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Screenwriting : Scared Witless by Fiona Faith Ross

Fiona Faith Ross

Scared Witless

Scared witless... So guys...when you write for fright, what are the scariest tricks you can come up with? What devices do you use to make the viewer's popcorn jump out of the tub? Any writerly tricks or cinematic devices you'd like to share would be very enlightening. I have my own repertoire, of course, but I am interested in other viewpoints on it. Ketchup-free zone! No blood and guts, please. Also, care to nominate your most spine-shuddering movie ever? Mine is MISERY. (Screenplay William Goldman, Novel Stephen King, Starring Kathy Bateman and James Caan).

Cherie Grant

The Ring and the Grudge still terrify me years after the fact. They play with psychology to put the wind up you. Little things can become terrifying. Like in The Grudge with the use of hair. It takes a mild repulsion of finding a strangers hair in your sink to 'holy shit I'll never stick my hand in a sink again'. It makes a simple croaking noise one that makes you shudder. Little things become 'AHHHHH!' moments. Take a repulsion and times it by a hundred into a gut wrenching fear.

Fiona Faith Ross

So you can create a symbol that recurs in your film, sometimes expected, sometimes not, or sometimes not appearing when expected...a symbol weighty with menace.

Elisabeth Meier

I agree, Jim. See yourself like the witch who keeps suspense high and play with the viewer by psychological tricks.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

Cut a man's face off and place it over the dog's -- wait. No blood? Hm... I don't get the question.

Fiona Faith Ross

Yeah, you do...Your man-bites-dog scene arouses horror, shock, revulsion. The fear would follow if you thought your face was next. I'm talkin' outta yer mind fear, enough to make you wet yourself. And also, what fear is external and what is in your head? "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," etc. etc.

Debbie Croysdale

Your right Fiona about film "Misery" being spine shuddering, particularly the scene where she is about to "hobble" him, made my skin crawl. I agree with all the comments about suspense, and as Dan points out, feeling the danger for a character who is unaware of their own demise. Fear and distress can be caused just as much by psychological tension/conflict in a plot, as blood and gore visuals. Orphan, Pacific Heights, and Killer Joe were quite chilling, without the need for the ketchup. (Chain saw massacre most chilling but not relevant answer because mainly gore.). Happy weekend.

Ann Kimbrough

Great discussion! One of my favs is Silence of the Lambs, which I wouldn't really call Horror, but it makes most horror lists. It does so much so right, but what it does best (for me) is keeping the audience in suspense about Hannibal turning on Clarice. If you can never stop worrying about the protagonist, that's a good script! And a great technique to use. :)

Shane M Wheeler

Foreshadowing, definitely. Suspense and atmosphere building are key. Paranormal Activity series works, because it's like going through a haunted house or hidden picture. A lot of scenes of that movie, nothing happens, but then, something later does. It might be small- something moves, a shadow on the wall, etc. It keeps your eye bouncing around the screen, waiting, anticipating, what's gonna happen, what's gonna happen? Usually, nothing, but then, when you almost feel comfortable with a shadow or small movement BAM! All the pots and pans come pouring out the doors. Rising conflict = rising terror. The build up of tension, dread, despair, etc. primes a person to be scared, on edge, watchful. Even in 'bad' horror movies, that god damn cat jumping out may make you groan, but it's a warning, a foreshadow, priming your flight or fight reflex: next time, it might not be the cat. Oh, and likeable, relatable characters can make the difference between cheering for the monster and cheering for the victims. Bland, cardboard cut out college kids rarely elicit the empathy needed to get scared that they might not make it.

C.m. Andino

Good horror is different for every person. Horror plays on your personal fears which are different for everyone. In high school The Ring scared the bejesus out of me, but now that I'm a mother Eye for an Eye is my worst nightmare. Some techniques enhance any scary scenario. I find that I prefer a more subtle menace. When the "scary thing" isn't shown my imagination more than fills in the blanks.

Eric Thomas

Mental fear is always good. And that thing you thought you just saw out of the corner of your eye as our victims run upstairs instead of towards the front door. And a great, low toned suspense score. Hitchcock did it best.

Brian Murphy

something has to come out of left field. unfortunately, hardly anything is scary anymore. Gore, "surprises", don't work. the psyche is the unplumbed depths.

Fiona Faith Ross

Some great observations here, thanks everyone. I agree about plumbing the depths of the psyche. Has anybody seen the Teaser Trailer for Insidious: Chapter 3 "Knock Knock"? I saw it in the cinema waiting for Mad Max Fury Road to start. I jumped out of my seat and almost screamed, it was so well done. And yes, Hitchcock did it best. Psycho still makes my skin crawl.

Sarah Gabrielle Baron

Things jump out at you from the dark....also, it's up to the director to add subliminals, but their power can't be underestimated.

Tshepo David

I usually use sound effects in my script. Whispers, grumbles, thunders and other eerie sounds.

Fiona Faith Ross

Insidious: Chapter 3. Now, THAT was scary...

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