Keshia Sophia Roelofs
5 Marketing Lessons Horror Movies Can Teach Us
Want to build pleasurable tension capable of gripping the audience’s attention—no matter their reservations? Look to horror. The horror genre is the top dog of artful manipulation and persuasion. It’s what the genre was built for and spectators love it.
And while it’s no secret that they are a movie studio’s favourite enterprise—being a low-budget endeavour with a high return—for the people who compose each thrilling element, it’s a passion indulged for harmless fun. You might say the same for copywriters. Our enjoyment is watching the results of our creative labour work its magic.
But be wary. Just because the audience already exists and the demand is there, doesn’t mean every horror film has what it takes. Like marketing a business, there’s an art to the craft. Not every finished product is on par with Hitchcock or Peele. Because, like a jump scare, successful conversion isn’t based on mere formula alone.
Having all the essential elements doesn’t mean knowing how to make them work. Your audience knows the beats, it’s up to you to transform the rhythm into something new. Intrigued? Here are five lessons (great) horror movies can teach you about marketing. Venture if you dare.
1. Dare to Be Self Aware
The best horrors know the tropes and their audience inside out. They don’t pretend to exist outside the canon. They revel in it. Such is the beauty of the post-modern slasher genre.
Wes Craven and his much-loved Scream heralded the dawn of the meta-horror in all its self-aware, socially-conscious, derisive glory, long before the Ryan Reynolds-Deadpool-hybrid. It frequently called out horror cliches while capitalising on them, and it got away with it by respecting its audience’s sensibilities.
The Marketing Lesson:
Scream teaches the power of understanding and valuing a target audience’s existing knowledge. Being self-aware is appreciating that most marketing techniques have been tried, tested, and tend to be transparent. It’s about relishing in the process together and using the audience’s expectations to your advantage.
Like an inside joke, self-awareness builds rapport. Better yet, by extending the courtesy of openly acknowledging your target audience’s insight, you build trust and mutual respect. Besides, who isn’t intrigued (and disarmed) by refreshing honesty?
Study your competitors, take stock of trends and the dialogue around them, and note where other campaigns have fallen short. Think less replication and more borrowing tropes. Show how you would do better a la Scream’s final act. Even better, dare to share where it tends to go wrong.
2. Don't Fear the Remake
Horror is synonymous with remakes. Let us not forget the noughties era of Japanese horror rewired for American screens. In 2002, The Ring ushered in a new cast of ghouls and terrifying lore while The Grudge took it a step further by keeping the original director Takashi Shimizu in the driver’s seat. Both Americanized versions garnered huge success by capitalising on the plot points and scares that worked and repurposing those other elements that may have fallen flat with western audiences—a powerful lesson of the value of context.
The Marketing Lesson:
Taking tried and true content and remixing it with new ingredients for fresh thrills is a foolproof tactic. You get all the ingredients for success at hand with the added luxury of hindsight—like your very own colour by numbers. The old content remains, but now audiences get to relish in the updates, finding favour with new insights while still feeling secure in the content that works.
A ghost story is rarely dated and your content shouldn’t be either. Much of the same copywriting techniques that worked in the Mad Men era, still apply now. In truth advertising copy has been in action since 3,000 BC (seriously). What changes is the trends and platforms, and social context right along with it. Keep content as evergreen as possible, whether it’s articles, blog posts, or social media posts. If needed, archive, but recycling is always best when it comes to quality content. Make sure to update live articles to keep links fresh, language hip, and keywords relevant.
3. Tap Into Your Audience with Authentic Content
If The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity proved anything, it’s that you don’t need fancy frills to get under an audience’s skin. Sometimes, the best content is true-to-life. Swapping polished scripts for ad-lib, studio productions for handheld cameras, and movie stars for unknowns, Paranormal Activity revitalised the horror industry and brought the scares closer to home. The lack of production, allowed audiences to slip easier into the plot with some even seeing themselves as potential auteurs of future homemade content.
The Marketing Lesson:
Not every campaign needs dazzling visuals and refined structure. Today’s audiences love authenticity, with many favouring down-to-earth, unfiltered reality over carefully curated aesthetics. The power of Paranormal Activity is its everyday vibe. The actors could be anyone, including you, bringing a tangible dimension to the horror that ensues. The shock factor lies in the mundanity, the lack of expectation from something so low-budget.
Being genuine is the number one way to make your brand voice stand out. Research your target audience, listen to how they speak, interact, and connect. Instead of showing off, consider getting down to their level. The best way to remain authentic is to use what you know on the platforms that you feel most comfortable with. Demonstrate to your audience you’ve got what it takes to alter their world (without the gimmicks) and trust and respect will most certainly follow.
4. Revel in the Spectacle
If you are a frequenter of horror films, you know that a large portion of the experience happens off the screen. There’s a community element to horror cinema, whether you are seeking solace through shared laughter or feeding off the tension as you wait for the payoff.
Yes, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity paved the way for visceral found-footage, but they also upped the stakes with their immersive marketing campaigns. Since Hitchcock’s Psycho, the horror movie scene has had its fair share of priming advertising strategies that pulled audiences in before they’ve even purchased their ticket.
The Marketing Lesson:
In 1994, The Blair Witch Project swapped traditional movie posters for a viral marketing campaign that took advantage of the internet’s rising prominence. Missing posters of the actors encouraged audiences to research the Blair Witch myth, introducing them to a compelling backstory that elevated the film experience beyond anything achieved by jump scares alone. 15 years later, Paranormal Activity brought a new twist to the interlocking marketing strategy, making fans responsible for its distribution through social media community power alone.
Step back from a one-way didactic approach and look at how you can utilise cross-channel tactics to engage your audiences in new ways. This could be anything from opening up two-way communication via stories to introducing personalised elements were possible. 74% of today’s consumers are using a minimum of three channels to elicit one service. Making these channels as cohesive and consistent as possible is an effective way of achieving an immersive audience experience that will keep them hooked and eager for more. TLDR: get your audience working with you, not against you.
5. Open the Door to a Sequel
In the slasher cannon, the end is rarely the end. Micheal Myers is the monster that won’t die and neither will the Halloween franchise as 2022’s latest iteration is eager to prove. The ending trope is the oldest in the book. Handled well, it creates an irresistible mystery; an unshakable sensation that there is unfinished business the audience can’t afford to miss out on. Handled poorly, and it’s an obvious signal to the sequel no one asked for.
The Marketing Lesson:
The ending trope may not always land smoothly, but it has merit. So far, it’s launched classic well-loved franchises, a multitude of pop culture moments, and entire universes made of co-existing horror films and their sequels. Like it or love it, the trope expertly demonstrates the merits of pursuing leads and keeping them tightly in your grasp for as long as possible. Closing and converting may seem like the main goal, but the best transactions are long-term. After all, how many franchises have been passed down through generations?
Nurture those leads. You may have closed the sale but keep communication lines open with your clients. Embrace drip campaigns and use email marketing to hint at products and services to come. Expand your existing content into an entire universe of empowering, informative copy that will keep audiences wanting more.