Care for Your Scares
So you’ve written your logline, chosen your genre, worked out your beats, pinned your 40 scenes, and now you’re ready to write your horror script. But when you get to the scares, you’re finding they’re a little, well… not scary.
No worries. Here are some prompts that may help. My personal scare package to you. These scenes do contain SPOILERS from the films mentioned. You’ve been warned.
Scare Your Characters We Care About – Get Out, the Sunken Place scene
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a celebrated African-American photographer, leaves New York City for the weekend with his Caucasian girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to meet her parents. Things are off the moment Chris arrives. One of the first terrifying scenes—of a hypnosis—also helps us understand who Chris is. Rose’s mom, Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), is a hypnotherapist. She wants to help Chris to stop smoking and to cure his insomnia. She puts him under, and we learn that Chris harbors guilt over the death of his mother, a fear he’s been hiding.
Missy takes Chris down to “the Sunken Place,” a dark area of the mind where he can still see the world around him, but his limbs are paralyzed. When Chris wakes in the morning after a restful sleep, he thinks what happened the night before was simply a dream. But when he lights up his morning cigarette, he finds the taste repulsive. Missy was tampering with his mind.
The Scare Factor
This scene not only works, but it’s now a cultural staple in modern horror films. Chris is an “everyman” to whom we can relate. So seeing him being manipulated by insidious forces immediately puts the audience in a state of existential dread and quiet terror—this is only the beginning of what’s to come. Consider making your characters likable, and most importantly, relatable, before you throw them to the monsters. If the scene can expose their fears and desires at the same time, all the better.
Read the Get Out beat sheet.
Bait and Switch – The Thing, chest defibrillation scene
Gruff helicopter pilot RJ MacReady (Kurt Russell) is part of an Antarctic research team. One day, a lone Siberian Huskey that’s actually an alien invader arrives. The Trojan Horse makes its way into the compound and quickly infects the other dogs and humans within. During one scene, Norris (Charles Hallahan) appears to have a heart attack. Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive him using defibrillators.
As the doctor applies the shockers, Norris’ barrel chest opens up, revealing a gigantic mouth with a nestful of teeth. It bites off Cooper’s arms (he subsequently bleeds to death) and the Norris-Thing attempts to escape, tearing off its head and crawling with spider legs before MacReady burns it up with a flame thrower.
The Scare Factor
This is one of those jump-scare moments that works every time for those new viewers of The Thing. It’s not only horrifying, but it goes against all expectations, much like the “chest-burster” scene in Alien. It’s so bizarre and almost incomprehensible that it’s not what we’re expecting, but it works as it demonstrates the power that these outer space parasites are capable of—living within us. Chilling.
Read The Thing beat sheet.
The Build-Up – Hereditary, telephone pole decapitation scene
A recent film, Hereditary, featured a shocking scene that took audiences by surprise. What made it most shocking though, was the build-up and then the eventual pay-off that took an unexpected twist. Peter (Alex Wolff) gets a text that there’s a raging party. He asks his mom, Annie (Toni Collette) if he can go. She insists he takes his younger, special-needs sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
At the party, Peter goes off to smoke a bowl with some friends, leaving Charlie alone with strangers. She’s offered chocolate cake. However, the dessert has nuts, to which she’s deathly allergic. After eating the cake, her throat swells up, and Peter races with her toward the hospital. Charlie rolls down the window to get air, sticking her head out. However, when Peter swerves to avoid a dead deer in the road, his car swipes past a telephone pole and Charlie is decapitated.
The Scare Factor
From the Opening Image to the shocking scene in the Fun and Games beat, it’s been nothing but misery and heartache. The family has suffered a tragic blow when their grandmother has died. Each member of the family is dealing with the grief (which is the primary motif of the film). Charlie’s sudden and unexpected death brings the tragedy level up to another notch. The entire sequence, the Build-Up to the pay-off, makes it unforgettable. Consider building these types of moments in your story—slowly leading to shocking and unexpected consequences that change the life of your characters forever.
Read the Hereditary beat sheet.
Startling Realization – The Shining, Room 237 scene
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), along with his family, has agreed to watch over The Overlook Hotel, nestled in the Colorado Rockies, for the winter. The place turns out to be a giant haunted house that wants his son, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd), who possesses an extraordinary psychic power dubbed “shining.” When young Danny finds the door to Room 237 unlocked, he explores it. He returns to his parents, Jack and Wendy (Shelly Duvall), catatonic and with bruises around his neck.
Jack goes to investigate. He finds a beautiful woman in the bathtub. She climbs out, dripping wet, and saunters over to him. Jack embraces the nude woman. When he sees her reflection in the mirror, she’s the haggard, rotting corpse of an old woman. Jack stumbles out of the room in terror.
The Scare Factor
This scene is similar to the aforementioned The Build-Up, which requires things to be set up and to escalate with a startling zinger at the end. This one is slightly different, however, as it shocks the audience and also revolts and repels them. It “puts them off their lunch” as it were. The Startling Revelation is a showstopper of a scene if you can thread it into the narrative fabric of your story.
Read The Shining beat sheet.
Shock Factor – The Exorcist, crucifix stabbing scene
Thirteen-year-old Regan is bored while her mom shoots a new movie in Georgetown. She finds and plays with a Ouija board, conjuring the demon of Pazuzu. The demon infests the house and then possesses the teen. The Exorcist has many terrifying moments during its 133-minute run time, but the most shocking, arguably, is the crucifixion stabbing scene.
When Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) hears a commotion up in her daughter’s room, she bursts in to find the demonic Regan stabbing herself in the genitals with a crucifix. It’s the demon’s way of blaspheming the holy symbol. To top it off, the Pazuzu-possessed Regan then grabs her mother’s head and shoves her into the bloody mess. The evil spirit then uses its psychic abilities to try to crush Ellen with a heavy oak highboy dresser. The demon then turns Regan’s head around at an impossible, horrifying angle.
The Scare Factor
The shock factor is apparent. It takes place in the All Is Lost moment of the film, and it demonstrates the worst that we’ve seen with this demonic entity. This scene drives the atheistic mother to find an exorcist after science and psychology have failed her and her daughter’s wellness. Shocking scenes are often a must in a horror story, but it’s recommended to keep them few and far between. The more they standout, and the more unexpected they are, the higher the shock value. It also helps, and it should go without saying, that a character with whom we relate to and wish to succeed is the victim.
Read The Exorcist beat sheet.
First Impression – IT, the opening scene
In the opening of Stephen King’s IT, young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is floating his paper boat down a rain-swollen gutter. The toy vessel then plummets into a storm drain. When Georgie attempts to retrieve the boat, he meets Pennywise the Clown, who’s dwelling in the darkness. Pennywise tricks the boy into retrieving the boat. As the boy reaches for it, the clown reveals his shark-like teeth and chomps down on the boy’s arm, severing it. The monster-as-clown then pulls the dying boy’s body into the sewer.
The Scare Factor
Starting your horror story off with a bang is a great way to hook viewers and readers. And what’s more horrific than the death of innocence? Opening with a scene like the death of Georgie Denbrough suggests that “all bets are off” when a young character can die in such a gruesome way. This event also drives the narrative as Georgie’s older brother, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), will obsess with finding his lost brother—a journey that will end up dragging his friends, the Lucky Seven, down into the IT-infested sewer to face the monster.
Read the IT beat sheet.
Lasting Impression – Psycho, the final scene
Many horror films leave on a scary note to fill the audience with a lingering sense of dread long after the movie has ended. One of the first films to successfully do this, and one that still has a lasting effect, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In the film, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is finally captured by the police after he killed a woman and a police detective, and attempted to kill another person.
In the penultimate scene, a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) explains that when Norman poisoned his mother and then stole her corpse, he had a tremendous sense of guilt. That split his personality until it was Norman and Norman’s Mother sharing a conscious. Norman is a soft-spoken, stuttering man-child; the mother side of Norman is jealous, vicious, and prone to violence.
The Scare Factor
In this final, terrifying image, we hear Norman speaking in his mother’s voice (on a voice-over track) and a slow tracking shot into his face. The image then dissolves, revealing Norman’s face, his mother’s skull, and the car of a victim being pulled out of a swamp. This Final Image completely captures the terror of the film. The lesson—end on something scary and don’t let your audience’s terror give way.
Read the Psycho beat sheet.
Batshit Crazy – Jacob’s Ladder, Psych Ward scene
Plunging characters into a nightmare world is the name of the game for horror films. Jacob’s Ladder, released in 1990, still holds up. Jacob Singer, a postal worker, is trying to make sense of the world after his experience in the Vietnam War. He’s seeing angels but mostly demons everywhere. In one of the most horrifying scenes, he’s checked into a psychiatric ward. It’s like the depths of Dante’s Inferno where filthy, faceless facility members perform medieval-like experiments on him.
The Scare Factor
Jacob Singer is completely powerless at this point. We’ve been along with him into this mysterious, labyrinthine journey that has spiraled down into the depths of Hell. This Batshit Crazy scene is not only shocking and terrifying, but we as an audience don’t know where it’s going to go—all the rules of the natural world are off. Also, Jacob is helpless, strapped to a hospital gurney, and at the whim of these demonic figures in surgical clothes.
Read the Jacob’s Ladder beat sheet.
Go for the Ordinary – Rosemary’s Baby, the neighbors’ scenes
Sometimes the most innocuous characters, our trusted friends and neighbors, turn into being the most terrifying. One of the best examples of this is Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) moves into The Bramford apartment building with her husband Guy (John Cassavetes). The nosy and annoying neighbors, the Castevets, who seem like a sweet but imposing couple, quickly latch onto the newcomers.
Through the course of the story, Rosemary learns that not only are the neighbors Satanists, but they’ve joined with her husband Guy to use Rosemary as a vessel to birth Satan’s son. It was all part of a carefully planned cabal.
The Scare Factor
When the main protagonists enter a world that seems welcoming, maybe too much so, and then it’s revealed that they’re the fatted calf that’s being set up as the sacrificial offering, it’s terrifying. An entire premise of a story can be set up this way. Using things we trust, like friends and family, and even birds like in Hitchcock’s The Birds, and then having them turn on the protagonist whom we empathize with, is one of the most frightening things a storyteller can achieve.
Read the Rosemary’s Baby beat sheet.
Here are a few worthy scenes that I didn’t include, but you can find them (in a less illustrated form) on their respective beat sheets I’ve previously written:
Scare Your Characters We Care About – The Exorcist, Ellen learns about Regan’s possession scene (beat sheet)
Bait and Switch – The Conjuring, Bathsheba on the wardrobe scene (beat sheet)
The Build-Up – The Thing, blood test scene (beat sheet)
Startling Realization – The Shining, all work and no play scene (beat sheet)
Shock Factor – Candyman, Helen wakes up in blood scene (beat sheet)
First Impression – Halloween, opening scene (beat sheet)
Lasting Impression – Night of the Living Dead, final scene (beat sheet)
Batshit Crazy – The Descent, cave attack scene (beat sheet)
Go for the Ordinary – The Witch, stealing of baby Samuel scene (beat sheet)
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If you enjoyed reading this article, comment below and share it. Also, let me know what Monster in the House movie you would like me to cover or other storytelling topics.
- Don Roff
Marilyn, thank you for reading. Yes, these kinds of moments, such as Startling Revelation, The Build-Up, Bait and Switch, First Impression, and Lasting Impression can work in other genres too. The power of surprise and subverting expectations is a powerful storytelling tool.
- Adam W Rey
I’m not a screen writer but I love Save The Cat and the breakdowns of my favorite movies and why the scenes work!
Keep up the legacy!!!
- Don Roff
Thank you for reading, Adam, and your kind comments. We’ll work on keeping up the legacy that Blake Snyder began!
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This is a wonderful post, Don. Even though I tend not to write many scary moments in my rom-coms, the element of surprise is such a critical storytelling tool. I loved learning more about what makes these frightening movie scenes work so well. Thank you!