Horror is one of film’s most iconic genres, with roots more varied and far-reaching than is often thought. And as you might well have guessed, it’s certainly our favourite!
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that such a beloved genre has gone on to inspire countless budding filmmakers and directors, who are looking to make their impassioned mark in what’s an already well-populated cultural space.
The question of “how to make a horror film” is as simple to ask as it is complex to answer. However, we reckon so long as you follow a few core genre principles, then there’s no reason why you too shouldn’t be able to make a fantastic horror flick – and even on the most meagre of budgets!
So, if you’re looking to try and create your own film to spook and scare, then hopefully our three-part guide will set you on the right track!
How To Make A Horror Film Part 1:
Getting Your Film Ready
1) Plot Often Takes A Backseat In Horror Films – But It’s A Crucial Backseat, Nonetheless
Whether you’re a horror aficionado or simply a casual watch-from-behind-the-sofa kind of horror-goer, then you’ll know that the majority of horror films (though not all, it must be said) feature fairly formulaic storylines.
But whilst horror plots may not typically ‘reinvent the wheel’, they’re still a vital backbone around which the rest of the film is subsequently built. And although some will often call horror plots generic, others will say: “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
With that in mind, here’s a rough template that you can follow for your horror plot – feel free to play around with it if you wish, but as an entry level filmmaker we think you’ll not go far wrong by sticking to it. After all, there’ll be plenty of time to mess with formats in your next films!
Introduction: Start Strong With a Scare
Almost all horror films start with something scary; whether that be a murder (or some other gruesome death), a disappearance or anything else generally spooky. Take Jaws, for instance, the tone is set immediately when Chrissie is killed by the shark within the first few moments.
These moments usually take place before any consequent set-up happens; in fact, the characters that feature in these opening scenes (the antagonist aside) rarely go on to appear in the rest of the film.
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Establish Your Characters: Lay the Groundwork
Once you’ve had that initial scare, the film starts (in terms of its main characters and their beginning situation) in earnest. You’ll meet your protagonists, either just having gone to some scary place or experienced some terrifying ordeal – or just about to.
This section of the film is usually slightly lighter in tone – the calm before the storm, if you like.
Uh Oh… Something’s Wrong…
This is where, if you were lucky enough to have Spiderman in your group of friends, his spidey-senses would be tingling. This is the first explicitly weird, spooky or unusual thing that happens to (or around) your main characters.
Characters returning to their campsite and finding their belongings have been rummaged through, for example. This acts as the transition period into the real drama and horror of your script.
Typically, at least some of the characters will act ‘foolishly’ in these situations, deliberately ignoring the signs – or choosing to ignore them.
Your Tipping Point – The ‘Fight or Flight’ Moment
Your characters are met with a decision to make, usually after they’ve witnessed the first genuinely terrifying or gruesome event, for themselves. They can either confront (and by extension, commit to the danger of) the villain, monster or entity, or they can get out whilst they can.
But let’s face it, it wouldn’t make a good horror film if you chose the latter and they all lived happily ever after…
Fighting Against the Odds
Most horror films reach a point, around three-quarters of the way through, where the tide seems to be against the main characters – that evil seems to be winning.
The friend group might just be down to one or two from the eight that started out; the villain might have strengthened its hand in some way, or a piece of information or tool that the characters were relying on to defeat this evil, turned out either to be false or ineffective.
The point of setting up a situation in which the odds are against you – is precisely so that you can deliver that “against all the odds” moment.
The ‘Big Boss’ Face-Off…
The climax is an integral part of any film – horror or otherwise – but particularly in this genre; it’s what you’ve been building towards, the coming together of good versus evil in one spectacular, scare-filled set piece.
This will typically last between five and ten minutes, and will be the most heart-racing part of the film. Usually, unless you’re really determined to have it otherwise, the protagonists will come out on top.
Happily Ever After… (?)
After blood, sweat, tears and, usually, more blood, your protagonist has come out on top, or at least escaped their unenviable situation.
You can either neatly wrap things up here, or leave with a little teaser that hints at potential sequels, or simply some unease for the viewer at home: you thought you were safe? Think again…
2) Invest Time In Developing a Genuinely Scary (and Interesting) Villain
A horror film with a boring or tepid villain isn’t really a horror film, at all. It’s a 90-minute snooze-fest.
This is where most entry-level horror writers fall down upon, their villains just don’t scare or stick out in the way they intend them to. And if you’re following that fairly formulaic template, as outlined above, you need your villain (or evil force, or whatever your antagonistic theme is in the script) to catch the eye, and keep people up at night.
If you think of the classic horror films, they all have a distinctive villain, monster or antagonist. So impactful are these characters, they’re now even recognisable from a single object – a hockey mask, for instance.
Whatever you decide upon, take the time to flesh their character out; they should be a priority, not an afterthought. A horror film with a stellar villain but generic plot is forgivable (and potentially still highly enjoyable) – a horror film with a good plot but bland villain, is not.
3) Location, Location, Location…
Another core facet of any good horror film is the location in which it’s filmed. Whether it be an abandoned nuclear power plant, a haunted house, a shadowy woods or even your creepy uncle’s basement, location bolsters a horror flick’s ambience, environment and overall effect upon the viewer.
When it comes to location, less is more – which your wallet will thank you for – because it promotes greater familiarity between the viewer and the setting; in other words, it’s easier to put yourself in the shoes of someone the more you think you know them and their surroundings.
If you’re looking to film a horror film on the cheap, then public land is always a good and safe bet – woods at night being a particularly good example. It’s pivotal that if you’re filming anywhere that’s private property, that you have distinct permission to do so beforehand.
Even though that haunted house might look abandoned, someone will own it, and if they catch you filming there without their permission, you could be in hot water. And pro tip: if you’re looking to find a suitable location without paying sky-high industry fees, then our LHS Pro location portal can help!
So, you’ve got your script, your villain and your location – all you need now is equipment and, perhaps the most important part of all – your cast!
4) Getting Your Cast Together
You can’t have your film without your cast, at least, it’d be a very different kind of film!
Depending on how you want your film to be, you can use anyone from your friends to local university students, all the way through to fully professional actors by sending casting breakdowns to websites like Spotlight, Backstage and Mandy.
If at all possible, pay your actors – even if it’s just their travel expenses – as you need to make it worth their while.
5) Getting Your Equipment Ready
Lastly, you need to have your equipment to shoot; you can hire all the equipment you need if you’re working on a budget, and older equipment will still work well for lower-fi films, so you don’t necessarily need the most state-of-the-art equipment. In short, the bare minimum you’ll need is:
- Camera: I mean, you wouldn’t get far without one would you? And while an expensive Red or Alexa would be great, a phone camera these days is usually good enough to get you going.
- Microphones: Invest in a shotgun mic or some lav mics, as poor sound quality tanks the quality of any film, low budget or not.
- Lighting: Try to get your hands on a reflector/diffuser and, if you’re able, an LED panel. If your budget is tight, then lighting is something you’ve got in abundance in terms of natural light, so use it to your advantage.
- Other: you’ll also need plenty of memory cards, backup kit (if possible), spare batteries, extension cords, and gaffer/electrical tape.
How To Make A Horror Film Part 2:
Shooting Your Film
Before going any further, there’s one central mantra we want to reinforce that we think makes all the difference when it comes to the overall effect of your horror film. Less is more. You’re looking to scare people, and people’s imagination is a powerful thing. Show, don’t tell, is a pivotal principle of horror filmmaking, so show your villain/monster only sparingly for the scariest experience.
Now, when it comes to filming, you’ll first need a shot list.
Putting Together a Shot List
For every scene in a movie, you need to compile a shot list; this helps for several reasons, mainly because it keeps things more organised and on track, as well as keeping the overall look of the film more polished and consistent. The more comprehensive a shot list you can put together before filming, the better.
Check, Check and Check Again!
Once you’re on set, you don’t want to be faffing about rectifying previous mistakes, so make sure to review everything – that means logistics, shot lists, timings, script choices – before you begin. Planning is everything when you’re making a film, in fact, filming is actually the easy part!
Don’t Skimp on Lighting
Because of the nature of horror films, directors and cinematographers often believe the shots need to be correspondingly dark and atmospheric. If the conditions you shoot in are too dark, though, then the resultant footage will be grainy and sub-optimal.
You can always bring the light down in post-production, so it’s better to shoot in lighter conditions than you think you need, just to be on the safe side.
Take Care With Your Blocking
Particularly when you’ve got longer, more resource-intensive scenes to film, you want to get them done in as few takes as possible.
This will more likely happen if your actors are properly prepped and know their blocking before the camera starts rolling, rather than being left to improvise their movements as they go along.
Shoot More Than You Think You’ll Need
Clearly, there are always going to be limitations when it comes to the amount of time you can spend filming, but if you can get surplus footage, then great.
This additional B-roll footage, whether in the form of atmospheric shots or anything else, will give you more to play with when it comes to cutting the film together.
And just like that, you’ve shot your film! Next, comes the all-important edit.
How To Make A Horror Film Part 3:
It’s All In The Edit
If you talk to any actor, they’ll tell you that good films are based on good performances. If you ask an editor, they’ll tell you it’s all done on the cutting room floor.
And whilst this argument could rage long into the night, there’s no questioning the difference good editing can make – especially to a horror film! And so with that in mind, here some useful editing tips when it comes to putting together your horror film:
- Editing jump scares into your film is good – but you shouldn’t rely on them. Any horror fan will tell you that it’s suspense, not relentless jump scares that really get you spooked out. A well-placed, unexpected jump scare is a thing of beauty, but it shouldn’t ever feel like they’re coming in the place of other tension-building devices.
- Don’t overlook the importance of music and sound in your horror film. Deftly placed sound effects and a haunting original score can help elevate your horror film from good to great. Be subtle with your sound effects, though, so as not to ruin any immersion.
- In faster-paced scenes, use quick cuts. These add pace, tension and confusion, and makes the viewer feel more as though they’re in the shoes of the protagonist going through whatever manic experience they happen to be going through.
- Utilise dramatic irony in horror films, wherever you can. The handprint on the steamed up glass that we see, but the main character doesn’t, the lingering camera shot on the door which had been locked, now unlocked. Dramatic irony builds tension, and that’s exactly what you’re after when making a horror film.
- Utilise fake-outs to further build tension. Not getting a scare when you’re expecting one is horrible for the viewer, because that tension you thought was going to get relieved? It’s still there, and, in fact, it’s been heightened.
And That’s A Wrap!
So, there you have it! Our simple framework on how to make a horror film, from the script through to the edit, and a fair bit in between!
If you’re just starting out on your filmmaking journey, or if you’re already well on your way, I hope that you found some useful nuggets for you to take away from this.
Here at The London Horror Society, we’re passionate about bringing creators of all disciplines together, and doing whatever we can to make filmmaking and other creative pursuits as accessible to as many people as possible. From bringing people together and helping them collaborate at our online ‘Speed Pitching’ sessions, or screening the fruits of their labour at our Indie Film Showcases.
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Now, go forth and terrify!
Yours in horror,
The London Horror Society team.