I’m not generally one for horror movies. Horror novels I can generally deal with, but I was a rather nervous kid who was easily frightened by things that probably weren’t that scary to begin with as far as TV and the movies go, and as such I’ve never been much for scary movies.
That’s too bad. Horror movies are about what scare us, and not just on the surface, but what is frightening to a society as a whole in a specific time and place.
Good science fiction and good horror movies often have one thing in common: they are a commentary on the time and place of their creation. While sci-fi may be remarking on the social issues and concerns of the day, horror movies can be about what frightens the self-same society, or may in some other way be about the culture the movie comes from. For example, the Reagan-era 80s were a prime source for slasher movies where, inevitably, the first few victims were the ones who couldn’t keep their pants on. The conservative swing of the 80s were in many ways a reaction to loosened sexual mores of the 60s and 70s. Killers like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger were in many ways just enforcing the sexual morality of the era. The virgins lived the longest. Stepping out of line from the old way of doing things was deadly. Slut-shaming was never so fatal.
Likewise, look at the original Godzilla movies. Godzilla may have featured a cheesy rubber monster, but he was also an unstoppable stomping machine awoken by nuclear explosions and breathing radioactive atomic fire at the pitiful resistance thrown at him. He may have gotten more “helpful” or goofy over time and sequels, but originally he was a metaphorical tale about the dangers of nuclear war from the one nation on Earth to be on the receiving end of such an attack.
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is George Romero’s first few Living Dead movies. While the first, Night of the Living Dead, may have accidentally made a comment on civil rights with the famous ending of the one survivor, a black man, being killed by a redneck-ish cop (Romero always claimed it only worked out that way because Duane Jones was simply the strongest actor in the cast), later films were a bit more explicit commenting on 70s consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), 80s militarism (Day of the Dead), and the rich/poor divide of modern gated communities (Land of the Dead), while aging hippie Romero shows his disdain for the sort of behavior that eventually gets overrun by zombies.
But horror movies don’t just deal with what scares a culture at any given moment. They can also be about the deeper things that scare people in general. Losing control, either of your sexual behavior (vampires), appetites (zombies), or basic humanity (werewolves), is frightening. Discovering loved ones aren’t who you think they are (various Body Snatcher movies), or children are being subverted away from their parents (The Exorcist or The Village of the Damned) is frightening to people, especially parents. Diseases that hit without being seen, killing or warping people (zombies again), or science out of control (the Frankenstein story), the things we can’t see, are the things that frighten us. Putting human beings on a lower rung of the food chain is scary (any movie where big things eat people).
This is why the best horror movies reflect real concerns. The low budget and shoddy special effects of the “classic” bad movie Robot Monster aren’t what makes the movie not the slightest bit scary; it’s because no one is really afraid of a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head.
The things that frighten us about horror movies are the subtext. If you want to scare your audience, don’t worry about the design of whatever is going to be killing people. Worry about what it is that will really frighten people.