Trying to examine the most basic elements in thriller/horror movies

Willie Oleson

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I think it's something like this:

1. The Surprise Scare (commonly known as the jump scare)
My favourite example: to draw the curtains and look right into the face of the person on the other side of the window (as close as possible, of course!).

2. Disturbing Events And Creatures
All graphic images of death, mutilation, monsters and other grotesque creatures.

3. The Realization
In this case the horror doesn't come from whatever evil stuff is going on, but it's purely the reaction of the victim who then projects that feeling onto the viewer.
Classic example: Mia Farrow's first look at her Rosemary's baby.
One of my favourites: "The Flypaper" episode from the Tales Of The Unexpected series. The realization at the end of this Moors Murders-esque story almost sickened me.

4. The Unnerving Experience
There are no concrete examples of this mood because it's very personal. As with things we like (colours, music) it's wired up to the brains where trillions of emotions, images, memories and scents are stored.
I think the unnerving experience is often a byproduct rather than something that's being achieved, although it's certainly not impossible to effectively unnerve the audience (e.g. the empy hotel in The Shining).
Also: not limited to the thriller/horror genre.

But is there another basic element?

And just to nip any smart-ass comments in the bud
 

Richard Channing

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I would say the unknown and anticipation are two key elements of any horror. Not knowing what's about to scare you and the anticipation that something is.
 

Jimmy Todd

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The realization is a big one for me, both for the character and the audience. I love when it slowly dawns on the protagonist the full scope of the horror they are facing. Likewise, when I am not 100% sure exactly how truly terrifying the situation is and then...
For example, Shelly Duvall coming upon the Jack Nicholson character's typewriter in The Shining. This is the famous, "All work and no play scene." She realizes her husband is not just under a lot of stress. When the audience considers what he has been doing while working on his novel, and for how long, it becomes more disturbing.
 
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