Everyone is familiar with horror characters like Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and all of the other classics. So what makes an effective horror character? How does a character scare audiences?
Fear is an emotion most people want to avoid due to the effects it has like strong distress and extreme anxiety but as Richard Poyer stated.."I know that if I wasn't scared, something's wrong, because the thrill is what's scary."
The appeal of horror films is the thrill that we experience when watching one. The adrenaline you get from the story being shown on screen. So what do movies like Nightmare on Elm Street scare people? There are 3 steps that can create an effective horror character. These 3 steps are…
Putting the protagonist in immediate danger
Make the main character step out of the safe zone
Have the main protagonist struggle to keep going
This might seem like it’s all about the main protagonist but it is more useful for making your horror character terrifying. Let's break down all of the steps on how to make a successful horror antagonist.
Putting the protagonist in immediate danger.
When a character is thrown in danger the audience will experience
So what’s a great example of a character in danger? What about the movie Scream produced in 1996? The very first scene in this movie is a girl who gets a call from the killer. It's one of the most recognizable scenes in horror history. The scene plays out with the girl answering the phone and speaking to the killer. She keeps telling him he has the wrong number but starts to lead into a conversation. After he says “I want to know who I’m looking at.” It terrifies her and she tells him that she has to go. She keeps hanging up but he keeps calling and eventually starts threatening her. This is an effective way of showing a character being put in immediate danger. After hearing that line it causes the protagonist to be terrified and is put into fight or flight mode but ultimately gets killed.
Make the main character step out of the “safe zone”
Safe zones in movies are an important part of the film. Not only because it's going to be a part of where the movie takes place but because it will be the place the horror character invalidates. Safe spaces in horror movies are typically in houses which is why it's perfect to put your horror villain in their homes. When you have an ax murderer in the safe space the character has to leave and will have no place they can consider safe anymore. Think of the horror film The Shining released in 1980. The safe space in that movie was their hotel room but after Jack Torrance breaks through the door it’s no longer a safe spot and Wendy will have to run. What makes this method effective? It’s a good way to scare audiences by showing the characters are not safe and will have to constantly move from place to place to escape the killer. Our homes are a place to feel comfortable, relaxed, and safe but soon as danger enters our home we lose all comfortability.
3.Have the main character struggle
Any genre of cinema will contain cliches. One of the biggest cliches in horror is the scene where the main character trips and falls. Despite being common in alot of horror films, It still manages to scare us. The way it manages to scare us is the idea that the killer is slowly following while the character is running. After the character falls then the killer gets 5 steps closer to killing the protagonist. In the movie Cabin in the Woods made in 2011, the zombies hunt down the group. After one of the members trips the zombie Buckner gets the
All of these techniques are things you would see in a horror film. Whether you see these steps in movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or movies like Hellraiser, just know that these are effective steps to make classic horror characters. Next time you watch a horror movie, see if you can identify all 3 steps.