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Designing for Horror

How filmmakers create fear through visual techniques
August 13, 2021

Watching horror on screen is a communal experience. You could be on date night with your partner clinging to you in fear, or in a theater screaming in unison with complete strangers. Either way, it is the sharing of the experience that makes it exhilarating.

This is perhaps the most compelling part about horror films, and why audiences keep coming back for more. Horror creates an adrenaline rush we all can experience together, much like riding a roller coaster. It’s an opportunity to face danger in a safe setting, and live to tell the tale.

How do filmmakers effectively confront audiences with their greatest fears?

They begin by strategically telling the story through visuals that ever so subtly build upon the foundation of every horror film — the unknown.

In celebration of Friday the 13th, we share the insights of two visual and horror film experts who weigh in on the heart of successful horror projects and franchises.

Daniel Farrands is a screenwriter, director, and producer, known for a vast portfolio of horror projects including, 'The Amityville Murders', 'Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers', and a myriad of documentaries on horror classics, including, 'Friday, the 13th' and 'Nightmare on Elm Street'.

Production Designer and Art Director, Andrew Murdock, who first began his career with  'Alien: Resurrection' over 25 years ago, has since gone on to work on renowned projects, including 'American Horror Story', 'Lost', and currently 'S.W.A.T.'

The Psychological Side of Horror

Demystifying the heart of horror, Farrands explains, “Horror films center around the questions we all have about immortality. I think that’s what horror addresses for every kind of person. People are always grappling with this question of life and death... and I think with horror, it’s all about confronting this fear.”

On a deeper level that connects horror to current times, he adds, “We are all waking up to a collective trauma now, and still currently experiencing with the pandemic... and these [horror] films give us a safe way to process some of the traumas that we [collectively], or individually have experienced in our lives.”

To confront our fears then, we have to walk through the unknown, the dark, the mysterious. And horror filmmakers do just that -- they take us as an audience on a journey by designing well-crafted scenes that are less about the words, and more about the visuals which communicate fear: through the art of color, lighting, props, and sets.

Setting the Mood Through Color and Lighting

Murdock understands how the color palette and sense of contrast emphasize fear, and he uses them in his set designs to manipulate the audience, guiding us on where to focus in a scene. He explains, “Minimize the color palette so that things aren’t confusing, because in horror, you want to build physiological suspense. The more minimal a palette can be, the eerier things are, and [this] allows the DP to play with a lot of blackness in the frame.”

By being selective with light and color, he adds, “You have to hone in on where the fear is. The fear is in the unknown, and that is where the black comes in; with lighting the scene less. Having that controlled palette, and understanding how light is entering the space, and how you light a space, is critical. When you light something in a very direct manner with a minimal palette, shapes and forms are read more clearly. It’s all about focusing the frame. When you add a lot of black to that frame — you’re creating the fear, the unknown, and it helps bring the audience into that world.”

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in 'Halloween'

Lighting techniques often used in horror films to disorient the audience and create contrast between a villain and the hero can include:

  • Uplighting
  • Silhouette
  • Spotlighting
  • Underexposure
  • Harsh light (hard light, chiaroscuro)
  • Prominent projected shadows
  • Shooting through objects to create a sense of “being watched”

Masterful horror filmmaking gives the audience permission to use their imagination by leaving a blank space for the villain to lurk in the unknown, and create a sense of contrast with the hero. The hero is usually known as the final girl, a character who survives against all odds

As Farrands explains, “We identify with Laurie Strode ['Halloween'] or Nancy Thompson ['Nightmare on Elm Street'] because they were the outsiders, repressed, not as confident as the other kids. More attuned with their surroundings. There was something intelligent and forthright about them.”

To visually communicate this underdog character of a hero who against all odds survives to confront the villain, final girls are usually introduced using softer lighting techniques and wearing understated outfits, like Jamie Lee Curtis who played Laurie Strode in 'Halloween', who made a pair of classic jeans and button-down top iconic wardrobe staples for the franchise.

These relaxed visual elements help us identify more with the hero as an audience by creating a stark contrast between the harsh villain and the approachable hero. Together then, we can walk with the final girl into the black shadows of the unknown, ready to face our fears together.

Creating Characters Through Props and Set Design

In addition to lighting and color, props and sets can also build fear.

Consider the hockey mask. According to Farrands, “In 'Friday the 13th'with Jason, we ask, ‘What’s behind that expressionless face?’ You can project whatever you want onto that. Really what it represents is that evil we all fear. The unknown. That is what’s so off putting. When you look at that face, and it doesn’t move. There is no expression. It’s the face of a man, but hidden behind it is what? We don’t know

Jason Voorhees, 'Friday the 13th'

Daniel also considers 'The Amityville Horror' a great example of a space being a character because the story is centered around a house turning against you, “It’s about relating to the idea of not feeling safe in your own home. What do you do when you can’t trust your own house? This time, it’s not the guy in the scary mask, it’s the house itself that is evil.”

Another space that represents a character is Stanley Kubrick’s, 'The Shining', and he agrees, “The hotel is the embodiment of evil — this place that infects people. It’s going to exploit your greatest weaknesses.”

Farrands says that he always begins his stories with a location in mind, “When I approach a story, I ask, ‘What’s the arena for this story? Is it the calm streets of a small mid-western town? A summer camp in the woods?.’ It’s always the arena, that venue where you’re going to bring evil into the equation, and I think the most effective ones are the ones that we can relate to the most. For example, a babysitting job, a summer camp, a school — places that most people have experienced. You think you're safe in your own neighborhood, but you’re actually not. It’s these very common places. The more accessible it is, the more the audience is able to buy into it.”

Today, on this Friday the 13th, as you build a cave of protective blankets and stream your favorite horror flick, lean in not only to the person next to you, but also into how the filmmakers show off their psychological mastery of fear through visuals. Unfortunately, all the techniques in the world won’t save the victims in the end, so press play if you dare.

To read more on the behind-the scenes action of visual storytellers, meet one of the Prop Masters behind the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' franchise, or drop us a message on social media telling us what film stories and techniques you would like to read about next.

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