We all have certain triggers that make us close our ears and cover our eyes when watching horror films. But what are the things that instantly put you at unease and chill you to the core?
Here are mine.
1 | Title Cards (Dates & Time)
Title cards? Yes. Most famously and consistently used in the Paranormal Activity movies, the title cards really put me on edge. Why? Because it’s letting you know this is just the beginning and it can only get worse from here.
Often, the title cards won’t officially start until the 14 minute mark in movies. This is a typical point in most screenplays that takes place on the 14th page (or 14th minute of a movie) that sets forth the actions and motives for the rest of the story. The point of no return. When Micah starts recording him and Katie sleeping at night for example.
The title cards used in The Shining are the most successful in what they set out to do. In The Shining we have title cards that will list the day, or the time, but nothing else. Unlike the Paranormal Activity example above there is no specific date. This reinforces that the passage of days in isolation of a huge hotel is pointless. It’s impossible to tell what day it is at any given moment because it all blends together. There’s a scene prefaced by the title card “Tuesday” that is followed by one reading “Monday.” The most jarring is the title card that simply and boldly says “1 Month Later.”
2 | Only 2 Starring Roles
Have you ever gone on a vacation with someone? Just one person? And did your survival instincts ever kick in as you asked yourself, “Can I survive a zombie outbreak with this person? Or will they get me killed? Can I really rely on them?” When there’s only two main protagonists in a movie it means that they have to rely on one another. That’s kind of what it’s supposed to be like in real life too. And just like in real life the other person is often let down with whom they put their trust in. This is amplified in horror movies because when your significant other lets you down, you then have to face the ghosts, zombies, dolls, cannibals, etc. on your own.
In addition to the trust you put into someone, there’s also the fact that there isn’t anyone else that can comfort you. There’s no strength in numbers. There’s no random funny comic relief guy that’s collateral damage. The limited cast isolates you much like the title cards above do. You’re forced to take on more responsibility for the horrors around you because nobody else can. You literally have to face your fears or face certain death. Examples of movies like this are Honeymoon (pictured above and on Netflix), Paranormal Activity, and Willow Creek.
3 | Home Invasion
I’m sensing that isolation is a thing I’m not a fan of. Being alone, or with a small group of people in a “safe place” and having that taken away from you is horrifying. If your home is invaded it shreds you of any and all protection. All you have is yourself to rely on yet again.
In the image above we see a scene near the end of The Strangers, one of the most effective and chilling home invasion movies I’ve ever seen. What’s truly terrifying about the movie is the motive of the invaders… which is that there is no motive. “Because you were home.” That never fails to give me chills.
Home invasion movies always start out where you get a nice sense of the surroundings and how quaint this place is. Even if it is in the middle of the woods like these people love to live. When you have something like hope taken away from you on your own turf it invades more than just your home. It’s an assault in every way. The Last House on the Left, Hush, and You’re Next are other home invasion movies that all have a rather wide array of tone within such a specific sub-genre.
4 | Cannibalism
I hate it. At Halloween Horror Nights there were hundreds of horrifying sites for our eyes to feast upon and our hearts to skip two or three beats to, but nothing got to me more than seeing a looming Leatherface grab someone screaming for help and take them away to be butchered. Cannibalism pierces everything that I think makes sense to humans and that’s why it’s horrifying. It should be common to not eat people as a human thing. Like, we don’t need to explain why. Eat some plants or kill a rat or something. Killing AND eating another human being is fundamentally wrong. There’s no reason to do that unless you’re in a plane crash and there’s no water or plants and even then most people would die before they succumbed to cannibalism.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes it further by having the Sawyer family celebrate their cannibalism. They decorate their house with human bones and relish the lifestyle. Then there’s Cannibal Holocaust… a film I will never see. There’s some things you just know won’t sit well with you and I know my limits. As a film lover I still will not force myself to endure that one.
5 | No Hope
I discussed a scene in House of 1000 Corpses that was devoid of hope and was designed expertly to toy with the viewer. When you take away hope what else is left? Nothing. If we don’t have hope then it’s all pointless. It’s why Star Wars having Episode IV titled A New Hope carries so much weight.
The most extreme example that I can think of where there is no hope (for escape, survival, redemption, happiness) is Funny Games, a movie that was remade shot for shot by its original director. I don’t enjoy Funny Games, but that’s because it achieves what it strives to do and that’s to toy with audience expectations. It gives you hope and then takes it away.
There’s a scene where the home invaders (again, there is a common theme here with me) are holding the family captive in their living room and they slip up. A family member grabs the shotgun that was pointed at them and turns it on the invader blowing his guts out and throwing his body against the wall. The audience cheers in triumph! And then, the film pauses and literally rewinds to before that moment as the captor breaks the fourth wall and let’s us know that’s not possible. There’s no way the family is getting out of this alive no matter what. There’s no hope.
Honorable Mention | Effin’ Dolls
Because fuck dolls.
You’ve seen what unsettles me. I obviously have issues with isolation and being invaded in my home and trusting others. So this has been a good therapy session. What are the things that are guaranteed to scare you the most in movies? The triggers that immediately put you on edge? Let us know.