How To Write a Horror Movie
Seven horror screenwriters share their tips on how to write a really scary movie.
It’s easy to write a horror movie, isn’t it? Pack up a couple of kids, send them off somewhere isolated, and have a monster chase them through the woods. Throw in some loud bangs on the soundtrack and you’re sorted. Right?
Wrong. Well, okay, not wrong if you want to write a basic, generic, forgettable kind of horror movie. But if you want to do something better than that, things get a bit more complicated. You need a proper story; characters worth investing in; a carefully constructed atmosphere of dread punctuated by the kind of scares that make your audience hide behind their hands. And that’s not easy.
To get the lowdown on what works and what doesn’t, I interviewed some working horror writers. Here are their tips:
Find the real story
First things first: you need to know what story you’re telling, and that isn’t just going to be “people get killed.”
“When you’re writing a horror movie, you’ve got to write two movies,” says James Moran, writer of Severance, Cockneys Vs Zombies, Tower Block, and new web series Mina Murray’s Journal. “There’s the movie that’s gonna happen if the slasher doesn’t arrive, or the ghost doesn’t possess somebody, so the horror doesn’t start happening, and that should be enough to sustain a whole 90 minute movie – and then, half an hour or so in, that’s disrupted by the horror element crashing in and stuffing everything up.”
So if you did want to write a cabin-in-the-woods story, you’d need a proper reason for your characters to be going out there, and enough drama to sustain that story even before your villain rocks up. It’s a lot to think about, but Moran reckons it’s worth it. “If you do it that way, you get fully rounded characters, and a proper situation, and a proper story,” he says. “So after 10 or 15 minutes, [your audience] is probably kind of hoping nothing bad is going to happen.”
Alice Lowe, writer and director of pregnancy slasher Prevenge, agrees it’s important to get the human side of the story sorted before introducing any extra elements. “My favorite horrors always deal with really important human stories, and then the horror comes after,” she told me. “If the human story doesn’t work, then the horror doesn’t work, either. You know, films like Carrie and Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining are all about human threats, really – fearing violence from your father, or bullying at school, or overbearing mothers, or any of those things.”
Focus on your characters
Speaking of the human side of horror, the writers I talked to all agreed that writing believable characters is essential to creating a really scary movie. “My favorite heroines in horror movies are proactive,” says Kevin Lehane, screenwriter of Grabbers and Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories. “Like in Candyman or Nightmare On Elm Street – or sometimes in sequels like Aliens or even Halloween H20, where the heroine has been through something and she’s determined not to go through it again – that lets you put a character in a position of jeopardy because they have an internal motivator, which is ‘I need to know what’s haunting me and destroying my life, and I need to vanquish it.’”
Since horror movies often involve characters putting themselves in danger, he reckons it’s important that there’s a reason for the audience to believe they’d actually do it – that they’re not just doing it because the horror can’t happen if they don’t.
Moran, too, reckons plausible motivation is crucial. “My thing with characters is, even if you have a crazy over-the-top supernatural situation, I want everyone to behave realistically within that context,” he says. “So even though there’s not going to be a zombie outbreak, because zombies aren’t real, you have to think, if there was, how would people react?”
He also says characters should be the kind of people an audience is happy to spend time with. “It’s not that they all have to be lovely, but you have to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he clarifies. “And even if they’re horrible, you have to get behind them in some way. Like, ‘I don’t like them, but I am entertained watching their story, so I don’t want them to die right now so I can see what happens.’ If everyone’s awful, you’re just like ‘I hate these people, I want them to die, when is that going to happen please?’ And then that’s not scary.”
Get your antagonist right
Once you’ve got your characters sorted, it’s time to think about the villain. The possibilities are basically endless – vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, deranged murderers, zombies, creatures from outer space! – but choosing the right villain for the story you’re trying to tell can be key. If you’re trying to write a script and something’s not working, it might be that you’ve got the wrong monster.
Nick Ostler, who co-wrote werewolf horror Howl with Mark Huckerby, says getting the antagonist right was crucial to their story. “The creature was originally a kind of Black Shuck, this legendary character from East Anglia,” he remembers. “But for various reasons, as we were writing it developed into a werewolf, and that was the breakthrough. Suddenly, we had a creature and a mythology, and we knew what the film was going to be about: it was about this ticket inspector who’s kind of a beta male who, over the course of the film, grows to become an alpha male. And it’s all about men and how they react to different situations. The monster gave us the whole structure.”
Building on existing mythology can be helpful, of course, because audiences already know what to expect. But making up new monsters can also work. “For me, the fun in monster movies is discovering a new species and getting to see something you’ve not seen before,” says Lehane. “With Grabbers, I tried to give the monster as much personality as I could through its behaviour and its lifecycle, the fact that it needed to be wet to walk on land, and it pops people’s head off and drinks their blood. Just stuff like that. You can sort of take your monster and give it its own idiosyncratic personality and traits.”
He also recommends linking your characters to the monster. “I try to apply logic to what I’m doing, so it’s like the monster represents something about a character’s personal flaws.”
Think like a comedian
A slightly unexpected bit of advice that several writers gave me was that horror should work kind of like comedy. Mark Huckerby explains, “Nick and I started out in comedy, and we always say that comedy and horror are very close in some ways. A good joke is told with a build-up, which is the tension, and the punchline, which is the release. I don’t know whether our love of horror came from our love of making people laugh, but they’re very similar. Often, you’ll hear people in the cinema, when they’re really scared, will laugh as well as scream.”
Moran concurs, seeing an audience’s reaction to a scare as being the same kind of physical reaction that audiences will have to comedy, and that means that not every scare will work for everyone, every time. “There are some comedies you’re either gonna laugh at or you’re not, and you can sit there and explain to yourself that it’s funny because of x, y, and z, but if it doesn’t make you laugh it doesn’t make you laugh,” he says. “The same goes for horror – if it doesn’t make you jump, I could explain why it made me scared but it won’t necessarily make someone else scared.”
There are plenty of films that blend horror with comedy, of course – and tons of films that use horror tropes to tell the kinds of stories you might expect to find in other genres. The Blaine Brothers, who co-wrote and co-directed Nina Forever, told me they didn’t think of their film as a horror when they made it.
“It basically came out of death and grief, first witnessing other people’s grief and then experiencing our own,” said Ben Blaine. While the film uses some pretty horrific imagery – including a woman returning from the dead, still bloody and battered – it doesn’t have a traditional horror narrative. The Blaines were happy that horror audiences embraced their film, and reckon it’s valid to cross the streams. Chris Blaine says “The exciting thing is seeing people use the genre to explain a thought or feeling or emotion; finding a way of explaining life by using a fantastical metaphor.”
Having made two films that are more ‘horror and…’ rather than straight horrors, Lowe agrees. “It’s debatable whether Prevenge is a classic horror, in the same sense that Sightseers isn’t your typical horror,” she says. “It’s got moments of horror, but other moments that dip into social satire, or realism, or even surrealism, in some parts! The best thing horror can do is be its own thing and find new genres and new ideas, rather than resorting to the same old same old, which eventually becomes predictable. That isn’t scary at all.”
So if you’ve got an off-beat idea that you’re not sure is really a proper horror film, that might actually be a great thing. “What I feel is, horror shouldn’t be treated like a box,” says Lowe. “It should be a peg that you can hang onto, along with lots of other pegs that you can put your project on. It’s something to be inspired by, rather than trapped by, really.”
Slow it down
Let’s get down to specifics. How do you make a film scary? One way is to slow down the pace, drag things out a little longer, and spend longer building atmosphere. “When you watch a film and there’s just a cheap orchestral stab, you think ‘well, that’s completely unearned.’ Anyone can say boo and make you jump,” says Huckerby. “But in more modern horror – I think James Wan is quite good at this – there’s this relentless building, and building, and holding… some of those sequences go on longer than you can even stand.”
His co-writer agrees. Talking about writing urban witch movie Don’t Knock Twice, Ostler says, “We went back to scare scenes and wrote in longer and longer build ups, because we realised that’s really where the scare comes from. Over 90 minutes, you can get away with a couple of cheap jump scares, and they can be fun, and you can get away with a dream scare, which can be fun if it’s done well, and you can even get away with one mirror scare, maybe. But if that’s all you’re relying on, you’re in trouble.”
Lehane also recommends taking your time. “[Horror] needs to be quiet, it needs to be tense, and it needs to be drawn out,” he says. “You need to avoid poking fun at your villain; even if you’re doing a horror comedy, it’s good to keep the humour on the side of the characters rather than the villain. Unless it’s a party film like Return Of The Living Dead or Evil Dead! But otherwise, you want to make sure that your villain is legitimately dangerous and frightening. And slow it down! The moment horror movies get really fast, with running and screaming and frantic behavior, that’s terror – it’s not horror any more. Horror should be slow and creepy. You allow moments of dread to creep in, and that’s when it’s really frightening.”
Don’t give the audience too much information
‘Show, don’t tell’ is probably the oldest trick in the book, but the writers I talked to for this feature went one step further and recommended keeping some things back completely, making the audience do the work themselves.
“Almost without fail, the disappointing bit in a horror movie is when whatever it is stops being in your imagination and starts being on screen,” says Ben Blaine. “You’re like, ‘oh, I imagined it and I was scared by it, and now I’ve seen it, it’s let me down’. I think there’s something in making the audience tell the story themselves.”
Ben continues, “We got some really good advice when we were making [Nina Forever]. We showed a cut to some people, and they said “It’s too explained. You’re too worried about letting everyone know what’s happening, and it makes it boring.” We found that when we took out the bits where we explained what was happening, not only did people still know what was happening, but you could see that they’d reached those conclusions for themselves, and they’d really bought into the film.”
Kevin Lehane says he’s doing something similar with the script he’s currently working on, a slasher titled Heads Will Roll. “Originally I put too much backstory in about the villainess,” he says “And I’ve come to realise that the more you know about a villain, the more you understand them, and the more empathy you have for them. And once you have empathy for a villain, you want to redeem them instead of kill them.”
So if you want to freak out an audience, keep your killer in the shadows, and hint at something scary rather than throwing it in their faces. “It’s the space between the images that works on the audience,” says Ben Blaine. “It’s not the visceral side. Like, you can see a person explode, but the stuff that really gets to you is when you go, ‘there’s an empty room and outside the room is a small boy with a weird look on his face, what does that mean?’”
Watch horror movies
This is probably the most fun tip on this list: if you want to write horror movies, try watching some. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert, and your script doesn’t need to be loaded with winks and references to the films that have gone before – that’s kind of gone out of fashion now anyway – but it definitely doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the genre.
“When I’m writing something that’s in a specific genre, I’ll watch a certain number of films that are similar in tone and execution so I don’t deviate too far from the beaten path,” says Lehane. “When I was writing Grabbers I was watching Tremors a lot – Tremors and Lake Placid! It depends how much you want to know, but the best way is just to be aware, be literate.”
Ostler says much the same thing. When I ask if he thought you needed to watch horror movies to be able to write one, he says: “You’d be daft not to. Whatever we’ve done, we’ve schooled ourselves in that genre as much as we could, but then you’ve got to be careful of ripping off things you have seen!”
Obviously, there’s no exam you have to pass before you can think about writing your own stories, but while being accused of plagiarism is a risk, you could run into just as much trouble by not knowing what’s already out there. As Lehane says, “You don’t want to be trying to do a horror film set on Halloween about a guy in a white mask!”
Think about what really scares you
Finally, most of the writers I spoke to recommended making your story personal in some way. Not autobiographical, necessarily, but using personal experiences and perspectives can help make a story feel real, rather than generic.
Lowe, more than anyone, stresses that point. “I based [Prevenge] on what I felt, and my perspective of what pregnancy was like,” she says. “I felt like it was quite a psychedelic experience in some ways, it all seemed really vivid and intense to me. I think [existing portrayals of pregnancy in horror] very much focus on body horror, and there is an element of that in my film, but not as much as you might think.
“It’s more of an experiential type of thing,” she continues. “I’ve deliberately got lots of close-ups of strange objects and blood and things like that to make the audience go through the rite of passage that the main character is going through. And I was actually pregnant when I made the film so, I don’t know if that gives it an extra tangibility that makes it even more creepy and disturbing to people!”
For Moran, the best way to connect with an audience is to put himself in their shoes. “I just think about ‘what would I like to see next?’ and ‘what would I not like to see happen next?’” he explains. “And whatever I’m dreading, I have to put that in. If you treat it honestly like that, then it’ll have an effect on other people.”
Maybe it’s an obvious point to make, but if you don’t think what you’re writing is interesting, or scary, or funny, or whatever you’re aiming for, it’s unlikely anyone else is going to.
To end on an extra-encouraging note, I’ll give Kevin Lehane the last word on the subject. “Each person is unique, and we all come from different backgrounds,” he says. “So if you filter as much of yourself as you can into your stories, and make them as personal as possible, that will give them an edge no-one can replicate.”