Similar to trying to explain what makes a particular joke funny, it can sometimes be difficult to describe what exactly about horror movies makes us so scared. Sure, it’s easy to point to a gruesome monster or a well-timed jump scare and say, “That’s the scary part.” But what is it about those elements that makes our hair stand on end so consistently? According to Stephen King, there are three levels of horror, and these layered elements are what make the horror genre work so well and keep audiences on the edge of their seat, as this Fandor video nicely lays out.
First, there’s revulsion. These moments, like seeing the titular It in its giant spider form or whatever gross stuff was happening in Dreamcatcher, make the audience physically recoil in disgust. It may be the lowest level of the trifecta but it could be argued that it’s also the basis for successful franchises like Saw and Hostel. The next level is horror. This may sound redundant, but in this case horror refers to seeing the “graphic portrayal of the unbelievable.” When audiences are faced with something implausible and unnatural, their minds struggle to comprehend it and often react in fear.
Finally, the highest level is terror. This is Stephen King’s bread and butter. According to the video, “terror induces fear through imagination,” so it’s perfectly suited for the horror novel where so many of the creepy specifics exist solely in the readers’ minds. All you have to do is make the suggestion of something unknown and your audience’s imagination will fill in the blanks with truly terrifying details.
In the end, the unifying theme for this horror playbook seems to be a tendency to give the audience something their simple monkey brains can’t understand. When we’re confronted by or pointed toward chaos, we get scared. Or, as King puts it, “it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us, but the lack of order which these aberrations seem to imply.”