This Spooky Season, A Primer for Short Horror Films

Warning: lots of horror.

I don’t know if any other lovers of scary cinema ponder why they have gravitated to a genre that most others wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole – but I’ve found myself thinking about it quite a bit recently. In supernatural films, we might find catharsis, the ghostly trappings often acting as metaphors for the grief of loved ones’ past. Meanwhile, other horror genres help us confront our anxieties in extreme ways. Through body horror, we confront our physical limitations. Through psychological horror, we confront that which we simply cannot control.

But beyond the philosophy and psychology of it all, I just love a good scare. The best scary movies build an inevitable rise in tension that almost demands your full attention. Honestly, nothing sucks me quite into the present like a good piece of horror can. It’s the most pure form of living in the moment. The best scary films also have a deeper respect for its viewers’ intelligence. Similar to comedy – horror’s mirrored twin – it’s all about timing, but it’s also about a director’s intuition about what will thrill an audience, leaving a trail of emotional breadcrumbs to trap the viewer in the precise psychological hell you want them to be in. If you want to understand the basic mechanics of film-making, break down horror films, scene-by-scene.

In addition to the excellent feature length films we’ve been blessed with in recent years, I have gone full in on short horror features. Several short horror films were directed by notable genre directors we appreciate today, and many of whom will probably be the horror auteurs of tomorrow. But I became obsessed with short horror when I realized just how thoroughly effective they can be when done well.

I’ll put it bluntly: the short film medium was tailor-made for horror, simply because the medium embodies what makes horror itself so thrilling. It relies almost completely on atmosphere, often building to a single, potent jump scare. Or sometimes there’s not really a jump scare at all, just a lingering feeling of dread fed by slow drip. Horror shorts can range from being three minutes to twenty – but reliably in the best ones, those minutes are used efficiently to build a microcosmic horror universe in a brief amount of time. Dispensing with expository build-up and often ending with the climax, you find yourself having a lot more unanswered, but penetrating questions about what you just watched. What are the origins of this monster? What exactly made these victims their target? What even became of the victim? The questions will haunt you long after you’ve finished watching.

Finally, on a more shallow note, watching a short horror film is great when you don’t quite have the attention span for a feature length film, but still want to watch something that hits the unsettling sweet spot.

In this list, I talk about a few of my favorites. This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully, it is a gateway drug.

Teaching Jake about the Camcorder, Jan ’97 (2021), dir. Brian David Gilbert and Karen Han

I want to put myself through the torture of graduate school again just so I can write a thesis about this film. Teaching Jake about the Camcorder, Jan ’97 (2021) comes courtesy of Brian David Gilbert and Karen Han, the former of whom produced video content for Polygon before striking out on his own to do videos like this masterpiece. It’s a nine minute and thirty-four seconds meditation on despair, the imperfection of memory, and the way grief can become its own kind of tunnel vision. Maybe, just maybe, it’s also about how the things that haunted our family come back to haunt us too. I guarantee you’ll have to watch this one a couple of times to pick up on all of the little details that make it so spectacular, unnerving, and hauntingly sad.

Still Life (2005), dir. Jon Knautz

Imagine you’re driving. You drive into a small town. It’s unfamiliar to you. You’re looking around the town and everyone appears to be…a mannequin. But not just any mannequin. Weird, creepy mannequins that are kind of life-like and…move, apparently. This one goes out to everyone who also finds “The After Hours” to be one of the most unsettling episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959). The nauseating twist in this one really stayed with me long after the short was finished.

Lights Out (2013), dir. David F. Sandberg

Before there was the feature film Lights Out (2016), there was the award-winning short Lights Out (2013). I haven’t seen the feature film version, probably because the short is already so good and so downright terrifying. There are approximately two jump scares in this short. The purpose of the first one is to set you up for knowing that the next one is coming. You spend an unbearable couple of minutes preparing yourself for it. And then it gets you anyway in its very last moments. Simple, effective. Bing, bang, boom. David F. Sandberg’s shorts, in general, never miss. I’ll talk about one more of them before this list is over.

He Dies at the End (2010), dir. Damian Mc Carthy

It’s all in the title. But honestly, you’re gonna laugh after the jumpscare inevitably gets you. You’ll understand why after you’ve seen it. Trust me. I’m laughing just thinking about it.

The Backrooms: Found Footage (2022), dir. Kane Parsons

If you’re like me and you’re just itching for Severance (2022) to come back, you can do worse than watching The Backrooms (2022). I’m also a big fan of found footage horror, and this one really hits the sweet spot. For those unfamiliar with the creepypasta part of the internet, The Backrooms is an urban legend of a never-ending office space. But it’s not just any office space. It feels…off. You can’t explain it, but that’s the liminal horror of it all for you. It’s dingy, and fluorescent, and honestly looks like a place where someone could maybe be murdered. It’s terrifying because of the pure nothingness of the space, an absence that can be perfectly filled with all of the worst ideas your imagination can come up with. What happened here? Why is this empty? What lurks around the corner? Is anyone else here? Is there a way out? And when it comes to The Backrooms, the further you venture in, the more you realize that no, there is no way out. And maybe you’re already so far in, that it’s too late.

Dining Room or There is Nothing (2006), dir. David Earle

I’ll be honest with you….I don’t know what the hell this is. Okay, it’s an infinite loop of a weird gray woman saying “There is nothing” backwards and face planting in a large soup bowl, then the video reverses and we hear the words spoken forward. All while an impending fire threatens to ravage her home. But it’s hypnotic, vaguely apocalyptic, unsettling as hell, and it appeals to both the cynic and the atheist in me. And it’s like a minute long so why not?

There are Monsters (2008), dir. Jay Dahl

Something about the aesthetic of this one really gets me. It looks vaguely 90s. Then there’s the small, snowy town of it all. The eerie, ambient music is really good at setting the mood, and I like that you see the monster’s POV in small sections. It’s another short that succeeds in raising a lot more questions than it ever attempts to answer. The uncanny valley is real in this one, folks.

The Smiling Man (2015), dir. A.J. Briones

This was probably one of the first shorts I ever watched. It manages to be brief as it raises tension to unbearable levels, while also letting the audience spend a little bit of time with the monster (for better or worse). And it’s great horrific fun to spend time with this monster, because it’s a really good monster. This one doesn’t just lead to a single jump scare at the end, which is what a lot of short horror films of this length tend to rely on, and it’s better for it. The final turn in the plot still gets me.

There isn’t a clown in this one, but it is clown-esque, so steer clear if Pennywise ruined your childhood.

Pictured (2014), dir. David F. Sandberg

Photographs in horror movies are always creepy. It’s the past coming back to haunt you in a very literal way; the visualization of someone’s personal demons. This one is also directed by David F. Sandberg of Lights Out (2013) fame, who has a grand old time with an interesting, efficient, and horrific gimmick. This is another one where I think the gimmick would work great in a feature length, but maybe it’s more effective in a condensed short.

Occupied (2015), dir. Mitchell and Taylor Kerby

Occupied (2015) boldly asks the question…what if I was murdered while sitting on the toilet? Well, okay. But this short is terrifying for what you don’t see, and the camerawork and framing really add a whole layer of icky dread to the happenings.

Other Side of the Box (2018), dir. Caleb J. Phillips

Ah yes, the infamous “you gotta pass the curse along in order to get rid of it” horror trope. In this one, a young couple receives a mysterious package from an estranged friend (or is it the woman’s ex? Hard to tell, which honestly kind of adds to the bad vibe shrouding this whole film). This short reminded me of The Ring (2002) and It Follows (2014), but it also reminded me of that nutso episode of Doctor Who (2005) with Carey Mulligan and the freaky Weeping Angels. Yet, something about how all of this comes together still feels really original — I think it has something to do with the truly unsettling ending, and the sheer amount of questions I had when this thing was over. Hailing from rising talent Caleb J. Phillips, I would watch a feature length on this one.

Slut (2014), dir. Chloe Okuno

Earlier this year, Chloe Okuno premiered the unsettling Maika Monroe thriller Watcher (2022) at Sundance. It was a good, solid thriller, and this short, which she directed in 2014, has all the markers of someone who would have great command over a future feature length film. Similar themes are explored here too. This one is quite a bit longer than the others on this list, so it’s got more heft to it, but the deeper characterization, broader plot, and nice production values really come together to create a bloody good time. The last few seconds of this are a huge hashtag mood for me.

2am: The Smiling Man, dir. Michael Evans

This film has no relation to The Smiling Man (2015), and all I can say is that I wish it did because personally that film feels tame compared to this. ABSOLUTELY THE FUCK NOT is all I will say about this one. Nope. Goodbye.

The Blue Door (2017), dir. Paul Taylor

The Blue Door (2017) was picked up by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners for the big screen. And after watching this little gem, you can see why. The BAFTA-nominated short stars Gemma Whelan, opening up doors that she shouldn’t be, releasing dark entities that should have stayed locked away. Many shorts will pick up on a gimmick and run with it to unsettling effect for the duration of the running time. This one is no different, but it builds a nice little story within it.,

You may have noticed, but many of these shorts were posted on the YouTube channel ALTER, which I highly recommend subscribing too if you want alerts on more scary horror to come. Hopefully, watching some of these messes with your algorithms and you receive a lot more fun recommendations. Enjoy!

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