Eli Roth’s 4 Rules For Scaring The Bejesus Out Of Us

The sadistic mastermind behind Hostel, Aftershock, and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove uses a hefty dose of reality to keep the fantasy frights fresh.

The man who brought us torture porn hasn’t exactly softened, but Eli Roth can be surprisingly thoughtful about why he makes the movies he does. With a leading role in Aftershock, a disaster-horror film he produced and cowrote, now in theaters, Roth spoke to us about how he taps into the zeitgeist and uses it for an entertaining kind of evil.



You don’t have to keep raising the ante if you’re a keen observer of the culture, says Roth. “It’s not necessarily about making everything scarier than what you’ve done before. I think the key is being very, very in tune with what’s happening in the culture and what terrifies you about that.”

Eli Roth in Aftershock

Right now, what terrifies Roth is how people are using social media without regard for its true consequences. “When I see everyone getting swept up in these political causes that they know absolutely nothing about because it’s so easy to if you use the correct hashtag, that’s going to backfire in some horrible way. People don’t really know what they’re talking about, but the people who do aren’t necessarily listened to because their tweets aren’t as funny.” He sees people misdirecting their rage all over the place. “It’s like a mass psychosis, this weird witch hunt psychology where you can see people going crazy. All their frustration gets vented at the people who write the inappropriate tweets, not at what’s actually causing it.”

His observations of slacktivism inspired much of his upcoming movie, The Green Inferno. “I wanted to make a movie about the laziness of modern student activism–slacktivism–people hitting the retweet button without really knowing anything and feeling like that’s enough. It’s much more about them feeling better about themselves rather than actually doing anything.” He cites Pussy Riot and Kony 2012 as recent causes that stirred ignorant passions. “Everyone wants to appear like they’re good people, but no one knows anything about it. When you saw this guy masturbating, you realize it was a perfect metaphor, this masturbatory exercise, making people feel better about themselves.”


“A year-and-a-half ago, when people heard I was doing a show for Netflix,” says Roth, “they were like, Oh, you’re doing a web series?” In the wake of House of Cards, no one’s asking that now. And, according to Netflix, Hemlock Grove‘s early viewership numbers have exceeded House of Card‘s.

Roth sees himself as a guy who uses current technology, whatever it is, to reach an audience and to stay ahead. He’s been on Twitter for years. Before that MySpace, and before that, message boards. And in the making of his movies, he uses technology to do things that he could never otherwise afford–like the rather impressive arial shots of Valparaiso in Aftershock. “Our crew rigged a Canon 5D Mark II Octocam on a remote-control helicopter.”

And when it came to shooting the nightclub sequence, he says he turned to security camera footage of the real event (“They’re horrific!”) as a model for it. “We wanted it to feel like a ’70s disaster movie but use modern technology. When you film with a 5D you don’t need a lot of light, and you can shoot much faster.”



“People always want to go where the party is,” says Roth, whose breakout film, Hostel, was basically about kids seeking the hostel where the hottest girls, and therefore the best party, is.

No stranger to parties himself, the filmmaker has traveled the world to dance, but he’s been amazed by the sameness of what he’s seen. “Every city is basically the same, with the same hotels. Whether you’re in a W [Hotel] or a Starbucks, in Brazil, Russia, or L.A., they’re all playing MGMT. Hipsterism has gone global. Santiago feels like you’re in L.A. These kids–these models, really–whether they’re in Milan or Argentina or Santiago, they’re with the same people listening to the same music.” But Roth sees a yearning to see the real places, the real Chile. Valparaiso, Chile, achieves that, and is the setting for Aftershock. “It’s an amazing city, where graffiti is sort of legal. Artists travel from all over to Valparaiso.”

And in February 2010, disaster struck at the height of the party. On a Saturday night, at 3 a.m., the sixth largest earthquake ever recorded triggered a tsunami warning, caused a widespread blackout, and killed more than 500 people. It is that night which Aftershock depicts. “Everything in the movie really happened,” says Roth. “It didn’t happen in that order, but it was all taken from true stories.” When Roth heard the stories of that night from director Nicolás López, he decided to set the movie there, and he mostly cast actors who had actually been there that night and survived the ordeal. The stories he heard formed the basis of the movie [Spoiler alert!]: Actress Lorenza Izzo described to Roth what it was like in a nightclub where she had been when the earthquake hit. Her friend’s hands were cut off by a falling wall and a group of people went looking for them. “They found one hand and put it in Lorenza’s purse, but then someone stole her purse.” It was chaos. Fearing the club was going to collapse, they fled. According to Roth, the events of the movie are just like that night: The prisons broke open, sending violent criminals into the streets; tsunami sirens sparked panic, and a group of people who fled the nightclub tried to go up the hill away from any potential tsunami [it never hit]. “We found underground tunnels between the monastery and the churches where, if nuns got pregnant, they would have babies and bury them. That’s a real thing! An earthquake like this unravels society so there are no rules. The prisons break open. What do you do when society literally and figuratively collapses?”


Roth wanted to do something that felt real, that had the ring of authenticity. “Most disaster movies, like 2012–which is a very enjoyable film–are like watching someone else play a video game,” he says. “You know you’re watching CG effects.” He found the realness he was seeking on location in Valparaiso. “Much of the country is poor, and they haven’t repaired the damage from the earthquake three years ago. People walked onto the set, and went, Wow, the art department did a spectacular job! But it wasn’t the art department. We just walked in and pointed cameras.”

Director Nicolás López, Eli Roth, and Natasha Yarovenko on the set of Aftershock

Roth’s ethos of authenticity even extends to his Netflix series Hemlock Grove. “Hemlock isn’t so much a horror show,” he says. “It’s more of a murder mystery set in this bizarre universe.” His benchmark for the transformation of one character into a werewolf was the 1981 John Landis movie An American Werewolf in London. “I was obsessed with that movie when I was a kid. I wanted to go back to that. It wasn’t in the dark or in the shadows, it was right there, in very bright light. You see it all, the bones, you hear his voice changing. I want 14-year-olds to respond the way they respond in sex-ed class to childbirth video, to see up close something that’s very beautiful but that’s also visceral and violent and terrifying. I want people who saw Twilight to say, Oh, that’s what it would really be like to transform into a werewolf.”

[Photos Courtesy of Radius | TWC]


About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.