How to write a horror movie

Horror movie screenwriter – How to write a horror movie


By Pinaki Ghosh

Know more about the writer of this article.

I wrote this article on Halloween Day. This is one day of the year that reminds me of the hundreds of horror movies I have watched throughout my life. Most of them did not touch me; but some definitely did. I quite clearly remember the first two horror movies I watched as a child. The first was William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’, the second, Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’. I still remember spending several nights (after watching these movies) not being able to go to the toilet, and my bladder growing unbearably; imagining something or someone was under my bed in the dark room, waiting to catch my leg if I got down from the bed. I even imagined the hands that would have caught my leg… rough, cold, with razor sharp long nails.

And today, some of the best horror movie screenwriters are available through, founded by Nick and me; and we are writing scary scenes to frighten others.

Let’s find out what a horror movie screenwriter and filmmaker should keep in mind while writing a horror screenplay.

Be original, do not follow cliché

What makes good horror movies different from bad horror movies is originality. Good horror movies are based on original thoughts while bad horror movies follow cliché ideas and trends. It is easy for the horror movie screenwriter to step into the trap of following former successful horror movies. As a result we have seen several horror movies that follow the trend of Evil Dead or Friday The 13th.  As a horror screenwriter, remember that the viewers have already watched plenty of scary scenes in the past and don’t want to be bored by the same old stuff. So, by all means, avoid preparing old wine in a new bottle.

Feel the deepest fears

A horror screenwriter should experience fear first hand. Unless she or he does so, the output produced will be dispassionate and done just for the sake of doing it. Try to face your deepest fears. Feel genuinely frightened. Not that you can do that on purpose, but try to remember the incidents when you felt really really scared, or came close to death. Take a walk on one of the scariest roads in town after midnight. Or take the last train in a notorious route. How did you feel? Put that down on paper.

Think of 1 – 3 scenes never seen on screen before

A horror screenplay writer has the remote control of making a movie a success or a failure. All successful horror movies had at least 1 scene that was never seen on screen before. Remember the spider walk scene of ‘The Exorcist’, the bathtub scene or moose attack scene of ‘The Ring Two’, the tree rape scene of ‘Evil Dead’ and the scene where the chairs are suddenly found inverted, in ‘Poltergiest’? These were scenes that were never seen before, and were implanted in the memory of the viewers for several years. Many of us saw these scenes as a child but still remember the scenes. As a horror screenplay writer you have to come up with 1 – 3 such absolutely original scary scenes, which were never before seen on screen and will leave a lasting impression in the minds of the viewers.

Surprise beginning, slow buildup, high climax, scariest scenes towards the end

That is pretty much the formula of horror movies. As a horror movie screenwriter, you have to start with a surprise beginning, and then build up the first act with almost no extreme occurrences, except one or two elements of suspense and surprise speckled here and there, to keep the interest of the viewers alive. These will get more frequent in the second act, leading to a high climax, which should have the scariest scenes. Of course you can think originally and break the rule, if you want to do an original experiment with horror screenwriting.

Make things appear real

A majority of horror movies appear unreal. The viewers watch it, but they are never really drawn into it, as everything appears unreal. As a horror movie screenwriter, try to write your screenplay in a way that the characters, dialogs and the incidents appear as real and as life-like as possible. If you look at the movies of Manoj Night Shyamalan, his dialogs, characters and incidents appear very real. That is one of the reasons of his success as a horror screenwriter. For that purpose you can also check out ‘The Ring’.

Do not end up appearing funny

One of the toughest challenges of a horror screenwriter is to keep the script natural and dignified. Any overdose of anything can make your screenplay appear hilarious on screen. Often we laugh all through bad horror movies. Make sure your script will not appear funny on screen, unless your intention is to make a horror parody movie.

Avoid CG and special effects for low budget horror movies

As a horror movie screenwriter, avoid writing scenes that require the help of computer graphics (CG), special effects and animation.  These are great for big budget movies, and big movies will never be made without the help of these. But in low budget movies, animation, computer graphics and special effects scenes look extremely poor quality-wise, due to lack of a standard budget and hence should be avoided. An otherwise good horror movie screenplay can get spoiled by the use of poor CG and special effects. Write only scenes that can be shot without the help of CG, animation and special effects.

Watch plenty of horror movies before you start

Not to copy, but to tune your mind, you, as a horror screenwriter need to watch plenty of horror movies… preferably good ones, before you actually start working on your project.