Do you laugh in the face of fear? Or are you more of a ‘hide behind a cushion’ kind of person? Either way, spooky season is upon us and there are literally decades of scary movies out there for any horror fans who fancy triggering their fight or flight response from the comfort of the couch. But long Halloween evenings aren’t the only time for a good scare – in fact, the genre is an all year favourite, and thousands of horror fans are enjoying bite-sized frights whenever the mood takes them.
You can find ‘Horror shorts’ everywhere from YouTube to more specialist short film sites and apps, such as Short of the Week and Snoovies. For anyone who’s spent longer searching for a film on Netflix than actually watching anything, a short scary movie is low commitment, high pay-off. They can span from just a few minutes of intense tension (known as the ‘jump scare’) to longer, more storytelling lengths that get under your skin. And there’s something for everyone – from slasher to psychological terror. “The majority are under ten minutes, so people don’t go into a movie looking for something specific. They just want to be surprised,” explains Roger Carvalho of Snoovies. His site and app celebrate these ‘snack movies’ and share the work of independent filmmakers that “deserve to be seen for a longer time” and might have already been screened elsewhere, such as film festivals, while also telling the ‘behind the film’ story, through interviews with filmmakers and more. “We try to stay away from the traditional classification of genre and instead we label films as what the film does to you… make me laugh, make me tremble. And some movies are more than one category. If you want to smile, you might find a little horror movie with a comedy twist.”
At Short of the Week (SotW) too, horror takes many forms. “One of the things we look for is new, original storytelling,” says Managing Editor Rob Munday “We look for originality and new voices, things that don’t get tackled in feature films. That’s why a lot of the new horror shorts are so good. They stand out because they’ve come up with such original ideas.” During the Halloween period, SotW programmes traditional horrors, but also diversifies, showing macabre short documentaries or even animations, but scary movies are a big deal all year round. “Sci-fi and horror are the go-to when it comes to making short films,” says Rob. “There are passionate and dedicated fans who give a lot of time to watching those genres. For horror, if you’re into it, then you’re really into it.”
As a niche, it’s booming and in the last ten years Rob has seen short films increasingly picked up by larger studios to be developed into full-length features. “It started with a film called ‘Lights Out’, which was a short that went viral.” The ability for a short movie to take on a life of its own online has captured the imaginations of filmmakers, who now upload theirs to every conceivable platform. Some simply exist as a stand-alone piece of creative work “made to scare their mates”, but others are created specifically as a ‘proof of concept’, with a view to being turned into a longer film. Both intentions feed the insatiable appetite of horror fans, who simply can’t get enough of them.The desire for our hearts to race is certainly nothing new. Edgar Allan Poe and others were publishing terrifying short stories in the mid 1800s, and the first films followed not long after. They sprang up all over the world and depicted devils, spirits, lost souls and unseen presences, depending on what was culturally resonant. These were the original shorts, through the limitations of what was possible rather than design, but every generation since has had their stab at frightening audiences on celluloid, inspired by those that came before them. Even today, filmmakers praise their version of ‘the classics’ as influences, with Rob citing Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’ and Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser’, as films that are mentioned again and again, despite both being well over thirty years old. Their combination of gripping story, attention to detail, sense of crescendo and cliffhanger can be traced right back to the literary roots of Poe, Shelley or Stoker – albeit with many, many litres more blood and gore. “If something scares you, you remember it. And that’s what a filmmaker wants,” says Rob.
However, the leap in production values in just a generation has made a huge and noticeable difference and, unsurprisingly, leaps in technology are responsible. “Shorts are more sophisticated and visually impressive as camera equipment has got more affordable,” explains Rob. “Also, ten or twenty years ago, if you were making a short and you wanted to have visual effects – blood and guts and gore – you’d have to really hunt out someone to do it. Now, through the internet and networking you can easily find these people to help you make these films.” Once the films are made, the way they are viewed is also different and filmmakers have the additional challenge of new platforms to consider when they storyboard. Snoovies is ‘mobile first’ by design and the vast majority of their users are watching on smartphones. Rob says that SotW has also seen viewing habits shift to mobile. “Maybe we’re travelling, or out and about. Or maybe we’re in bed at home and don’t want to get our laptops out. Filmmakers are really cottoning on to the fact that this is how films are being viewed nowadays.” Obviously, creating an experience that is optimised for mobile is the key to social sharing and the filmmaker’s holy grail of a viral hit. “If something freaks you out and makes you jump, you want to pass that experience onto somebody else.”
In film, it’s always exciting to see what’s coming next, but the rate at which new tech reaches the mainstream makes the couple of years all the more exciting for low-budget, limited crew shorts. “Especially for horror,” enthuses Roger, who sees the future of the genre as increasingly immersive. “A lot of people are already making VR games and virtual environments, but I’m really excited about putting a single 360° camera in a room or an outside set – like theatre. If you put your phone in a headset case or use Oculus, you can transform it into a VR space.” It’s proof, were it required, that while horror may have moved from paper to moving photograph, celluloid to digital and beyond, our basic desire for a good fright has not. “The themes, subjects and aims are as basic and raw as they ever were,” says Rob. “People still just want to make someone jump out of their skin. And people still love to be scared.”