How Scary Movies Stoke Fear What makes for a good scary movie? Researchers and film directors discuss the formula that truly frightens audiences.
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How Scary Movies Stoke Fear

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How Scary Movies Stoke Fear

How Scary Movies Stoke Fear

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Back now with DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: So Alex, tonight after all those trick or treaters have gone off to bed, you going to sit down and watch a scary movie?


Well, actually, I'm going to go bed because I have to get up to do the program tomorrow morning. But it's a great idea, and it sure works for horror movie fans - millions of them.

BRAND: And so that made us wonder, well, what is that thing, that magic formula that makes for a perfect horror movie?

Our colleague Alex Cohen went and found out.

ALEX COHEN: A few years back, mathematicians at the University of London watched scary movies for two weeks straight, and they came up with an actual mathematical formula for what works - including one part escalating music.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Of course, you've got to have a chase scene.

(Soundbite of a chainsaw)

(Soundbite of screaming)

COHEN: And be sure to include a character being trapped.

(Soundbite of movie, "When A Stranger Calls")

Mr. DAVID DENMAN (Actor): (As Officer Borroughs) We traced the call. It's coming from the inside of the house. Do you hear me?

COHEN: The University of London researchers decided there's one movie that has all the right fear factors.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Shining")

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (Actor): (As Jack Torrance) Here's Johnny.

COHEN: Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic, "The Shining," is also one of the films Leo Braudy uses in his class on scary movies at the University of Southern California. He argues that fright can be broken into two main categories: horror and terror.

Dr. LEO BRAUDY (University of Southern California): Horror, which comes from actually a Latin word meaning to make your hair stand on end, is a physical response.

COHEN: Terror, on the other hand, is more of a spiritual response. That's when the scary gnaws away at your soul. Braudy says you can create both horror and terror by building suspense.

Dr. BRAUDY: You need a kind of rhythm of quiet scenes and scary scenes. Otherwise, the scary scenes, you know, don't have the impact. You need to be lulled a little bit, and then you need to be scared again.

COHEN: Suspense also has a lot to do with knowledge. That's Michael Hein's theory, anyway. Hein, who runs the New York City Horror Film Festival, says the audience should know something that the characters on screen don't. That terror technique comes courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock.

(Soundbite of movie, "Psycho")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MICHAEL HEIN (Director, New York City Horror Film Festival): What Hitchcock said about horror films was different than what everyone else was doing beforehand. He said, you know, you would never show the killer. You would never show the person behind the door. You know, Hitchcock said, no, no, no. You do show the person behind the door and let the audience know that that girl who's walking in doesn't see them, but you do. So that builds up the tension. It makes you yell at the screen, don't go in there.

COHEN: But, inevitably, they always go in there.

Mr. HEIN: Of course, or you wouldn't have a horror movie.

COHEN: Being a true scholar of scare, Hein also notes that for decades, filmmakers have used what is scary in the news for inspiration.

During the 1950s, when America was caught up in the space race, out came a film about a woman who gets abducted by aliens and suddenly suffers and abnormal growth spurt.

(Soundbite of movie, "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman")

Unidentified Man #1: Attack of the 50 foot woman, incredibly huge, with incredible desires for love and vengeance.

COHEN: Then in the '60s and '70s came movies about social issues. For instance, Hein says, "Night of the Living Dead" wasn't just about zombies.

Mr. HEIN: If you read between the lines, you'll see that that there's a lot of a current scene in the film. "Night of the Living Dead" was really all about racism and about, you know, the fears in the public, in race classes and things like that.

(Soundbite of movie, "Night of the Living Dead")

Mr. BILL CARDILLE (Actor): (As Field Reporter) Chief, if I were surrounded by six or eight of these things, would I stand a chance with them?

Mr. GEORGE KOSANA (Actor): (As Sheriff McClelland) Well, there's no problem. If you had a gun, shoot him in the head. That's a sure way to kill them. If you get don't, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat them or burn them. They go up pretty easy.

COHEN: And today, when the word waterboarding is part of common vocabulary, there are films like "Saw."

(Soundbite of movie, "Saw")

Mr. TOBIN BELL (Actor): (As Jigsaw) I want to play a game. You just lean forward into the knives with your face.

COHEN: All four of the "Saw" films revolve around characters tortured by a serial killer named Jigsaw. The latest in the franchise is the current box office champ. Torture also played a big role in the cult hit "Hostel."

(Soundbite of movie, "Hostel")

Mr. JAY HERNANDEZ (Actor): (As Paxton) Oh, please, stop. Please, stop it. Please, stop it. I know you want to do this.

COHEN: "Hostel" is about people who pay money to torture innocent victims. And if you haven't seen it, you might be surprised that it actually has some very funny moments, which brings us to humor.

Mr. CHARLES McGRATH (Writer, New York Times) Aristotle would have said that humor gives you a release from horror. If he had seen horror movies, he would have said that.

COHEN: That's New York Times writer and scary movie connoisseur Charles McGrath. He says a dash of laughter is crucial to his formula for a good, scary movie.

Mr. McGRATH: And so we don't have to take them totally seriously. We don't have to be scared out of our wits and go home and be unable to sleep the way we might be after seeing, say, the Al Gore movie.

COHEN: Are you listening, Hollywood? Charles McGrath just gave you a great idea: a horror movie about global warming. It's timely, it's a real threat, and that could add up to the perfect formula for box office brilliance. Or could it? Now here is where the scary movie experts are divided: reality versus fantasy. Some say the most frightening flicks are the ones where the plot line is totally plausible, like the movie that Charles McGrath of the New York Times considers the scariest of them all.

Mr. McGRATH: And it's one I probably don't want to go see again. It's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

(Soundbite of a chainsaw)

Mr. McGRATH: How far do you go in the depiction of mayhem and violence and power tools used in ways that Black & Decker never intended?

COHEN: Others argue if you want to make something really scary, don't look to reality. Look to your dreams.

Mr. DAVID SLADE (Director, "30 Days of Night"): What's the worst nightmare you've ever had? Personally, I have nightmares about the unstoppable monster.

COHEN: Director David Slade's unstoppable monsters became vampires in the movie "30 Days of Night." It topped the box office two weekends ago.

(Soundbite of movie, "30 Days of Night")

Ms. MELISSA GEORGE (Actor): (As Stella Oleson) Somebody.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Ms. GEORGE: (As Stella) Please, God.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) No God.

Mr. SLADE: Suspense is a real tough beast in terms of the filmmaking.

CHADWICK: Slade says with each years that goes by, it gets harder, and harder to make films that genuinely scare.

Mr. SLADE: Films are pushing envelopes in terms of what is horrific, but also on other areas: in video games, in comic books and outside life. Computer-generated monsters, people shoot them all day with videogames, you know, so kids aren't going to be afraid of that. People are getting immune to scares.

COHEN: David Slade says that in order to make audiences keep screaming, filmmakers like him may have to rethink the fright formula in the future. But one thing all the experts agree on: Horror films won't be dying out anytime soon.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music from "Psycho")

BRAND: Oh, mother. DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from I'm Madeleine Brand.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick. Boo.

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