`What makes horror movies so scary? Well, a lot of it has to do with lighting.
If you're on your way to making a horror film, you might want to learn a bit about how great filmmakers of the genre used lighting to create creepy atmosphere and characters. In this video by ScreenPrism, you not only get to learn about 8 lighting techniques that are commonly used in horror, but you get to find out how one technique in particular, uplighting, affects audiences psychologically.
Here are the different types of horror lighting mentioned in the video:
- Harsh light (hard light, chiaroscuro)
- Prominent and projected shadows
- Shooting through objects (internal frames)
- Shooting through elements
The common theme among all of these different lighting methods is that they all obscure or distort reality in some way. The video explains perfectly well how uplighting does that, but let's break down some of the others.
Obscuring through lighting
Unlike the other techniques, spotlighting, underexposing, hard light, and shooting through objects and elements don't distort or hide subjects in your image, they obscure or conceal them. This creates mystery, tension, and suspense, because though you can see some of what's on screen, you can't see all of it. Your eye is trying to fill in the gaps of what it's missing and usually what you fill them in with is much scarier than what's actually there. This is the magic of horror in practice.
Distorting through lighting
Now, uplighting, silhouette, and prominent shadows take it a step further and produce a complete distortion of the real world. As the video explains, the shadows made on faces when lighting from below don't usually occur in nature, so it creates "instinctive alarm" to those who view them. Silhouettes add a bit more to this distortion, because they don't give us enough of the information we're looking for, like facial features, attire, etc. This distortion is even more intense when it comes to casting prominent shadows, because it plays upon the human fear of the unknown.
At the end of the day, all of these lighting techniques are just a way of manipulating shadows, and in his very insightful blog post, Brogan O'Callaghan explains the horror filmmaker's purpose for doing so.
Filmmakers frequently use shadows because the human imagination conjures up what is most terrifying to each person. This is an intelligent method because if they had to create a monster, they would be isolating the audience that isn’t scared by that monster. It is a simple, yet highly effective way to evoke fear.
So, the next time you plan to make a horror film, keep in mind that scaring your audience isn't entirely your responsibility, because if you use these lighting methods, as well as other horror techniques, your audience will end up scaring themselves.