The Art of Writing Horror: How to Scare on a Budget

One of the most terrifying concepts in filmmaking: putting a project together with no funds. Film is an extremely expensive medium; but that should never be a roadblock. Some of the greatest horror films ever made were strung together with little to no money. How’d they do it? They crafted screenplays that could be realized without massive sets and complicated effects – things they could access for free. Not an easy task, but their processes are easy to observe when one looks for the right signposts. Here are a few lessons that these films can teach us.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night


It’s hard to give birth to an entirely new concept within horror – the genre is hundreds of years old, and just about every monster has come to the page or screen in some form. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reinvent the classics. Habit explores classic and primal vampire cliches through the lens of gritty, youthful New York, full of tortured souls who are scared enough without the undead; likewise, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night makes its bloodsucker a lonely punk seeking justice and connection. Resolution appears to be a classic cabin-in-the-woods monster movie, but it instead becomes an exploration of storytelling, and viewer’s thirst for bloody ends. Spring turns Lovecraftian monsters into a poignant love story. Prevenge starts as a revenge thriller, then reveals that its villain is internal: the fetal voice of the protagonist’s unborn child, already hateful of its world. Dearest Sister invokes spirits that have little to do with the plot itself – they spurn the living characters’ greed and jealousy, which in turn creates the real horror. Ghosts, killers and vampires have been present in storytelling for centuries, but these films make them fresh.  


Establishing a sequence of images – simple but unusual, unnerving – and then returning to them, heightening or inverting them, creates an instant narrative flow. Carnival of Souls conjures a surreal world simply by removing sound from a scene, or introducing ghouls (people with circles painted under their eyes) into a specific environment, and then repeating these scenes, each time with more intensity. Resolution uses the construct of simple-to-shoot voyeuristic footage and turns it into the presence of an unmentionable beast through its brilliantly-timed revelations. While it has fallen out of favor in some circles, The Blair Witch Project does this ingeniously: it picks a simple eerie sound, a baby crying, and an easy-to-make prop, then uses them sparsely to throw normalcy to the wind. Eraserhead plants a few very small-scale environments in the viewer’s’ consciousness, then exploits them to unutterable ends. Their images are specific, but they construct a pattern. The good ones escalate these images in ways that move the narrative forward – they increase in intensity or frequency, encasing the protagonist in terror.

Carnival of Souls


Night of the Living Dead and Evil Dead both minimize costs by shooting in one location, a creepy house. The Void fits its story into one hospital, the metaphysics of which make unique use of its limited space. Carnival of Souls uses an actual abandoned amusement park, which is eerie in its own right. These films don’t have access to massive sets or expensive exteriors, but they choose their settings well, and shoot them with flair. Spring sets a contained monster story in a gorgeous Italian village and photographs the scenery with otherworldly beauty, giving its narrative a grandeur it otherwise would not have. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night creates a surreal environment in Bad City, where natural laws don’t exactly apply. It’s easy to shoot a location that other filmmakers have documented – a truly interesting film will invent itself a new world. Without money for sets or stylish design, these films rely on this ingenuity.



What does genre cinema do but make our world feel like another? On a limited budget, one can’t create a new universe, but that doesn’t mean the perspective can’t change. Eraserhead tells a fairly simple story, a man can’t connect with his family, but the visuals turn the world into an utter nightmare. It’s the environment and the exaggerated grotesqueries that makes the film iconic. Carnival of Souls takes an abandoned building and turns it into a gateway to another world. Night of the Living Dead similarly turns human beings into uncanny monsters, devoid of souls, and makes the entire world seem from the beyond. Dearest Sister uses its supernatural elements to comment on classism and colonization in its Laotian setting, very real and immediate issues. While its images have been stolen so many times, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre turns the American family into a pack of vicious cannibals – a bold statement. These examples take their limited, average environments and look at them through grotesque, upside-down ends. They exaggerate, they distort, and they observe. 

The Evil Dead 


Evil Dead and Carnival of Souls don’t exactly follow these rules, but so many great low-budget films succeed because their first concern is character. Much of Habit focuses on its protagonist and his friends, interacting and worrying in normal ways, until their world feels real. Resolution and Spring both draw their horror from the plights of their characters, addiction or grief and heartbreak; then use the fear to bring out their emotional cores. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is, in the end, a beautiful love story between two outcasts who connect to each other. Even Blair Witch gives more screen time to its character’s terror and fevered responses than any supernatural occurrences. These movies can’t resolve their stories through massive visual climaxes or showdowns, so they must create the climax through their characters. The films are driven by protagonists’ emotion, and in turn provoke it in their audiences.

Without a budget, there are also no rules. That means the films can be as insane as they want. But, each of these examples still contain a few vital things: a narrative, concise motifs, and colorful locations. Their stories are sparse, undemanding, and provide structure; while their limited but specific settings bring dimension. And their stories are first and foremost about character.

If producers don’t materialize and grant you millions of dollars to realize your vision, don’t fear. There are ways to tell a great story with limited means. Picking a unique location, distorting your perspective, inverting typical tropes, and selecting your simple scares with skill – these films, and others like them, display the means with which to accomplish this. They conjure darkness and terror out of nothing – you can too, if you dare.