(Credit: Argos Films)

A definitive guide to cinema’s real-life horrors

“There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.”  Alfred Hitchcock

Unless you’re the type of horror fan who prefers darkness to light and the endless void to a brighter tomorrow, the end of a horror film is in part a sigh of relief. A trip home from the cinema in safety and the knowledge that the bastard you just saw ravaging small-town America won’t bump into you down a back alley. The likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Hellraiser and Pennywise, in all their supernatural glory are unlikely to cause you much bother in your day-to-day life.

Although the aforementioned villains are great to have on fun blood-splattered T-shirts, they’re about as scary as a haunted house, providing short fleeting frights as oppose to long-term psychological damage. As your friend who hates horror will tell you, however, it’s the villains who have the potential to exist which linger. Psychos. Unexplained, but believable phenomenon.

Horror has seen many different filmmakers attempt to push the genre to new heights, into new directions in terms of a creative vision but, in simple terms, it can always revolve around the same core themes. “There are two different stories in horror: internal and external,” John Carpenter once said. “In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.”

Carpenter added: “A movie’s not just the pictures. It’s the story and it’s the perspective and it’s the tempo and it’s the silence and it’s the music—it’s all the stuff that’s going on. All the sensory stuff. Sometimes you can get a lot of suspense going in a non-horror film. It all depends. But, look, if there was one secret way of doing a horror movie then everybody would be doing it.”

Here, we look at how some directors have attempted to take the sensory suspense to new levels with an approach to real-life horror situations. The following villains would have Pennywise giving Georgie his boat back before retreating back into the sewer:

The best real-life horror films:

The Virus of Aggression 28 Days Later

Sure, the world is yet to see a virus similar to the brutality and athleticism this one has on its unfortunate carriers, but the way in which director Danny Boyle presents this infection of London feels terrifyingly accurate. This infected bunch aren’t super-powered or jet-fuelled, they’re real people, fast, aggressive, hellbent on blood.

The now-iconic opening scene following a frantic Cillian Murphy around the deserted London streets is a visceral nightmare, a baron hopeless wasteland accompanied only by the equally memorable eerie soundtrack. Searching for answers he visits his family home to find his mother and father have committed suicide, there’s no green gunk or cheesy one-liners insight, this is a bleak, nasty and entirely believable depiction of a contagious catastrophe.

Something in the Woods The Blair Witch Project

Though the theme of witches isn’t exactly a concept based on reality, unless you’re paranoid and living in the 18th century, the Blair Witch Project cleverly never shows such a fantastical being. Instead, the film focuses on the unknown, what this strange follower stalking the group of students could be, why it’s following them and why it loves to craft intricate wooden figures.

Branching off countless rip-offs and copy-cats, the film showed exactly what you could do with a camera a group of amateur actors and barely any budget at all. It’s easy to scare the audience, make them believe something is real and outright refuse to show them what they’re scared of.

As a result, the film has helped reinforce a deep-rooted human fear of the forest, of the silence of the night and of the potential for ungodly creatures.

Sharks – ‘Jaws

To humans sharks are the least of our problems, for how often do you find yourself floating in deep water, albeit with an angry shark in your vicinity? It is perhaps the sole fault of Jaws, however, as well as more absurd off-shoots such as Deep Blue Sea and the underrated Open Water, in hammering a fear of the ocean predators into nearly everyone. Spielberg’s ’70s classic is more a grisly thriller than a horror, though the horror scenes are so horrible that it earns a rightful place in this list.

Aside from the striking opening scene, it is the shark attack on the busy beach which is the most disturbing. The lingering inevitability floats silently beneath the water before striking at its young victim in a scene which champions suspense and irritatingly brings itself to the forefront of one’s mind when you’re floating in deep water.

Nuclear war – ‘Threads

Before the days of fun thrills of Dr. Who and the whimsical jokes of day time television programme The One Show, the BBC was a dark place. For evidence look no further than their 1984 TV film Thread, one of the most disturbing films ever made, following the course of events after a nuclear bomb is dropped on an innocent English city.

Threads is the perfect example of why you don’t need axe-wielding maniacs or barrels of blood to terrify an audience. Encapsulating dread and generously sprinkling it across Sheffield, we follow archetypically friendly English folk as they each suffer from nuclear destruction.

It’s horrible and entirely believable.

Strangers – ‘The Vanishing

No, not the 1993 version, that’s far too exciting. Nor the 2018 version with Gerard Butler which is a completely different plot entirely. 1988’s version of The Vanishing is a master of suspense, a brutal, dark and deeply pessimistic ride into the mind of a sociopath. With the recent influx of ‘true crime’ related content, The Vanishing would thrive from a re-release, with Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film Prisoners bearing a striking resemblance.

Following self-confessed sociopath Raymond about his daily life and his relationship with the husband of one of his abducted victims. Of all the films which try to pick apart and dissect the mind of a maniac, The Vanishing does so the best, wrapping it up in an equally gripping story. It’s ending is notorious to those who have seen it. Nightmare fuel for any claustrophobe or anxious individual, enough to pause for thought when approaching any stranger.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content