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Smart Scares: What Makes Horror Films So Frightening?

True horror films, those which genuinely terrify and shake us to our core, are extremely difficult to find. Though there are many “scary movies” that can get a jump or two out of us through expectant scenes of gore and surprise, it is very difficult to create a film with original and authentic frightening content. True horror cannot be found in some cabin set deep within the woods, or within the hands of an axe murderer. True horror lives within us, reflecting the fears which we, as human beings, all suffer from. It resides in the deepest crevasses of our mind: in our emotions, curiosities, and anxieties. Real horror cannot be manifested through superficial, cheap scares which force out a slight scream and make you reach for your friend’s hand beside you. A smart horror film should not just scare you in the moment–it should linger. Sincere horror follows you home, lays down in bed next to you, and slithers into your dreams as you fall asleep. It should stay with you even after the final credits roll, latching onto you and leaving your mind curious, and your psyche unsettled. So, here are five films that will definitely shake you to the core. 



A combination of a creature story and a haunting, The Babadook proves to be as terrifying as it is intriguing. Though the cloaked story book character who drives Amelia (Essie Davis) to madness is disconcerting in and of himself, the metaphor behind him makes this story even more frightening. This film essentially uses Mister Babadook as a representation of Amelia’s grief over her husband’s death. This metaphor adds an extra layer to the film, and raises scare levels dramatically.

The way in which Mister Babadook stalks and eventually forces his way inside of Amelia perfectly shows how heavy the effects of grief can be. It exemplifies how grief affects our relationships with others through Amelia’s grave intolerance for her son’s behavior and her inability to receive his love. It consumes her so intensely that she almost takes his life. Knowing that Amelia’s shocking descent into madness is caused by a very real human emotion, makes this film relatable in the scariest way possible.

Perhaps the most important point this film makes is that you can’t get rid of the Babadook; you can’t get rid of grief. There is no triumph, or clear resolution in which the Babadook leaves Amelia’s home. This film does not sugar-coat things. The Babadook’s stern refusal to leave Amelia’s house shows our own inability, as people, to entirely recover from the loss of a loved one. We can never fully rid ourselves of our demons, but must confront them, recognize them, and find a way to live with them. The raw truth displayed by this film makes it unique, original, and truly frightening.



The unique nature of The Others begins, strangely, with the end of the film. Though Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) and her two children believe that they are living in a haunted house, it turns out that the Stewarts, themselves, are the ghosts. They have been unintentionally “haunting” their own home by residing in it, unaware of their past deaths. This twist ending is certainly original and shocking, but also serves to make the film, as a whole, much more frightening than it already is.

Firstly, the Stewarts’ intense devotion to Roman Catholicism is key here. Even though Grace (Nicole Kidman) has such strong faith throughout the film, in death, she and her children do not ascend to heaven. This takes a stab at the obscure, making us wonder, is there even a heaven? Will I know when I am dead? What if I am dead right now, and don’t know it? These questions surround one certain human fear: the unknown, the fact that no living person knows for certain what happens to us when we die. This film seemingly rules out heaven (and essentially God) as a possibility- making death all the more frightening.

However, this film does not deal solely with the afterlife. It also shows how incredibly intense human emotions can be, and how astray they can lead us. Grace’s grief over the loss of her husband causes her to become violent, and eventually suffocate her children with a pillow right before taking her own life. Then denial sinks in and both, she and her children, unconsciously repress the entire ordeal. This situation reveals how deceiving our minds can be. It reveals the possibility that emotions like grief can lead people to either endure or inflict abuse, and that denial can just as easily sweep it all away. This film does an exquisite job in revealing how little power we have over our consciousness- and it is truly unsettling.



With varying elements of beauty, terror, and an unnerving distortion of reality, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has become perhaps, one of the best psychological horror films of all time. We follow the journey of Nina Lesser (Natalie Portman) who is cast as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet–a role which requires her to dance both, the delicate white swan and the unrestrained black swan. In her pursuance of the roll, Nina shows signs of schizophrenia through bouts of severe paranoia and delusion.

What makes this film so intriguingly strange to watch is the lens through which we view it–through Nina’s eyes. We come to understand the world through her perspective. As a result, we experience Nina’s mental breakdown alongside her. The more Nina attempts to break her shell of innocence and find her inner black swan, the harsher the effects of her mental illness seem. Her hallucinations gradually become more apparent, and they are as sudden as they are seamless: the transitions of her face onto the people around her, and the scenes in which Nina’s reflection seems to acquire a life of its own are so quick and smooth that you wonder if you hadn’t imagined them yourself.

By seeing the movie through Nina’s perspective, we get a first-hand experience of what losing touch with reality might be like. We are forced to confront the terrifying truth of mental illness: that it can terrorize virtually anyone–even the respected and the talented. The extremities of Nina’s illness stem from the pressure she feels to obtain perfection; a pressure which we can all relate to. To see what a severe impact stress can have on a person’s mind is quite disheartening. Black Swan also introduces the fear of inescapability. Mental illness manifests on the inside, and cannot be “fought” or even prevented at times. This harsh truth brings a certain level of disturbance to this film, and leaves us hoping that we may never have to experience life as Nina does.

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Though often listed as a dark comedy, The Voices contains many elements of the “smart horror” admired in this article. In this film, Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), essentially lives a double life. In one these lives, he seems to be an average, normal man who spends his time working and crushing on a pretty girl in the office. In his other life, he is an extremely confused, twisted man who spends his time conversing with his pets and casually murdering people.

It’s a bit alarming to think that a seemingly nice, regular guy who works a humble factory job could also be a serial killer. It’s even scarier to think that he could be a serial killer without actually realizing that he is, in fact, a serial killer. Jerry does not fully understand his mental state, and once put on medication to rid him of his delusions- he actually prefers his deranged world to the real one. The scene where Jerry enters his home to quiet pets and an overwhelming stench of rotting body parts is an important one. It opens our eyes to how unaware people can be of their actions, and how horrible the outcome can be.

Though this film masks its underlying horror with bits of humor, it means to show how anyone we know, even the people we think we know best, could be a murderer. You never can truly tell what’s going on in a person’s mind. The Voices is an unusual story which forces a strange perspective onto you, and in the midst of your discomfort, makes you wonder who you really can trust.



Aside from its strong resemblance of an 80’s teen horror movie, It Follows introduces a fresh concept to the horror genre. After a sexual encounter with a boy that she has been seeing, 19-year old Jay (Maika Monroe) becomes haunted by various ghoulish looking figures which seem to follow her everywhere she goes. Though several of her friends attempt to rid her of this curse, it is to no avail. Though we do not see Jay actually caught and killed, it becomes evident by the end of the film that she may be “followed” for the rest of her days.

Here, like in The Babadook, we have another metaphor. This “following” is transmitted through sex, and can only be passed along–never eradicated. The figures who stalk Jay are essentially meant to represent death. It Follows is a story of adolescence: the loss of youth, and the daunting necessity to grow up. After Jay has sex, she ascends from her youth into an adult world; a life where she must confront reality, and battle her demons. This story is not your average spooky haunting. It is not frightening simply because of the creepy-looking people who follow Jay around. In watching Jay’s following, we realize that we too are being followed. Death stalks us all: every time we cross the street, every time we go for a drive, and even as we sit in the comfort of our homes. We cannot escape our fate any more than Jay can–we can only prolong the catch. This film works on multiple levels, both disturbing us through Jay’s situation and forcing us to acknowledge our own. And when you really think about it, it is not just scary. It is petrifying.

And there you have it, our 5 Smart Horror Picks! If nothing else, remember this the next time you watch a horror film. Smart horror doesn’t just cause you to scream, but it causes you to think. It should not just scare you on the surface, but should burrow within you. True horror plays on our fears, and reveals terrifying truths of our lives.

Make yourself heard!