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November 12, 2021

How to Structure a Horror Movie

Creating the structure of a horror film is not terribly different than the structure of any other type of movie. When it comes to fundamentals, there isn't really any difference in terms of story.

But the content of what's in that structure is what matters. When examining some aspects of the structure of a horror film, you'll notice that there are patterns that show up in well-received horror films at the same relative parts of their structure.

How to structure a horror movie

With hundreds of horror movies out there today, it's evident there a many different ways to structure this type of film. However, while each horror film may detail different characters with different plots, there are several aspects that remain the same in across most horror films.

Ground it in the real & mundane

Looking at the opening of your horror film, grounding it in the real and mundane will elevate the fear later on. Many movies get this wrong by "playing the result," which makes it feel scary from the beginning. But if there's no sense of normalcy, no relation to our own lives, then it's challenging to connect.

If we see this image too early in a horror film, we may not care yet without the context of the setting and character.

In a horror film, the fear creeps in, which means you have to create the mundane space for the fear to creep into. Rosemary's Baby is set in the normality of moving into a new apartment complex. Nightmare On Elm Street is established within the context of going to sleep, something that everyone can relate to. Even Alien, which is set in space, is rooted in the mundanity of essential long-haul cargo transport. (For more about horror in space, check out You Can't Set Horror In Space.)

Watch this scene from one of the earlier parts of The Shining and see how grounded and mundane it is. No spooky vibes and nothing scary. Yet.

Make the antagonist primal

When the antagonist does show up fully (which is likely around the midpoint in the film's structure), you'll want it connected to something primal. Something that we as humans have an instinctual fear of. The more profound and more universal the fear that the antagonist exploits, the stronger the emotional response.

Spiders are scary to some, but is arachnophobia universal?

Look at a film like It Follows, which has an antagonist with few abilities, but the scariest by far is the creature's relentlessness. It cannot be stopped. So the fear that gets deep under our skin isn't just what the creature will do when it catches us, but the fact that we know it cannot be defeated.

One of the reasons zombies work so well (according to research) is that they represent many of our primal fears rolled into one:

  • Fear of disease
  • Fear of death
  • Fear of never dying

Real life fears

Look at some of your favorite horror films and see what real-life fears they exploit.

The Omen - fear of your children being bad/evil

Final Destination - fear of the knowledge that you will eventually die

What Lies Beneath - fear of not truly knowing your partner

For more tips on how to write scary horror, check out this interview with C. Robert Cargill, the writer of Sinister.

Enter the fear

Thinking about the structure of most films, the protagonist will proactively seek to solve the problem at some point. Unlike some genres (action in particular), this moment works best in horror films when the protagonist is still terrified. They are choosing to act despite their fears. (This is why it is essential the antagonist is connected to primal fear, so it will never be overcome.)

This is the moment that Josh enters The Further to save his son in Insidious. It's when Chris decides to fight his way out in Get Out. It's when Karras re-enters the room to continue the exorcism in The Exorcist.

Thinking about Act Three, it's essential to keep your protagonist afraid and vulnerable. If you would be scared in this situation, so should they. (And if you wouldn't be, then it isn't scary enough.)

If you're looking for a relatively detailed map for structuring your horror film, bookmark this article from NoFilmSchool, particularly the 14 point infographic.

Ready, set, write!

Now that you've ironed out your antagonist, your twists and turns, and know the structure inside and out, it's time to start writing. There are several aspects that every horror film contains. Now that you understand how to structure a horror movie, it's time for your to break out your computer (or pen and paper) and get started.

If you need help planning (storyboarding) your film or television series out, feel free to try out Arc Studio Pro for free. Arc's software makes it easy for writers to keep track of where they are going and never forget the details.


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How to Structure a Horror Movie
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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