3 Scary Movie Marketing Strategies That Are Frighteningly Good

4 min read

 

I consider myself something of an expert on horror movies. If there are scares to be had, you’ll find me heading to the front row of the theater, most likely dragging a reluctant friend or two behind me.

Even if you’re less enthused about the eerie and the sinister, I’m pretty sure we can agree that bringing horror to life in a way that feels real and genuinely frightening takes a lot of creativity—and some scary-good marketing to help it get there. Here are three examples of films that will scare the pants off you with some great marketing strategies.

Psycho

This movie may be before my time, but even I know that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the original slasher film. Hitchcock was incredibly secretive about his movie and didn’t reveal its ending to the cast until just before filming. He wouldn’t let anyone into the theaters once the movie had begun and ran posters with his frowning face pointing to his watch to emphasize the importance of arriving on time. Why? He was protecting the big twist: The star of the movie, Janet Leigh, is killed off in the infamous shower scene roughly 30 minutes into the film.

He also bought as many copies as he could of Robert Bloch’s novel (the basis for the movie), to prevent people from learning the film’s ending. Hitchcock’s “no-spoiler” campaign was even enforced by police outside some theaters.

Hitchcock understood the power of withholding information: Keeping audiences in the dark forces them to stay on their toes. Holding things back until it’s time for the big reveal can be a great strategy for your brand, too.

Smile

If Psycho’s marketing was all about holding back, then Smile shows how you can leak a crucial plot point of a movie well before it hits the theaters. Released in September 2022, the movie follows Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychiatrist who sees people with creepy smiles everywhere—right before something horrible happens. I’ll be the first to admit I rolled my eyes at this premise. I mean, come on, in a market inundated by the gruesome and macabre, what’s so creepy about a smile?

Turns out, a lot.

Leading up to the movie’s release, social media blew up with reported sightings of smiling figures in the background of events ranging from professional baseball games to the Today show. The campaign included a website where people could report smile sightings out in the wild, or upload photos of their own.

Their efforts to get the film on people’s radars worked—on opening weekend alone, Smile brought in $22 million, surpassing its $17 million budget. For Parker Finn, a previously unknown director with a (let’s be honest) less-than-gripping plot, he had to rely on building hype the scrappy way. Social media, photobombing, and good ol’ fashioned word of mouth was the name of the game.

The Blair Witch Project

We can’t talk about brilliant horror movie marketing without bringing up The Blair Witch Project. With the power of what is easily one of the greatest horror movie marketing campaigns, the creative team behind this classic movie took a mere $35,000 production budget and turned it into a roughly $248 million profit, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time.

Because the film was billed as “found footage,” the marketing team extended the ruse by distributing missing person leaflets on college campuses that featured actors from the movie (all of whom were unknown at the time, adding to the realism). Fake news stories were placed in small local papers. Then, a website about the Blair Witch was created—in the early-internet era of the ‘90s, this was a terrifyingly effective way to get people interested without a big marketing budget.

If you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project, you know it’s not that scary, especially compared to other titans of the genre. But what made it creepy was the marketing and everything that went into the movie to make it seem so horrifyingly real.

One thing these films all have in common is it wasn’t just me who leaned forward in their seat and wanted to know more—people who hated horror movies were going to the theater because they had to know how these stories ended. The secrecy, the smile sightings, the found footage—all of it serves as a hand reaching through the screen (or in Psycho’s case, movie posters), beckoning you closer. And getting you closer to the product or experience—more interested and more intrigued so you have to know more (even if it scares the crap out of you)… well, that’s what great marketing’s all about.