What is Horror?
Simply put, it’s a genre in which the story intentionally elicits fear through scares and repulsive scenes. The protagonist would often themselves fight, or at the very least survive, nightmarish characters and the supernatural. The horror genre often explore the darker side of society and humanity. Many contemporary horror films incorporate dark themes and controversial social issues in their stories. A good example is Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). A horror/thriller film wherein race is one of its significant themes.
Jump scares and horrifying monsters that will keep you up at night. The horror genre, through its many transformation and its diverse way of storytelling across cultures, has never truly lost its popularity. Why do horror films continue to fascinate us even when we have to see them through our finger? How do horror films terrify us?
Why do we watch Horror films?
Why do we purposefully scare ourselves…and enjoy it? According to Sigmund Freud’s theory about the human psyche. Our mind is split into two: the smaller conscious mind, which a person can control and the larger subconscious mind which contains their primitive urges like sexual desires and violence. In order to maintain a sense of civility, the conscious mind has to constantly repress and keep carnal desires that live in the subconscious in check. However, no matter how much you consciously repress these desires and emotions, they appear in one form or another.
Psychoanalytical film theorists suggest that “horror films are a safe way in which the repressed can return from your subconscious, be faced by your conscious mind and be temporarily neutralized. Move monsters therefore symbolise things that society chooses to repress — but can’t properly keep a lid on.”
Sexuality and Horror
Any fan of slasher films are familiar with “The Final Girl” trope. It is the unspoken rule that the female virgin would be the sole survivor by the end of the film. This trope suggests how sexuality is tied to the horror genre. These films often focus on female sexuality, particularly violence against women. Consider slasher films in the 80s like Friday the 13th (1980)and Halloween (1978). Oftentimes, those who are brutally killed in these films are the teenagers who have been sexually active. The one who survives (narrowly) is the girl who didn’t engage in coitus. Film scholar Barbara Creed suggests that horror films showcase the failure of sexual repression to control women by focusing on their sexuality. Robin wood, on the other hand, argues that killing women represents the repression of men’s feminine side.
How do Horror films scare us?
There are five elements in horror films.
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it” — Alfred Hitchcock
For an effective scare, there has to be tension. Tension is built through suspense. The further the audience is at the edge of their seats in dreading anticipation of the unknown worst, the scarier. Suspense also invokes fear. Horror films bring our worst nightmares to the screen. Then there’s brutal violence meant to distress and repel. With violence there’s oftentimes gore. Graphic scenes feature abhorrent amounts of blood and guts that’s almost unnatural and unsettling. Perhaps the most infamous benchmark of the genre is the supernatural. Ghosts, vampires, witches or any monsters you can conjure up when think of “terrifying” comes to life (and sometimes take centerstage) in these films. Most horror films (and other forms of literature) encompass at least one or all of these elements.
Common Film Techniques Used in Horror
Some filmmakers bank on the human imagination to evoke the sense of fear. This is achieved by creating the dark unknown using shadows and concealing objects and backgrounds in darkness. Not knowing what is lurking in the darkness, a person can conjure up what is specifically terrifying for them in their minds, thereby terrifying them without revealing a monster.
This is where lighting comes to play. Lighting can distort images to create mystery, tension and suspense.
Uplighting — creates alarming shadows around eyes and facial features, which gives an eerie appearance. It is also unnatural and evokes the idea that the light is coming from the fires of hell as opposed to what is normal which is the light coming from the skies or heaven.
Spotlighting, underexposing and chiaroscuro — conceals certain objects which induces suspense as parts of the objects are concealed. Not being able to see the background or certain objects covered in shadows, audiences begin to imagine the horrifying things lurking in the darkness. Not knowing in the unknown invokes a sense of suspense.
Silhouettes — hide some of the physical appearance of the characters and produce a distortion of reality along with uplighting and prominent shadows.
Noir Lighting — Using harsh light to shine on the face evokes a sense of msystery. As the light skims across the face, tension is released through different emotions.
Close ups — make the audience relate to the protagonist’s terror and emotions, close-up on specific facial features like the eyes, to express emotions without words. Extreme close up shots are intimate as they invade the character’s personal space. With their face filling the entire screen, which emphasizes the dramatic importance of the scene by intensifying the emotion of the character is feeling and allows us to feel sympathy. In zombie movies, if there is an extreme close-up of a bloody eye, or an unusual colored eye, we can tell there is a deadly virus. In other horror movies, an extreme close-up of the protagonist’s eyes can reflect terror.
Shooting a character through an object gives the unsettling feeling of being “watched”.
High angle shots can make the the protagonist looked down to make them viewed as vulnerable. In contrast, low angle shots can make the monster or antagonist appear powerful, while the protagonist looking up is inferior, childlike, and helpless.
Tracking or panning shots can make the character look as if she is being followed or watched, creating suspense in the viewers because we do not know if something may endanger the protagonist,
Extreme long shots or wide shots reveals isolated and deserted setting that elicits an uneasiness for the protagonist’s safety.
Hand held camera shots creates a sense of reality. The audience is granted a first-person POV.
Over-the-shoulder shots gives the feeling the villain is standing and following the protagonists.
Tilted angles can demonstrate dramatic tension by using the camera and portraying a world out of balance.
Foggy textures from machines set a mysterious and a cold tone to the scene
There is a myriad of ways to edit a horror film and it depends on the aesthetic and style of the filmmaker. Apart from adding special effects, pacing is one of the important factors editors have to keep in mind if they want to produce an effective scare. They have to consider when and where to place the perfect jump scare. Pacing also refers to speed in the shot, which could reflect time. By changing the pace to fast or slow, the filmmaker can manipulate time. Fast pace increases the tension, while slow pace evokes sense of uneasiness and anxiety.
Adding filters is another technique editors use to set the mood and ambience of the films. Blue tones invoke sense of isolation and coldness while red filters suggest danger and death.
Kuleshov effect — demonstrated by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov — is a style of editing that allows the manipulation of space and time. Kuleshov uses the exact same shots next to different shots in a montage, thus despite being the same shot, the meaning changes. This phenomenon is best explained through his experiment with the shot of Ivan Mosjoukine.
As illustrated above, the same portrait shot is cut next to different images, a girl in a coffin, a bowl of soup then a lady. Each time, though the shot the actor remains the same, different emotional states are conveyed. He was in grief, hungry and lustful.
To create the perfect eerie ambience, the right unsettling sounds and sound editing to accompany the visuals is necessary. Sounds can signal the presence of a killer. Take Friday the 13th as an example. The recognizable “Ki ki ki ma ma ma” whispering sound is played whenever Jason is about to stalk and murder his victim. Animal sounds were also used in horror films to terrify audiences. In The Exorcist (1973) editors threw box or rats onto the wall to produce scratching sound effects for the film.
Filmmakers would use musical instruments and musical arrangements to create tension. In early classic horror films, stringed instruments were often used. An almost high-pitched screeching violin is used to increase tension in the iconic shower scene in Psycho (1960). As the protagonist is being attacked the violin’s high pitched notes turns into shrills to match her screams.
The silence or the lack of music is just as effective in creating a terrifying and high-intensity atmosphere. Just like how low-lighting obscures backgrounds and objects, the lack of sound also evokes a sense of fear of the unknown. The audience becomes hyperaware of the surroundings. Sometimes only the character’s breathing can be heard. The silence intensifies every creak, footsteps and bang, which builds up the jump scare.
Blood Sucking Beginnings
One of the earliest monsters to ever grace the screen was the vampire — specifically Count Dracula. Around the time when cinema was invented, Bram Stroker’s classic novel Dracula (1897) was published. In Nosferatu (1922), the name Dracula was changed to Count Orlok because FW Murnau didn’t get the rights to adapt the novel into the movie. As the film was part of the German Expressionism movement, it featured weird visuals and extraordinary Make-up and sets. The early portrayals of the vampire was often deformed, beast-like compared to the attractive depictions we see today. An example of bestial vampire is Max Schreck’s vampire.
Eventually Stoker’s estate granted the rights to Dracula to Universal Studios and endorsed a stage play in 1924. Due to the Great Depression, the film was scaled down from a grand epic that would match that of the Phantom of the Opera (1925) to a rather claustrophobic and stagey rendition.
Dracula’s iconic distinctive Eastern European accent originated from the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who portrayed the Count on stage. It was reported his performance as the blood-sucking vampire was so terrifying, people fainted from fear. Consequently, this created effective and useful publicity for the film.
After the success of Universal’s 1931 Dracula, Studios realized the profitability of the genre and began producing more horror films. Hammer Horror reincarnated Count Dracula in British cinemas. He took a literary approach in his rendition of the Dracula story, starring Christopher Lee. His version had more gore while also being attentive to the details of the period setting.
Contemporary adaptations of the vampire were more sympathetic. The blood curdling vampire was given a tragic background: an immortal forced to live life with unrequited love forever. For instance, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the character in Francis Coppola’s Bram Stroker’s Dracula (1992) provoked pathos and fear. Most recently, the adaptation of the vampire has transformed from a scary, repulsive monster to an attractive anti-hero figure that is to be admired. The Twilight franchise is the perfect example of how films capitalized on the romanticized version of the vampire story.
The vampire isn’t the only recurring supernatural being on screen. Other monsters like Frankenstein’s monster had also been adapted for film and has been re-invented over the years. The story of the undead being brought to life by a mad scientist has been retold several times. He is an action hero in I, Frankenstein (2014) and of course the ever so popular zombie movies such as 28 Days Later (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004).
How Horror Films Cross Cultures
When it comes to subject matter and style, the horror genre is quite broad and vast, which makes it a flexiblemedium for different cultures to express themselves. It’s flexibility is the reason why the horror genre bears many subgenres and has gone through multiple production cycles.
Horror films don’t have to rely on dialogue to convey its story unlike other genres. It is primarily the visual elements of the genre that delivers the emotional impact.
In a global perspective, different countries and cultures have their own unique haunting tales that terrify and their ways of producing horror films.
The legacy of German horror film perhaps originated from the German Expressionism movement which emerged in the 1920s Weimar German. Their aesthetic relies on chiaroscuro lighting techniques, creating extreme contrast between light and dark. Additionally, the films used skewed camera angles to suggest fear and madness. A technique that can be found in handheld ‘found footage’ horror like The Blair Witch Project(1999).
American slasher films of the late 70s and 80s may have been influenced byItalian giallo films of the 1960s. The name giallo, which means yellow, originated from the yellow covers of pulp novels published by Mondadori. Directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento, developed gialli into experimental horror films. These films were heavy on gore and stylised visuals.
It’s not novel for Hollywood to recreate films from born out of other countries and cultures and remaking them into their own. For instance, Ring (2002) was Hollywood’s version of the Japanese ghost story Ringu (1998). Other Hollywood remakes are the Nordic horror film Let the Right One In (2008) and South Korea’s Oldboy (2003).
Horror movie Tropes
Here are some horror tropes that we love and hate.
Jump Scares — self-explanatory
Found footage — Cinematography style where the movies appears to be filmed using a hand held camera, making the film an immersive experience as we get a first-person point of view.
Twist ending — when revealed, it often changes the perspective and the way we see the story and characters. Examples of commonly used twists are, the protagonist was dead all along.or it was just all in his head. If done right, the movie will be memorable.
Splitting up — Every time a character suggest splitting up — it never ends well. It’s one of those stupid decisions a person could make in a horror film.
“Don’t go in there” — whenever a character enters a dark space or dark room and you just shout at them to turn on the light frustratingly. Or when a character is about to enter a haunted place or is on the verge of being killed and you scream at the screen “Stop! Turn back!” This is that trope. These scenes evoke a sense of suspense and anxiety.
The clumsy escape — What happens when the monster or killer reveals himself? The characters begin to run, but almost always mid escape, they trip and fall or in some way struggle.
The Final Girl — commonly found in slasher films. The last remaining survivor is the (virgin) girl, who fights and defeat the monster/killer, and gets to live another day.
“The killer is dead…or is he?” — this trope leaves us with false sense of hope. Towards the very end of the film, after we’ve let go a sigh of relief now that the killer or monster the dead, a surprise twists shows that in fact the killer is still alive.
Can you think of more?