What Makes a Good Horror Movie?

Duke professor Neal Bell talks about the secrets behind a compelling horror movie

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Neal Bell, a Duke professor of theater studies, says the best horror movies are thought-provoking and suspenseful.

With Halloween approaching, horror movie fans are gearing up for another onslaught of ghosts, goblins and gruesome, disfigured, back-from-the-dead-again serial killers.

In Neal Bell's view, there's more art to these movies than you might think. A theater studies professor at Duke, Bell teaches "The Dramatic Monster," a course about horror films. He spent some time recently talking horror flicks with Duke Today.

Here are excerpts:

What is it about horror movies that people like so much?

"Though some horror films can be a vacation for the brain, the great ones are truly disturbing and thought-provoking. It does seem perverse that you go to the theater to experience an unpleasant emotion - fear. But it's safe fear. You can let yourself get scared and know at the end of it you can escape back into the more familiar horrors of 'real' life."

So when you're making a horror movie, you're playing on suspended reality? 

Hitchcock used to make this distinction between surprise and suspense. If you see a couple sit down in a restaurant and chat for a while and then a bomb under the table blows up, that's a surprise. If you had the exact same scene but the camera went under the table to show you the bomb and then went on the same way, you'd see it a different way because you'd know what is going to happen. The best horror movies play on that type of anticipation. They don't rely on 'boo' moments.

The most successful horror movies are those that slowly build up. The great ones deal with moral danger, not just physical. The unraveling of society. An example is "Night of the Living Dead", which came out in the '60s around the time of the Vietnam War. It was a very bleak film about people being under attack. It caught the spirit of paranoia and us against them.

Is Halloween the high point of the year for horror?

Studios do try to release franchise movies on Halloween. I'm really not a fan of the "Saw" movies but they come out regularly on Halloween. "Friday the 13th", in its heyday, always used to open on Halloween. The other interesting thing about horror movies is that because they're generally low budget, they're often the genre a new director can get funding to make. So it can be the training ground for a new director.

What are the best horror movies that don't rely on gratuitous gore?

If you're talking about classics, a movie like "Rosemary's Baby" is one of the greatest. I find that movie to be almost unbearably suspenseful. It's remarkably restrained. One of the more recent ones I really love is this Scandinavian movie, "Let the Right One In." It's about teenagers trying to deal with boys, and the metaphor in the movie is that one of the teenagers is a vampire girl who becomes friend with a tormented boy. It deals with things like the morality of revenge and this whole question of The Other, and can one be friends with something as "other" as a vampire?

So what are Professor Bell's favorite horror movies? Find the answer here.