The secrets behind scary

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As the chilly autumn air marks the approach of Halloween, we tend to find ourselves drawn into a peculiar fascination with all things eerie and unsettling.

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

It’s the season when ghouls and gremlins come out to play and when the undead and the devils are celebrated rather than shunned. It’s that time of year when bone-chilling stories and hair-raising horror movies are spread like a plague, minus the zombies! But what is it that makes these dark and eerie elements so extremely thrilling? What makes something truly scary to the average person? 

Scary Vs. creepy – Where’s the line? 

When it comes to fear, anyone could agree that there are two different distinct kinds of distress. One is that feeling of uncanny valley, when something hikes up your adrenaline, sends shivers down your spine, and makes you glance over your shoulder once or twice just to make sure nothing is watching you. On the other hand, there’s the kind of fear that can send you off into a fight or flight reaction! It’s the kind of fear that can make you jump out of your seat, scream loud enough to wake the neighbours and grab onto the nearest person or inanimate object for safety. So, it’s worth asking, where is the line drawn between these two kinds of fear? 

Creepiness, eeriness, that feeling of uncanny valley, they’re all tools that work together to prime an audience to be reactive. Once you’re sucked into that feeling that something could be lurking around any corner, or that nothing is as it seems, the feeling of expectation plays a huge role in amping up the big jump-scare or the gore-filled slasher scene! It tricks your mind and body into thinking that real danger has arrived, ready to strike you down just like the poor, yet oddly idiotic characters in your typical teen horror movie. Even then, however, how do the directors of these movies, the writers of these scripts, know how to get people’s hearts racing? 

Fear of the unknown

One of the key factors in making something truly scary is the fear of the unknown. It’s that sensation of not knowing what’s lurking in the shadows or what lies beneath the surface. When we encounter something unfamiliar, our minds tend to conjure up the worst possible scenarios, and that anticipation can sometimes be more terrifying than the reveal itself! This can even lead to a lose-lose situation in some cases, as sometimes when long-awaited reveals happen, it’s underwhelming compared to what the viewer may have been imagining, but if there is no reveal, the viewer feels cheated out of a scary and exciting experience. In a broad sense, that fear of the unknown causes our imaginations to do most of the work in scaring us!

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

Along this same train of thought, the element of unpredictability that comes with our natural fear of the unknown heightens the tension in those build-up scenes. It’s the unexpected twists and turns in a storyline, the sudden appearance of a threat, or the unforeseen events that keep viewers or readers at the edge of their seats, unable to relax until the story’s resolution.

Safe spaces? Not safe anymore!

Another effective way to create fear is to play with the idea of safe spaces turning treacherous. The places where we usually feel protected, like our homes or familiar surroundings, can become the setting for horrifying events. When you feel safe, and when you’re sure that the chances of anything unpredictable happening are low, it makes it all the worse when something does spring up on you, making you feel vulnerable in a place that’s meant to be a shelter.  After all, if even your sanctuary is compromised, where can you truly feel safe?

This idea is utilized in several horror movies and video game franchises that play off of home invasion stories. A moderately popular example of this in the video game world is the “Fears to Fathom” series, a collection of psychological horror anthology games developed and published by indie game developer Rayll, which includes a particularly horrifying episode about a home invasion. Just by gauging the reactions of various commentators who played through the game, it’s easy to see just how effective removing that element of security from a situation is!


Lastly, the relatability factor plays a big role in the scare factor. It’s easier to be scared by something that hits close to home, something that taps into the deepest depths of our fears, insecurities, or anxieties. When the audience can relate to the characters or the situations, the fear becomes more personal and intense. This connection between the audience and the story enhances the emotional impact of the fear-inducing elements.

Reality is the scariest thing of all

Although there has been a heavy media focus throughout this summary thus far, it is also interesting to notice that fear can come from many more things than just your typical serial killer story or zombie apocalypse show. Although these kinds of entertainment-based horror can certainly get you jumping out of your skin, outside of the media world, there are tons of different sources of fear that might be just as intense—maybe worse for some people! For someone who has a heavy number of shares in a company, the idea of a stock crashing to an all-time low might be just as horrifying as watching a scary movie or taking a stroll through a haunted house. For someone who can’t stand public speaking, the idea of singing at a talent show might paralyze you worse than any jump scare ever could. 

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

Happy Spooky Season!

Fear is indeed a complex subject that taps into many psychological and societal aspects. It goes beyond the reach of fictional horror stories and movies, creeping into our everyday lives in unexpected ways. Whether it’s the fear of the unknown, the vulnerability of safe spaces, or the relatability of our deepest fears, fear is a universal human experience.. but like most things that trouble humanity, we’ve found a way to take it, run with it, and make light of it! Bask in the spooky atmosphere of the season, keep up on all the latest horror movies, and most terrifying of all, try not to run out of candy in the first few days after your haul!

On behalf of The Baron, Happy Halloween!

Abigail is a first-year arts students focusing on social sciences. She wants to shoot for the stars and become the best she can be, even if she has no idea what career she wants to pursue yet! She's an avid fan of lions, seals, and dogs with long noses, and she spends a lot of time writing creatively, sketching, or chatting online