Scene from horror movie with creepy hands on a foggy window
Key elements of making horror movies. Image: Unsplash/Georgi Kalaydzhiev
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What really makes a good horror movie stand out?

Horror movies — love them, hate them — all have one common goal: to scare the person watching the movie. Writer Stephen King states it best in his novel Dense Macabre: “if movies are the dreams of the mass culture… horror movies are the nightmares.”

There are many well-known directors we associate with the horror genre, such as David Cronenburg for The Fly (1986) and The Dead Zone (1983), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Escape From New York (1981), and Wes Craven’s Scream franchise.

According to Rotten Tomatoes “The 200 Best Horror Movies of all Time,” the number one horror film is Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But what makes a good horror film? There are several key components that come into play.


Having viewers on the edge of their seats for horror films is essential. Keeping the audience interested and scared is the basis of making a great horror film. “It comes down to intent,” said Wickham Clayton, a film scholar, to the New York Times. Horror movies are meant to make audiences feel unsettled, uncomfortable, and uneasy.

Stephen King, the so-called “Godfather of Horror,” recollects the first horror film he ever saw The Rolling Stones: Bambi. He explains how when the deer tried to escape the forest fire, he found that sense of suspense exhilarating. It’s what he claims first drew him into horror films in the first place.


Having a great theme in a horror film can make viewers terrified of certain symbols. For example, in the remake (2017) horror film IT, directed by Andy Muschietti, the main villain is a clown. It can, and has, propelled many of the film’s viewers to develop a fear of clowns — Fulcrum staff included.

Costume Design and Makeup

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a classic horror film. Even if you’ve never watched the film, you’ve probably heard of the infamous Freddy Krueger, and you can likely picture exactly what he looks like —disfigured face, brown fedora, red and green striped sweater, and a crazy clawed glove. This iconic look of Freddy Krueger is a character recognizable worldwide. Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger in the original film, said “the makeup took three and a half hours each morning.”

Sound Effects

When creating sound effects in horror films the goal is to create suspense and, unsurprisingly, scare people. Jump scares are always a good feature in horror films, but creating that eerie silence right before you’re about to be scared is great for building up the suspense of the jump scare. The 2018 film A Quiet Place, directed by John Krasinski, is almost completely silent, as characters spend the majority of the film trying to be quiet so as not to alert the monster to where they are. This creepy silence can compel even the audience to be silent along with the characters.

Spooky Season

There are a lot of bad horror movies out there, but there are also a lot of very well done films that fit some or all of these criteria. This year, some of the best horror movies will be back in theatres, both new and old. For those die-hard horror fanatics, you can even venture down to Toronto for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival which is Oct. 19 to Oct. 23 in Toronto, or the Montreal SPASM Film Festival which is Oct. 20 to Oct. 31.