Since the earliest days of cinema, audiences have loved nothing more than a good scare. But with so many real fears in the world, why do so many people want more things to be afraid of, even if they're make-believe? And how do good directors manage to conjure this emotion so well?
To answer these questions, ABC News' Jay Schadler spoke to M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense and Signs, and Sigourney Weaver, who starred in 1979's sci-fi shocker Alien, one of the most frightening movies of all time.
Shyamalan makes movies that don't just go bump in the night — they haunt you after you leave the theatre.
"Most movies go for the pops — the big explosions," he said. "The movies that last for us are the ones that kind of do it the other way, kind of take the floor away from us and change expectations and make you uncomfortable and challenge us."
Part of Being Human
Scary movies allow the audience to think about other fears than their own, said Weaver, who stars in Shyamalan's latest film The Village, a supernatural thriller set in 19th century Pennsylvania.
"When we see someone keep it together in a situation of great stress and terror, it sort of, I think, excites us and makes us feel a little more capable. But it's also a great ride," Weaver said.
Scientists say fear plays an essential role in human survival by alerting us to danger.
During a creepy movie scene, a primitive part of our brain dedicated to fear called the amygdala wages a tug of war with our higher intellect — it allows thrill-seeking with a safety net.
Understanding fear is one thing. Generating it is another. Weaver said one of the things that made the creature in Alien so scary was its intelligence.
"I've always felt that the more intelligent you make the monster — the more knowing, the more perceptive — I suppose in a way the more human-like, the more frightening it is," she said.
You can also scare the actors. Weaver recounts that when she did the last scene in Alien, her character thought she had finally escaped in a shuttle.
The director, Ridley Scott, then asked her if she wanted to know what would happen, Weaver told him: "Absolutely not. Totally surprise me."
When the alien's arm suddenly flew out, clutching her ankle, she flew across the room in her underwear, she said. "If it really happens to you that way, it's a great [help] to the actor."
Techniques of Terror
But fright not only comes from in front of the camera, but behind it. Shyamalan revealed to Primetime a few of his tricks from previous movies:
He lets the camera drift, just the slightest bit. It "creates this sense of 'Something is going to happen,'" he said.
In Signs, Shyamalan lowered all the lights - "so that the shadows were very large."
He has also used no lights whatsoever. Also in Signs: a character is wandering in the fields when he loses his one piece of protection — his light. Shyamalan switched to a wide, distorted shot to get a sense of the character's phobia. And he has the character reach below the camera to give the audience a sense of how blind he is.
When the light snaps back on, the audience gets a glimpse of a creature's leg slipping between the cornstalks. Monsters are more frightening when they are given less camera time, Shyamalan believes.
In the art of terror, less is more, and often what you hear can be more unsettling than what you see.