Synonyms: alarming, bloodcurdling, chilling, creepy, hair-raising, hairy, horrendous, horrifying, intimidating, shocking, spine-chilling, spooky, terrifying, unnerving
Let’s agree on some ground terms as there are different types of horror films. I’ve split into four categories the techniques (tactics, if you prefer) commonly used in, and often defining, horror films.
The Gross-Factor: they pull out all the intestines and eye slashing stops; most zombie films I’ve seen rely on the gross-factor to get by.
The Creep-Factor: Ringu, Jacob’s Ladder and even Donnie Darko are great examples.
The Suspense Factor: this is my favourite – think of the part in Alien when Dallas was crawling through the ducts with a flame-thrower. Terminator, Jaws & The Shining had lots of it.
The “BOO!” factor: this is the one where your senses are assaulted by sudden flashes of visuals and audio – it’s all I remember about Event Horizon and it’s the cheapest kind of horror.
Now let’s look at a few really good horror films.
Alien. This came out when I was 9. I don’t remember when I saw it. Very little gross-factor, as far as I’m concerned. There’s the chest bursting scene and apart from a few short scenes of blood, that’s it. They’re all well done and I wouldn’t say they’re gratuitous. Oh, I guess the scene where Ash goes nuts is kind of gross, but still, I’m sticking with my low GF rating.
The Ring. High on the Creepy Factor. Disturbing and unsettling. I don’t remember any GF but there was definitely some Suspense Factor. If I recall correctly the BOO Factor was minimal to nonexistent.
King Kong (’76). I saw this when I was quite young, and it had an impact on me. Fighting with that snake had some GF but to me the most horrifying will always be the part when Kong was spinning that log to make the people fall down into the chasm. That was probably a bit too intense for me at my tender young age, so that’s stuck with me.
The Shining. Lots of creepiness, lots of suspense. No Gross-Factor to speak of. A real class-act.
John Carpenter’s The Thing. There was a fair amount of Gross-Factor in this – but it was divided between the blood ‘n’ gore kind of gross and the horrific-looking-slimy-shapechanging-alien kind of gross. Mostly it was suspense, with a touch of creepiness and a tiny smidgeon of BOO-factor at the end.
The Blair Witch Project. No Gore-Factor, no BOO-Factor. All SF and CF. I saw this in the theater and it actually had me shivering, but that could have been because the air-conditioning was up way too high. Also it played upon my fears of being in the woods at night (which comes down to bears, actually).
The Exorcist. Demon vomit definitely qualifies as gross, but I would say the main technique here is the Creepy-Factor.
Yvonne asked me if there were any movies that scared me. Well, if we’re talking about jumping in your seat because the scene went from quiet and serene to violently loud, then yes, Punch Drunk Love scared me when the semi came out of nowhere.
However, if you’re talking about a movie that leaves you with nightmares and noctiphobia, then the only movie that’s truly given me the heebie-jeebies in my adult life would have to be The Blair Witch Project. But they have yet to make a movie that is so scary that I wouldn’t watch it alone.