The Elements of horror

Image#1: There’s nothing more frightening than the Unknown– The moment in Signs that the film ceased to be a horror movie was that in which we got our first glimpse at the aliens. Because the film had been building our fear of the unknown, as soon as that was released and we saw who the enemy was, it was over.

#2: What’s going on here? – The Others pulled us along and kept us guessing at what the hell was going on. Because  the mystery took so long to unfold – even with the hints we were given – the sense of horror was maintained through almost the entire film.

#3: Could this be real?– The extent of the natural world always begins crystal clear and just as we expect it. As good films go along, this boundary becomes fuzzy and we question what we can take for granted. The Exorcism of Emily Rose executed this perfectly. From beginning to end we have no idea what was supernatural and what was psychosis. The whole film could have been either and we were kept guessing throughout. Although, like any good horror film, the evidence seemed to fall more on the side of the supernatural than the natural.

#4: You’re all alone in this and there’s no easy way out– The creaky floorboards got you out of bed and led you downstairs to investigate and you’re starting to sweat. It certainly feels like there’s someone in the house with you, but there shouldn’t be. When you finally pick up the phone to call for help there’s no dial tone. You’re alone  – but you’re NOT alone.   Drew Barrymore pulls this off pretty well in the beginning of Scream, well before the film lets us in on the fact that it’s more fun than horror.

#5: Good casting delivers good movies – Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in anything they ever did; Linda Blair kills it as a possessed Regan in The Exorcist; Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. These are actors that make the movies they star in work.

Image#6 A creepy doll can send shivers down my spine – One of my favorites (before this week) was May’s doll, Suzie. Because “if you can’t find a friend, make one.” However, the clown doll from the original Poltergeist was burnt into my brain from a young age. Why anyone would ever keep a doll like that is beyond me. Or at least it would be, except that I did have a pretty horrifying ventriloquism doll named, Willie Talk as a kid. So I guess I should shut up.


Watching The Conjuring  hit every one of these notes for me. My family won’t watch horror films with me, so I’m damned to watching them at night after they have gone to bed and I’m as good as alone. My 11 lb. Peekapoo, Penny, doesn’t do much to make the house feel safe, but she’s all I have to keep me company.

The Conjuring had me scared out of my wits and I had to turn it off several nights as I watched it piece by piece. I know I was ruining it by doing it this way, but it’s the only way I ever made it through.

#1 – The Conjuring kept the unknown unknown for a long time, giving bits a pieces but not showing its hand until well into the film.

#2 – There seemed to be several story lines twisting about each other early in the movie. The main arc of the haunted house worked well as the hints trickled in. But there was also some history between the Warrens that never got fully developed and the introduction of the Annabeth doll made this film worth watching even if you never get father along than that. With all these storylines, the viewer is left guessing not only about what’s happening at the house, but even which story arcs are going to be central. Did we ever really get anywhere with that old Chevy?

#3 Early in the film there is nothing much more than creepy music, a dilapidated house and some creaky floorboards. Even as some definite supernatural stuff starts going on, you can’t help but feel that you’re part of the family locked in this house. There’s not much that’s unreal going on at first, so you totally buy into the experience.  After that, the first experiences of the supernatural are all visions that could easily be the products of overactive imaginations. Is it real? Like The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist, the filmmakers claim it is.

#4 Kids always seemed to be up alone in this movie. Even when nothing horrible happens, you can’t help feeling like it might at any time.

#5 Good casting? Check.

#6 The Annabeth doll is the cincher.

Meanwhile, as I’m trying to be brave and finish this thing up, the cat conspires to send tingles down my spine by sneaking in and out of the front closet, pushing it along its squeaky hinges, then padding away before I can blame him for startling me.

Still later, the front door blows open late in the night when the wind catches it. (This happens sometimes because the latch isn’t perfect. Mostly it happens at night)

Eventually, I toughed it out and made it far enough into the film that some of the elements I listed above start falling apart and the horror turns into just another movie with screaming and possessed people getting thrown around the house. I would have sat through another two hours of slowly escalating tension (well, perhaps in fifteen minute intervals), but unfortunately, Hollywood has its demands and we’re rushed through an end that was less than satisfactory.


Nevertheless, this was a great movie and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see if they can make it through without wetting themselves.




Signs was an attempt by M. Night Shyamalan to recapture the magic of The Sixth Sense. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work, even though Rotten Tomatoes gave it 74% fresh.


At 83% Fresh, according to Rotten Tomatoes, The Others still seems under-rewarded for an amazing delivery of a great concept.


The Exorcism of Emily Rose only gets 45% fresh from critics? That’s a travesty. I was gripped by this film and blown away by Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as a possessed college student.


The Conjuring gets an 86% Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, which is relatively unheard of for a horror movie.


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