Horror is a unique genre that gives the audience the thrill of being scared. It’s been around for centuries, dating back to the ancient Greek tragedy. Over the years, the genre has been expanding, offering new themes, storylines, and characters and giving people a rush of adrenaline.
Horror movies startle, scare, and shock people, eliciting fear. Screenwriters draw from horror movie aesthetics to set a frightening mood and atmosphere. They use story structure, dynamics, stylistic devices, character arcs, and subliminal images to evoke a psychological response in the audience. Let’s take a look at five classic horror movies that provide valuable lessons for future screenwriters.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty
One of the most profitable movies of the Warner Brothers continues to scare and excite people today. It tells a story about a twelve-year-old girl, Regan, who is possessed by an agent of Satan. Her mother invites two Catholic priests to perform an exorcism. The Exorcist touches upon the topics of religion, the conflict between faith and reason, and the nature of evil.
The controversy around the film makes it challenging to analyse it and get to the heart of its symbols, motifs, and imagery. If students need to write a movie review on The Exorcist, they prefer to find someone to do my assignment. However, if you dream about becoming a professional screenwriter, you should definitely watch The Exorcist. It’s an encyclopaedia of horror movie techniques that never fail to scare the audience.
2. Psycho (1960)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Joseph Stefano (based on the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch)
Psycho is one of the most prominent horrors that has transformed the whole genre and continues to influence horror screenwriters to this day. The movie keeps the audience in suspense and sets a nerve-racking atmosphere. While the audience is continuously reminded of the looming danger, the characters continue to be unaware of it. It allows establishing a connection between the viewer and the characters.
As the action unfolds, the audience experiences a continuous feeling of anticipation. Critic Roger Ebert has pointed out that Psycho is so powerful at eliciting fear as it appeals directly to what people are afraid of: becoming the victim of a madman, committing a crime, and being caught by the police.
3. The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel The Shining by Stephen King)
While in Psycho the audience knows what will happen before the characters, in The Shining, the script is written in a way that the characters are one step ahead of the viewer. It’s a different but still effective technique to build suspense.
The viewers don’t only anticipate something terrible to happen, they see the characters with dilated pupils and masks of fear on their faces and are left to wait for the worse. The Shining also includes the themes of occult powers, insanity, and supernatural forces to increase the intensity of the plot.
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero
Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo
The movie unfolds in a farmhouse in a rural part of Pennsylvania. Here seven people try to survive being surrounded by cannibalistic ghouls. Night of the Living Dead is a classic of zombie lore that invented the image of a zombie. The movie is an example of how a strong script can turn a movie into a classic without a big budget, professional actors, or special effects.
The movie casts a black actor, Duane Jones, for a heroic role, which was a significant event in the 60s. Night of the Living Dead has become a reflection of social change in the US due to the Civil Rights Movement and has been included in the National Film Registry.
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Screenplay by Hooper and Kim Henkel
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre serves as a catalyst to broaden the boundaries of the horror genre even further. It’s a slasher movie that follows a group of friends on their way to an old homestead when they stumble upon a house of deranged cannibals.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is another example of a low-budget movie that has become iconic. Its style influences numerous other directors and screenwriters. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wipes out the barrier between the real world and events on the screen, evoking authentic fear and loathing in the audience.
Tips for Writing Horror Scripts
Here are 10 lessons for successful screenwriting that we learned from the classic horrors.
1. Build suspense right away.
2. Add excitement with unexpected plot twists.
3. Give the audience a false lead.
4. Focus on action.
5. Take viewers by surprise.
6. Explain what drives characters.
7. Help the audience to identify with the protagonist.
8. Use common and familiar locations so that the viewers picture themselves in the story.
9. Slow the action down to add suspense.
10. Transform classic horror movie tropes.
To Sum Up
Learning how to write a script for a horror movie takes a lot of practice, time, and patience. By studying classic horror movies from renowned screenwriters, you can borrow some ideas and techniques and improve the quality of your own writing. Pay attention to setting, character development, plot twists, and atmosphere to generate your own ideas.