Let’s Talk About What Makes Effective Horror

‘Tis the season of ghosts and ghouls, spooks and scares.  The air carries a chill and the leaves are falling.  Halloween is just around the bend and it’s the time to celebrate all things scary.

I’ve talked a lot about my affinity for everything horror in the past on this blog, but it’s been very scattershot and all over the place.  So this time I’d like to just sit down and focus entirely on it and explain what, in my opinion, makes for effective horror.

If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you know that I’ve made it no secret my disappointment with the state of horror when it comes to Hollywood movies.  So many of them are just loud and annoying, filled to the brim with cheap scares.  When I reviewed “Blair Witch” back in 2016, I mentioned how it seemed to be everything the original movie wasn’t: obnoxious and full of quick, cheap jumpscares.  Instead of the slow-paced, tension focused build up of the original, we got a movie that was so lazy it even has one of the characters mutter “stop doing that” after it pulls a double jumpscare.  There were some genuinely creepy moments, but they weren’t allowed to leave a lasting mark as the next loud, obnoxious thing popping up in front of the camera wasn’t far away.

And when I see trailers for The Conjuring 15 or Insidious Chapter 257, all I see is a lot more of the same: jumpscares and demons.  Ooh you’re really breaking new ground there guys.

To me, for horror to be effective, it needs to be allowed to sit for a while.  There needs to be a kind of atmosphere to it, something that slowly unsettles and winds you up so that when the metaphorical shoe inevitably drops, it has more of an impact.  Most big budget horror movies these days rely on loud, quick scares as a crutch.  And sure, some of them might be scary in the moment, but they’re not memorable.  There’s a reason people still talk about movies like “The Exorcist” and “Halloween” but nobody is going to remember the 2016 “Blair Witch” or any of the “Insidious” movies once enough time passes.

Why do you think they keep producing sequel after sequel?  Because they know that a horror movie’s time is short-lived.  If they can keep pumping out more movies, they can keep it in the public consciousness for longer and make more money.

It’s the same thing with video games.  “Five Nights at Freddy’s” may have been a huge hit, but part of its lasting popularity has to do with the quick turnaround in games.  The first game hit in August of 2014.  The second game hit in November…of 2014.  The third game dropped in March of 2015 and…you get the idea.  Part of the quick turnaround had to do with how the games were designed, but whether intentional or not, this quick turnaround is what led to its staying power.

But while the fans go ape over the deliberately obscure story or make weird fan porn of the characters (don’t go looking for it…seriously…there isn’t enough bleach in the world to wipe your eyes clean after that), no one really talks about the actual gameplay itself anymore, which boils down to a trial and error waiting game.  And if you fail?  BLARG!  Jumpscare.

Compare that then to a game like “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”, which still ranks as one of my top scariest games of all time.  In that game you don’t even see a monster for the first hour or so.  Instead, much of the time is spent wandering around a castle gleaming clues as to why you’re there in the first place.  By the time the game draws back the curtain and sends something shrieking after you, the atmosphere has settled in and you’ve been drawn in enough to make the appearance more startling than it would be if there was a monster right behind the first door you encounter.  Even that developer’s earlier “Penumbra” series of games utilized the power of tension and atmosphere, choosing to build up suspense before throwing something at the player.

 

 

Despite all that I’ve said, jumpscares aren’t a bad thing.  It’s just that, by themselves, jumpscares aren’t necessarily creepy or scary.

I get it, it’s far easier to Google search “scary faces”, grab a stock scream sound effect and crank the decibels up until you’re not certain if that ringing in your ears was always there or not.  But if your intent is to create something that is truly lasting, something that will make someone afraid of the dark for a few days or a week after they’ve finished with it, you need more than just loud noises.  You need ambiance.  You need suspense.  You need lighting.  But most importantly, you need to ground it in some way.  You can have all the jumpscares and mood lighting in the world, but if your audience/player base can’t buy into the scenario you’ve crafted, you’ll have lost them long before you reveal what goes bump in the night.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back on the third Wednesday of next month, and have a great Halloween!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Advertisements

2016: The Year Everybody Loved to Hate

We’re only three days into 2017 and already the narrative has been established: 2016 was an awful crap fest of a year and we’re glad it’s gone.  But was it as bad as we think?  Was there really nothing at all redeeming about the past year?

A lot of the hate surrounding 2016 seems to have a lot to do with how we ended the year on a rather sour note.  The aftermath of the election was still front and center in our minds and the death of Carrie Fisher was and still is weighing on us.  When it comes to 2016 these are the two things everyone seems to be talking about right now: the election and celebrity deaths.  Now, the election was a heated one and there were a lot of celebrities that passed away last year, but I think some good things happened too.

For starters, it was a great year for the domestic box office, making over eleven billion dollars.  That’s the first time in history.  And the year was full of noteworthy movies, the top three grossing being Finding DoryRogue One, and Captain America: Civil War.  Although we might as well just call it “Disney gets richer” because all three of those came out of studios owned by Disney.

But even though Disney ruled the box office it was still a great year for other movies as well.  I personally really enjoyed 10 Cloverfield Lane, the kinda-maybe sequel to the original Cloverfield back in 2008 (although you don’t have to have seen the first one to enjoy it).  It was a smartly paced horror thriller that proved that you never really can trust John Goodman.  And I mean ever.  Right when you think you’ve grown to trust him the movie throws something back at you that casts doubt on the whole situation.  It’s tense, exciting, and never really lets up.  If you’re a fan of horror or even just thrillers in general, I highly recommend it.  Even the debut trailer for the movie was great, capturing that gradual sense of unease as things grow more and more demented.

 

 

I also really enjoyed Arrival, a sci-fi film with a unique take on first contact with aliens.  I already posted a full review of it a few weeks back so I won’t go into so much detail again.  It’s a smart movie that puts the focus squarely on the impact of aliens arriving on Earth.  Their intentions unknown, the governments of the world scramble to assemble teams and figure out what the purpose of their arrival is.  It’s a high concept movie with a decidedly human core to it.

But it wasn’t all rosy in movie land.  As much as I would like to put Rogue One on my “best movies of 2016” list I simply can’t, mainly because it’s lackluster first half was only saved by such an extraordinary second half.  And then there was also Blair Witch, the 17 years later sequel to The Blair Witch Project, which failed to capitalize on any of its interesting elements and instead settled into a boring parade of pointless jump scares and shadow retelling of the events of the first movie.

It was also a great year for alternative energy or “clean energy”, if you prefer.  Solar energy is now the same price or cheaper than fossil fuels in thirty countries around the world.  Not only that, but Tesla managed to power an entire island using solar panels.  Sure the island has only 600 residents, but it’s still an amazing feat.  It shows that the future of energy may finally be arriving.  You may or may not believe in global warming, but I’m sure you can at least agree that fossil fuels will not last us forever.  Regardless of global warming, we have to secure humanity’s future by switching over to renewable energy sources.

And hey, remember Pokemon GO?  It was that mobile game that actually got people to go outside and walk around.  How amazing is that?  A video game actually made people go enjoy the outdoors.  Never mind the media, who apparently tried their best to sour the achievement by reporting all the accidents that occurred with people playing the game (although at least one such report of a highway accident involving the game was false).  The hype around Pokemon GO has certainly died down at this point, but there’s no denying the impact it had on popular culture.

See here’s the thing with 2016: I think most of the bad stuff that happened was at least slightly blown out of proportion by either the news or social media.  There were certainly a lot of high-note celebrity deaths last year, but as Cracked points out pretty much every year is the worst year in celebrity deaths.  And something I didn’t mention before, but in the aftermath of that Dallas shooting in July where five police officers were killed we had this narrative in our heads that the United States had become such a battleground for our forces in blue that they were afraid to even step out the door because they might not come back home.  Never mind the fact that the number of police officers being killed has been, on average, declining for the past few decades.  It just shows you how our perception can be shaped so easily by exaggeration.

 

us-officers-killed-graph

Source: BBC.

 

And when it comes to the election, yes there was a lot of vitriol flowing around, but we have to remember that this has been the culmination of the public frustration that’s been brewing for quite some time.  Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have gotten nearly the amount of attention they did if they had run even just a decade ago (Trump did actually try running for the Reform Party back in 2000, but withdrew before the voting began).  And while Trump’s win greatly upset a lot of people, I don’t think it makes 2016 a terrible year.  If anything, I think it makes 2017 an uncertain year because now he’ll actually be able to start doing things when he takes office on January 20th.  Before, all he could really do was talk (or tweet).  It leaves us with an uncertain future on progressive policies and environmental issues.  I mean, Trump is the guy who once said that wind turbines are killing all the eagles.  No joke.

But despite all my defenses of 2016, I still don’t think it was a great year.  Hell, I’m not even sure if I would necessarily call it a “good” year, just an average one.  But it certainly wasn’t the doomsday terrible good-for-nothing year that many of us seem to have in our minds.  If anything, instead of focusing on the bad parts of 2016, we should be focusing on fighting to make sure 2017 is a good year and goes where we want it to.  The past can inform us, but it can also bind us and steer us away from the things that matter.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  But before I go, I do want to say one thing.  I made a resolution during New Year’s that I haven’t shared with anyone else yet, so this is the first time I’m speaking of it period (aren’t you lucky).  My resolution is that I will write a short story each month this year, so twelve in total.  And on the final Wednesday of each month, instead of a normal blog post I will be posting the story for that month for you all to read.  It’s another way to help me keep writing (I have been working on a full-length book, but working on that all the time really takes its toll after a while so I’ve wanted new projects for a while).  Please, do leave feedback on the stories and tell me what you think.

Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Back Into the Woods: Blair Witch Review

It was the sequel nobody asked for.

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it became one of the most successful independent movies of all time.  It was a fictional documentary about the exploits of three film students who decide to make a movie about the legend of the Blair Witch.  They travel to a small town in Maryland to interview the locals and gather information, but things go wrong when they decide to take a hike in the woods in search of more possible information.  They get lost, spooky things happen, someone disappears, and so on.

The Blair Witch Project was, in many ways, the antithesis to the standard Hollywood formula.  With a low-budget and small crew, it couldn’t rely on special effects to scare the audience so it went for a more nuanced approach.  Even the way it was promoted was different, being marketed primarily through the internet.  This actually sparked debates over whether the film was real or fake, which gave it an air of mystery that would be impossible with today’s information saturated world.

Fast-forward to 2016, and we have a big-budget Hollywood sequel to an independent horror movie called Blair Witch.  And how did it turn out?

Well…it’s okay.

My main issue with Blair Witch is that, instead of taking what made its predecessor so influential and expanding upon that, the movie takes the tried and true Hollywood route when it comes to making a horror movie.  And you know what that means right?

Jumpscares.  Lots and lots of jumpscares.

Spooky loud bangs in the night?  Check.  Loud popping noises when the camera is turned off or cuts to a new scene?  Check.  Someone suddenly appearing in front of the camera causing the camera person to scream?  Oh you better believe they check that one-off the list.  They even pull that trick twice in a row at one point, which prompts one of the characters to mutter “stop doing that” as some sort of in-joke.  And speaking of annoying jumpscare tactics, there’s even a point near the beginning where the movie cuts from a quiet living room scene to a suddenly loud nightclub.

YEAH GET DOWN AND PARTY!  FEEL THOSE PULSING BEATS!  ARE YOU SCARED YET?!

Honestly all these tactics did was make me all the more aware that I was watching a movie set up to try to scare me.  Part of the reason The Blair Witch Project did so well was that it didn’t spend its time trying to convince you its scary.  It crept along at a slow pace with very little happening throughout.  Blair Witch on the other hand throws out jumpscares like they’re candy.  And I get why.  They’re attempting to keep the audience on edge by never letting them feel safe.  But the thing is, so many of these scare moments are too telegraphed.  You can tell when they’re about to happen.  Moments before that cut to the nightclub scene, two of the characters are asked whether or not they believe the stories about the Blair Witch.  They simply stare at each other in silence for a few seconds before it jumps to the nightclub.  And it’s painfully obvious they were going to attempt something like that because it’s the Hollywood definition of horror.

This artificial feeling extends to the way the movie is shot as well.  Much like the first movie, Blair Witch is presented as a found footage movie.  And for the first twenty minutes to a half hour you can tell that the movie is shot by professionals who are trying too hard to look like amateurs.  The “wobbly cam” is strong with this one, if you catch my drift.

Now all this isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have any scare factor at all.  I will admit there were a couple of moments that genuinely sent a chill up my spine, such as when one of the characters hears disembodied screaming or something echoing through the trees moments before he’s chased by an unseen entity.  I thought that was rather effective, instilling a sense of dread in the audience before dropping the hammer on them.  But moments like that were too few, sandwiched in between far too frequent “BOO GOT YA” moments.  I mean this is the woods in the dead of night.  That’s creepy enough on its own.  Throw in sounds that echo like crazy and can go for miles, and you’ve got a recipe for nightmares.  One of the characters even mentions how sound can travel a long distance in this area, but the movie never really takes advantage of it.

The same kind of thing happens with the story.  It has a solid, interesting premise and introduces a concept that could have added a whole new layer to the story, but the movie seems too concerned with trying to frighten the audience.  The story follows James Donahue, the brother of Heather Donahue who was one of the characters in the original movie.  James finds a video clip online which seems to show an image of Heather even though she disappeared twenty years ago.  Not knowing what to think, James gathers his friends Peter, Lisa, and Ashley and they all make a trip to the woods where she disappeared.  Tagging along with them are Talia and Lane, the two locals who found the video James watched and posted it online.

Now this is actually a great premise that could have been used to add new layers to the Blair Witch story.  The problem is that instead of expanding on things, the movie feels like a soft reboot of the original.  It follows a lot of the same plot points and does a lot of the same things.  There are some new tidbits here and there, but the movie doesn’t dwell on them long enough for it to really matter.  For example, later on the group splits into two separate groups.  After wandering for a day, one group finds themselves back at their campsite somehow and decides they have to spend the night once more.  Well during the night the other group stumbles into them again, only somehow instead of being one afternoon it’s been five days for them since they last saw each other.  It’s a really weird and creepy detail, but everything goes to hell too soon afterwards for that detail to really matter.  And this seems to be true for all the new stuff they added in this one.

Despite all this, I genuinely enjoyed the second half of the movie.  Once things got going, the movie kept up a decent focus on action and the weird stuff to remain interesting throughout the rest of its 89 minute running time.  It no longer relies on cheap scares and actually focuses on the struggle of the characters to survive.  There’s one particular sequence inside a cramped underground tunnel that actually makes you feel for one of the characters as she starts breaking down and crying while she’s alone in the darkness.  It’s actually a powerful moment and it makes you pause.

In the end, this movie definitely earns the label of “mixed bag”.  There are some really good elements in the movie and it has good writing in parts, but the obnoxious jumpscares and overly vague nature of the story leaves a lot to be desired.  When the movie ended, I didn’t feel like I was any closer to understanding what happened to James’ sister or what the Blair Witch actually is.  Instead, all I got were a bunch of cheap scares and story elements that weren’t fleshed out enough to matter.  I guess the thing the frustrates me most about the movie is that it had such great potential to be an amazing follow-up to a classic horror movie, but it squandered that potential and became the same thing you can find in pretty every other horror movie in theaters these days.

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re looking for a movie with cheap thrills, Blair Witch certainly has you covered.

If you’re hoping for something deeper, I would look elsewhere.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Facebook page for Rumination on the Lake here.

Are Jumpscares Scary?

It may seem like a loaded question, but it’s one worth asking.  Are jumpscares scary or not?

Now, I’ve already talked about my frustrations with the horror genre and I’ve listed five horror clichés that I don’t like.  Because I love the horror genre.  It’s one of my favorites and tells some of the most interesting and captivating stories.  But in more recent years, the horror genre has become so mired in this idea of having to be “scary”, which results in treading and re-treading already worn ground in an attempt to scare audiences without any real meaning.  For example, ever since Alien did the “cat jumpscare” back in the ’70s, it’s become a staple of movies and television shows.

And this I think shows part of the problem with horror as a genre.  Creators continually looks back at whatever was popular or effective and then simply tries to re-do it.  I mean they’re even doing a sequel to the Blair Witch project simply called “Blair Witch“.  Now, admittedly, the movie doesn’t look that bad, but it just shows how Hollywood has no original ideas for scaring people anymore.  It’s pretty much all demonic possession movies nowadays, which are routinely panned critically and I would imagine don’t do too well at the box office (although The Conjuring 2 did get some praise earlier this year).

But I digress.  Back to the question at hand, are jumpscares scary?  They can be.  They just have to be done right.

See, for a jumpscare to work, it has to capitalize on built-up tension throughout a scene or on its pure shock value.  If people know it’s coming, then it loses a lot of its power.  Everyone knows that when a character is moving down a dark hallway with spooky music that suddenly cuts out before they round a corner, a jumpscare is about to happen.  There needs to be a little more subtlety than that or it needs to happen when the audience isn’t expecting it.

A great example of the latter can be seen in Paranormal Activity 2.  If you haven’t seen any of the movies, I’ll sum it up for you: people set up cameras around their house.  Spooky stuff happens.  Something about demons.  That’s the general gist of it, but for how cliché it all sounds, the movies are surprisingly effective.  They’ll often just show you dark nighttime scenes with nothing happening in them because the filmmakers know your eyes will be darting about the screen trying to find even the most minute of movement.  But one of the best scary moments in the movie actually happens in the middle of the day.

Now, I’ve already talked about this scenario in my “Horror clichés” post, but I think it’s worth mentioning again.  There’s a scene later in Paranormal Activity 2 where one of the people living in the house sits down at the kitchen table to read either a magazine or newspaper (I honestly can’t tell).  And the scene sits there for a good ten or fifteen seconds with nothing happening before, suddenly, all the cabinets in the kitchen fly open with a crash.

You can take a look at the scene here if you want.

I think what makes the scene particularly effective is how it raises your alert level just seconds before the jumpscare happens.  You see the character in the scene suddenly turn and look away from her reading, almost as if she heard something.  Your brain is immediately like “something’s wrong here” and then BOOM!  You just got jumpscared.

Another thing that makes that scene work so well is that the movie has done a great job of building up the tension.  The Paranormal Activity movies are a very slow burn.  Very little happens for much of the movie until later on when things get more and more violent and suddenly the entire thing descends into chaos (at least for the first three movies…the fourth literally has a chandelier nearly falling on the main character in the first ten or fifteen minutes).

But unfortunately, it seems that most movies don’t want to take the time to be scary.  Instead, they want to get immediately to the scary bits, resorting to things popping up in your face and screaming as attempts to scare you.  I remember watching the trailer for Insidious Chapter 3 in a movie theater some months back and couldn’t help but laugh at how utterly cliché the last half of the trailer is.  It starts off decently enough, with a girl knocking on the wall thinking that it’s her neighbor knocking back until he reveals through text that he’s not him.  Cue creepy children’s lullaby and every trope in the book: old lady in dark hallway, séance gone wrong, creepy shadow people abruptly disappearing, mysterious oily footprints, and so on.  The trailer even ends with someone going into the darkened basement and getting scared by someone hanging from the ceiling and screaming in their face.

Who knows?  Maybe that’s what people want.  I don’t really know anymore.  There has to be a reason these movies keep getting made after all.

In the end I think horror is going to be better served combining itself with other genres, because straight horror movies are far too predictable.  Even 10 Cloverfield Lane (which is a great movie by the way) feels more like a psychological thriller than a straight horror movie.  But perhaps that’s for the best.  Because if all we keep getting are these installments of movies revolving around demons and possession, then I think the horror genre is going to die a slow death.  In all fairness clichés are clichés for a reason.  They were effective at one point in time, but they lose effectiveness the more often they are used.  The cat jumpscare was really unique when it was used in Alien but now it either elicits eye rolls or laughter (and it is often used for comedic purposes instead of scary purposes these days because of how overdone it is).

You see, if your primary method of scaring people is loud noises, then the movie won’t stick out in your mind.  You need to leave a lasting impression.  You need to build up to the jumpscare instead of just throwing them at people one after another.  It’s the reason why I remember 10 Cloverfield Lane so vividly but can barely remember the names of Insidious and The Conjuring, because 10 Cloverfield Lane, even if I hadn’t gone to see it, left me with a very damn good trailer that sticks out in my mind compared to the usual fare (I actually had to think to remember the name of that Insidious movie…that’s how generic the trailer was).

To truly scare someone with a jumpscare, you need to earn it first.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.