Deconstructing Horror

Horror is a very polarizing subject. On one hand you have the believers of “jump scares”, who are convinced that the unexpected is the most terrifying thing. On the other hand you have the believers of “atmosphere”, who believe that the expected is the epitome of true fear. There can be a happy middle ground on occasion, but most of the time people are firmly in one camp or the other.

So what makes each approach work? Is one truly better than the other?

The answer to my second question is fairly simple. Which approach is best to use depends entirely on who your audience is. Yet also, one is clearly superior when you get right down to it. To know the truly superior method requires us to answer the first question. So, to that end, let’s deconstruct the Horror genre.

The Babadook

Jump Scares:

What makes a “jump scare” work? Well, to start off, it’s a mislabeled trope. In essence, what’s happening is the subconscious tensing your body in response to an unexpected event. You don’t know what’s happening next so you prepare for a fight. It isn’t actually a scare at all. It should be called a “jump startle”.

That’s not to say fear can’t be derived from that startle. In fact, many people legitimately fear the unknown. It’s that fear of the unknown that turns a logical reaction of your body tensing into a scream of fright. Not everyone feels that way, but enough people do that entire experiences were formed around the idea.

The idea of a jump scare is to startle your body into tensing and let your fear of the unknown supply the actual scare. The issue most people have with this method is that the startles are often so telegraphed that they aren’t unexpected at all. Your body doesn’t tense when it’s supposed to and, as a result, your fear doesn’t kick in. (Of course, also remember that not everyone has that fear of the unknown in the first place. Naturally, they would have a problem with the style regardless.)

Atmosphere is all about hinting at the subject matter without directly showing it to you. In Horror this pertains to mood, and base fears. Spiders, heights, darkness; all common base fears you can play with. Mood is the real kicker here. You can play with someone’s perception of reality with good sound design and visuals. I once saw a short film about a normal family discussing dinner. But as the five minute piece stretched on, you began to notice that every group photo in the background contained someone without a face. And the only sounds were dialogue. Nothing else made noise, not even the chairs as they were moved. A sense of uneasiness drowned the subject matter of that film because of a few background props and a lack of sound. You had no idea why at first, but everything felt wrong in that scene. A great example of atmosphere. They didn’t need to startle you, or even put scary subject matter in full focus. It was pure mood.

Sound design, background information, and smells are very important to atmosphere. Not all of them are possible in every fictional medium, but they are all important. When the music shifts in a movie, your brain immediately begins expecting trouble. The smell of copper and burnt meat being described in a book can be unsettling if the source hasn’t been revealed yet, because your brain associates that with cannibalism. The unknown is filled in with logical leaps made by your subconscious. Instead of fearing the unknown, your brain makes an attempt to explain the unknown, which ends up scaring you.
When it comes to true terror, it’s your own brain that supplies the most effective fright. Playing to that is the best way to make Horror. To that end, as a content creator you should be trying to abuse the fears of as many audience members as possible; the lowest common denominator if you will. One could argue that in film jump scares provide this, thus ensuring that jump scare movies sell well. (A fact backed up by actual sales statistics.) Of course, atmosphere films are often a satisfying watch when done properly, but jump scares are more popular because of the ease with which they can be watched and the broad spectrum of people affected by them.

In books, jump scares are nonexistent. You can’t startle someone with words on a page. No matter how hard you try, no amount of monsters jumping out of the shadows at the protagonist will make your reader jump. Atmosphere is your only option for Horror in written form.


How about video games? Jump scares are popular here as well, but video games have a leg up on atmosphere over film. The player isn’t watching things happen to someone else, their living it themselves. Whether they want to be or not, a video game player is immersed in the action. It’s happening to them. This is why players sometimes fear death, even though it’s not permanent. Atmosphere in a video game is so much more terrifying than any other medium because the audience is in the thick of it. The world is scary because it’s actually affecting them instead of someone else.

All of this shows one very important thing: Atmosphere is the clear winner overall between these two Horror approaches. While jump scares often work, they don’t work in every medium. And even then, the atmosphere is still an important factor. Does this mean we should do away with jump scares? Not at all. Instead we should use them to enhance the effect of terror, and not as the entire effect. Appeal to the masses when you can, but don’t telegraph your scares. Unless you care more about making money than actually scaring people, in which case load it up with jump scares because that’s what sells well.

All opinions are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Deck Ape...or anyone else. Arrr!

Michael Allan

Michael is an Independent Author, known best for his debut novel "The Brothers of Blue Fire". He is also head of the Graphic Design group "Full Circle Endeavors", which provides book covers for Independent Authors at reasonable prices. And, of course, he blogs about the subjects.

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