Reel Releases: Quality, not quantity, of deaths counts most in horror films

Actor Jack Nicholson brought the terrifying character of Jack Torrance to life in The Shining.

There is, among horror aficionados, an endless debate over what, exactly, constitutes a good scare.


Is it an imaginative death or the carefully developed potential for death? What stays with an audience? Is it the moment of murder and mayhem, or those leading up to a bloody dénouement?

While I understand, and even appreciate, the primal power of a film that stacks up an impressive body count, my favorite film frights have always been based on the slow build rather than quick kills.

In fact, some of my favorite horror movies have very few on-screen deaths at all.

The idea that someone might meet a messy demise is, for me, far more appealing than bearing witness when someone does. Here are a few of my favorites, each with a body count that can be tallied on a single hand.


THE INNOCENTS (1961): A young governess is dispatched to a rambling manor house to care for an absentee father’s two young children. Dream gig, right? Well, until said governess discovers the house may be haunted, the children may be possessed and the last governess found her employment expired when, well, she expired. Crazy, right? Perhaps. As spooky as the proceeding are, however, only a single death occurs onscreen.


NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984): Made at the height of the Hollywood slasher craze, Nightmare’s hook was an already-dead murderer who attacked sleeping teens from his own dream kingdom. What’s surprising is that although this is remembered as an unusually imaginative slasher classic, only four people – including a young Johnny Depp – get the iconic Kruger claws.


PSYCHO (1960): There are few silver screen murderers as famous or, in his own peculiar way, respected as young Norman Bates. Likewise, there are few silver screen murders as famous as the dispatching of Janet Leigh in a Bates Motel shower. But as cold-blooded as that attack was, it is, in fact, one of only two that happen during the movie. Sometimes it’s about quality rather than quantity.


THE SHINING (1980): While there are plenty of dead people cruising the halls of the Overlook Hotel in this Stanley Kubrick masterpiece – little girls, a demonic bartender and a decomposing corpse in one of the rooms for instance – not a lot of characters get added to their spectral numbers. Just two, in fact. It doesn’t matter, though, because this loose adaptation of the Stephen King novel remains a bold experiment in screen terror.


ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968): Most horror movies are about death. Very few are about birth. That’s part of the appeal of this odd-but-enthralling movie about a high-rise resident who becomes unsure about her unborn child. Only two characters actually die in the movie and those deaths are far from the most frightening moments in the film. That honor is reserved for the birth.