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What is it that makes classic horror movie trailers great?

Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. You want it to be scary, but not too scary – after all, you’ve got to leave some screams for the paying customers. You want it to be mysterious, but not too mysterious – no one wants to see a movie with an obscure, obtuse premise. And, perhaps most importantly, you need a hook. You need something that demands the viewer’s attention and tells them that they simply cannot miss this movie. You know… or else.

The annals of horror are littered with excellent trailers – and plenty of stinkers. And as we all know, trailer quality does not necessarily equate to movie quality. With this in mind, what are the movies (regardless of whether they were groundbreaking films or not) that are linked with the most classic horror movie trailers?

Classic Horror Movie Trailers

There’s no way to discuss classic horror movie trailers without talking about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This trailer stands out largely due to one reason: the use of a hook. (Not a literal one… although there is a killer shot of a meathook in it, so go figure.)

It opens with this incredibly effective line: “What happened… was true.” Immediately, we’re wondering what happened and if it was really true. Uh… not really. But you really wanna watch to learn more.

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The actual cinematics of the trailer are quite brilliant too (although they’re hardly needed after an opening quip as great as that). Carefully working around trailer guidelines that prevent the display of gratuitous blood and guts, the trailer instead opts for establishing a horrifically grimy atmosphere. Additionally, we’re shown scenes of brutal violence that cut away right at the very last second before the splatter. Interestingly, this trailer hardly resembles those of modern horror films… but that doesn’t make it any less frightening.

Another truly classic horror movie trailer is that of The Exorcist. There is a veritable mountain of iconic and horrific scenes that the filmmakers could have drawn from when creating this trailer, but we’re instead left with something a bit more toned down. No, we don’t see any heads twisting around (or, for that matter, any crucifixes being stabbed… down there). In fact, we only see possessed Regan once – but that one time is enough to haunt us.

The trailer for The Exorcist masterfully demonstrates just how little you need to actually show in a horror movie trailer. That one shot of her face – combined with the screaming and other tension-building – is enough to suck the viewers in. In fact, if more was shown, the trailer would likely be less powerful. A broken family and a house in shambles; instead of showing us the monster, we’re shown what the monster has done.

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Finally, let’s look at a truly unique trailer: that of Psycho. Like much of Hitchcock’s work, it feels totally unique. For six minutes, we are treated to the director himself guiding us through the movie’s most integral locations as he shrewdly alludes to the film’s events without giving much away. He mentions a murder, he mentions blood, but the tone of the trailer never gets too dark. In fact, whenever the script takes a turn towards the gory, Hitchcock stops himself and mutters something about it being too horrible to describe. Don’t threaten us horror fans with a good time, Al!

With this, suspense and mystery are firmly established. The trailer even brings in a bit of ironic comedy, with the music occasionally veering into cheery territory despite the seemingly macabre subject matter. This conflict of emotions is tantalizing – and I can only imagine it was particularly intriguing for those who knew nothing of the movie back when the trailer was first airing.

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But it’s the end that truly establishes it as a stone-cold classic horror movie trailer. Speaking of the murder, Hitchcock grabs the shower curtain, pulls it back, and… AAAAHHHH! Out of nowhere, the trailer’s tranquility is shattered by that scream – the scream heard around the world. Brilliant.

New Horror Movie Trailers: Future Classics

Movie trailers, much like cinema as a whole, is a progressive process. Modern trailers are quite different from classic horror movie trailers, yet they have naturally built upon them. This allows for an interesting dynamic. Audiences have certain expectations when a horror movie trailer comes on, and new trailers know that they can subvert those expectations.

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A prime example of this is the trailer for Hereditary. If you’ve seen the movie before, I strongly urge you to go back and watch the trailer. It feels off, right? That’s because it focuses almost entirely on Charlie, a character who (spoiler alert) dies relatively early on in the movie. We’re led to believe that this is like every other horror movie trailer: a faithful summary.

A faithful summary it is not. But the fact that we are led to believe that Charlie is the main character makes the twists and turns of the film that much more effective. Although the trailer does a great job of encouraging you to turn Hereditary on, it goes a step further and actually makes the movie scarier. It does the opposite of spoiling the plot events – it creates a false idea of the plot in your head, and the movie then smashes that idea to pieces, leaving you feeling totally alone as the twisted events unfold. Talk about smart editing.

Another modern trailer that uses the power of deception to its advantage is Goodnight Mommy’s. This one ticks a lot of the classic horror movie trailer boxes: unsettling choral music, shots with bugs, violence, moderate jump scares… the list goes on. But beyond this, it does a phenomenal job at establishing a sense of mystery that you can only solve by watching the movie. We are shown two twins and a masked, seemingly villainous mother who may or may not be their real mother. What’s going on here? Is she an imposter?!

This question resonates throughout the entire trailer, and it serves as the hook for the movie. This leads the audience to go into the movie expecting it to solely be a film about an imposter mother. Of course, it ends up being more than that… but I won’t spoil it if you’ve never seen it. Still, it’s a fantastic example of bringing in viewers with a premise that may or may not be true.

Both Goodnight Mommy and Hereditary have relatively standard trailers that obscure key (and very frightening) details about the movies they are advertising. The trailer for A Quiet Place, however, stands out by being totally different than most classic horror movie trailers.

Really taking advantage of the film’s excellent premise, the trailer forgoes the typically loud approach used in most horror trailers and instead opts for pure tension with minimal dialogue, muted music, and an overall quietude that most viewers do not expect.

Not only does this work well in giving you a reason to see this movie (i.e., this film is like no other), it also sets the trailer up to have some really excellent jump scares. When the sound is ratcheted up, the viewers are jumping out of their seats. It really drives home just how critical it is for the protagonists to remain absolutely silent… and it makes you want to see exactly what happens when they mess up.

Last Updated on January 23, 2023.

Ben Mangelsdorf
Ben Mangelsdorf is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado. He enjoys horror films, writing poetry, and the Beach Boys.

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