Jordan Peele’s debut horror film, Get Out, was released over 11 months ago and people are still talking about it. Perhaps it’s the film’s four Oscar nominations, or its re-watchability due to new discoveries with each viewing — but in actuality, horror films in general are made to linger within you. When you walk out of the movie theater following a horror movie, it’s a struggle to pivot your thoughts. It’s all you can think about. This is for a reason.
Horror films are created using a number of film techniques ranging from the way the camera moves, to the sounds you hear, and the style the film is edited; all paired along with a deep understanding of human psychology and physiology that work together in manipulating the viewer’s psyche.
So what does that all mean? Horror filmmakers know exactly how and when to make you jump out of your seat, whether it was something scary or oftentimes, absolutely nothing.
Many consider horror to be the most trope-laden genre in all of film. Watching a horror movie at times feels like a checklist of events guaranteed to occur.
Some common tropes throughout horror films include the dark scary house, or the lack of cell phone service, the ghost/spirit seeking its revenge, the black guy dies first, the monster is behind them when they look in the mirror, someone always dies while having sex, countless amounts of jump scares, and of course in the end, there’s always one survivor (normally a pretty white girl).
A new trend within modern horror filmmaking is taking those classic tropes and subverting them. So in Get Out the film subverts both the black guy dies first and the only survivor is a pretty girl tropes by making the black guy survive in the end. Another example of subverting classic tropes is by removing the monster from the mirror. So when the character checks the mirror and the suspense builds, the reveal shows no bad guy, now leaving the viewer even more on edge, fearing if not now, when this antagonist will finally reveal itself.
Negative space is everything within the frame that’s not subject of the viewer’s focus. Traditionally, negative space is used to give viewer’s eyes an area to rest. Whether it’s a wall, out-of-focus background, or underexposed darkness, traditional filmmakers try to use it as a balance because too much negative space often leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable. Which is exactly why horror filmmakers take advantage of negative space so regularly. Not knowing what’s about to jump into the frame leaves you on edge and full of tension. What will happen next?! This is exactly how the filmmaker wants you to feel while watching their movie in a giant dark room consisting entirely of negative space.
Similar to the use of negative space, horror filmmakers often use tight framing to induce anxiety within the viewer. An extreme close-up with a shallow depth of field once again places the viewer in a setting of not knowing what’s directly surrounding them. They feel trapped. From there the mind begins to connect the dots the filmmaker intentionally placed out of frame. Sometimes it’s nothing. Other times it’s the killer waiting to strike.
Irregular movement can be via the cameraman or the subject within the frame. Both the camera moving at odd angles like in found-footage horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, or the actors movements being irregular can also put the audience in a state of unease. The demonic crab walk is a common trope, as well as ghost of zombie walking.
If you’ve seen even one horror movie, then you know exactly what a jump scare is. With the viewer already hyper-aware of something looming due to camera movement or sound design, as soon as the scare is delivered, this anxiety is often released via a small “jump” out of one’s seat. The jump scare is probably the most used technique in modern horror filmmaking. This can often lead to an overuse of jump scares, or the predictability of one – however, when it’s executed well, the entire theater jumps simultaneously. A true sight to see.
Camera exposure is the amount of light let in to the image. So by underexposing shots in horror films, the brightness is reduced creating a more mysterious, shadowed, and overwhelming feeling. This is yet another filmmaking device utilized to keep the viewer in the dark.
Abrupt color changes in horror films tend to lead to rapid changes in mood and tone. Jumping from pallets of reds to blue can sway the tone of the scene from happy to sad, hot to cold, or heaven to hell.
Filming from a low-angle makes it appear as if the camera is a creature moving through the scenery, rather than a camera tracking, especially if the shot is behind a bush, high grass, or in a forest.
A UCLA study discovered that nonlinear sounds such as screams and dramatic shifts in pitch are used in horror films to “enhance the emotional impact of scene.” While your eyes are focused on the big screen, your ears continue to listen all around. “Non-linearities are commonly produced when animals are under duress, such as the fear screams produced when animals are attacked by predators.”
Infrasound, also known as low-frequency sound, is any noise lower in frequency than 20 Hz per second, which is the mark for normal human hearing. These sounds are normally felt more in the body than heard by the ear. Such rumbling forces as wind, earthquakes, and avalanches create infrasound naturally. So in a horror film, when you feel a noise more than you can hear it, that’s infrasound.
Other noises used in horror films to make the viewer feel uncomfortable are ambient sound effects such as the wind passing through trees, or an owl hooting in the night. These noises can put a viewer in fear immediately upon hearing. Just the slightest noise can take one’s imagination off into the darkness.
Jump scares have already been covered as a horror film trope and camera technique, however a key component to the jump scare is the syncing of music. While a sharp cut to a scary image might make you jump out of your seat, the startling music synced perfectly with that sharp cut will almost guarantee that your rear rises into the air.
Jump cuts in horror films tend to allude to something that you don’t see happen. An example would be a killer raising a sharp knife over his head and bringing it down onto his victim, however right before the knife pierces, the shot cuts away. You think you saw it, but you didn’t. Your mind simply fills in the blank, which sometimes is even creepier than if they had shown the act. The best example for this can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, Psycho.
A lot of people’s problem with horror films is predictability. And while some filmmakers aim to break that pattern, many viewers see these type of films because they know what they want. Therein lies the filmmakers’ predicament. How do you avoid predictability by still giving the paying audience the film for which they were hoping? Anticipation is the answer. Just because you know something is going to happen does not mean you know when or how it’s going to happen.
Scenes that feel longer than they should be are usually intentional. This is often for good reason, unless they’re just poor filmmakers. Once a scene begins to feel long, the viewer grows more anxious. These overly long scenes at times build up to a major plot twist.
Mise-en-scène is the representation of everything that appears in front of the camera. This includes the set, props, actors, costumes, and overall composition. By playing with this and waiting for the perfect moment to subvert what the audience has been told to believe, horror filmmakers can flip their audience’s thinking. Sometimes a weapon or an evildoer is revealed to have been in the frame the entire time, such as in Saw. Fluctuating mise-en-scène has become a common element in horror storytelling.
Used regularly in horror films as a device to build tension (as touched upon in the horror tropes section), mirrors can also serve as a medium to divide the “real” world from the supernatural. The mirror also acts as a symbol, illustrating that something is not right in the world.
Semiotics is the study & interpretation of signs and symbols. Symbolism serves as physical metaphor in horror films. You can continuously bring back a symbol without having to discuss it. Common symbols/objects that you’ll spot from time to time in horror films include religious symbols like crosses, crucifixes, voodoo dolls; symbols of death like cemeteries, coffins, grave stones, skeletons, and taxidermy animals; keys and/or locks; doors and/or windows; dolls, masks, and of course, mirrors.
Subliminal images are occasionally snuck in, almost as a secondary form of jump scare. Sneaking in a subtle image, whether it’s grotesque or illuminating, can mess with the viewer’s mind, especially while grappling with the film’s larger story. A phrase you might hear following a subliminal image in a horror movie would be, “Wait, what was that?” But as soon as you start to wonder, the image is gone.
Deception is another key component within horror storytelling. Some films spend the entirety of the movie misleading you to believe what you’ve convinced yourself must be true, only to then pull the rug out from under you. Horror films can get a bit procedural at times, but subversion of the common procedure can later make for a quality mislead. An example would be, the first suspect is never the killer because then what would they do for the rest of the movie. Unless, that’s exactly what they want you to think, so after they move on to another suspect you forget about the first guy, who ultimately proves to be the bad guy. Classic mislead.