is about to burst through and do something awful… and then it leaves. It was a very tense moment because the stomping through the halls had been building and building to that moment. The women were safe for now, but, what if it came back?

The Changeling (1980)

The scariest thing you see in this movie is George C. Scott, by and far. The only real representation of the “ghost” in this story is a wheelchair in a hidden room in the attic, other than that it’s the house that is the real scary character. There was no need for special effects (or if it were made now, a weird CGIghost) to represent what was scary, it was just the atmosphere and the sense of something being wrong that built the tension through the story. What I love about the movie is when things finally seem to be calming down, the problem had been solved and things feel like they’re going to be okay, one of the biggest scares of almost any movie ever comes. All it has in it is a mirror and a quick cut – and it was perfect.

The Wicker Man (1973)

From the moment Woodward arrives at Summersisle you know that something is wrong with that place but you can’t quite put your finger on what. I wanted him very much to just get out and leave that place but I also had an interest in him finding in the missing girl, so he couldn’t leave until his mission was fulfilled, one way or the other. There is a definite eerie atmosphere throughout the film that starts to get to the main character and the audience as well. Even though the remake has Nicolas Cage punching women while wearing a bear suit, this one is superior.

Les Diaboliques (1955)

A man’s wife and mistress conspire to kill him, and they do so fairly quick into the film… but did they really kill him? This story deals with guilt and deception and is very tense as the main character seems to be losing her mind over the course of the story. I wouldn’t say this is a straight horror film but it certainly delves down that path with the supposed haunting and hallucinations and it has a fantastic story taking place in a French boarding school.

It really comes down to what you don’t show in these films and the general discomfort the audience feels when watching the film. A good ghost story doesn’t have to have any ghosts in it, it just has to have the right feel, the right atmosphere, and some people that stick around to get to the bottom of things instead of getting the hell out of there.

There are a lot of other films that don’t reveal who is doing the killing/haunting until the end such as Psycho but I was looking more into the haunted house/place stories that really struck a chord with me. I’ve got my location all worked out and I’ll be starting on the first draft soon enough, and I’m really going to work on the feel of the story and the deteriorating mindset of my poor protagonist.

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