There is a lot that goes into making something scary. The sound design, characters, and visual techniques are used to make us feel on edge or shock us. But it's the embrace and rejection of cinematic techniques that makes horror the best place for a filmmaker to flex their creative muscles. 

The visual language of a horror film can be seen throughout almost all media. It is a genre that doesn't restrict filmmakers to a set approach to cinematography. Instead, the genre wants filmmakers to go against the norm, bend and break the rules, and create a truly terrifying story. 

Although we might know what makes a shot terrifying, understanding why it is scary is something that we often neglect. Film Riot breaks down a handful of techniques commonly used in horror films like shadows, uncommon camera angles, lack of lighting, and colors. You can check out their full video below.


Shadows play into our primal fear of the unknown. Whatever lies just beyond light’s reach can conjure a childlike fear that we never outgrow. 

Using shadows is about not showing the danger. Whatever is hidden in the darkness is more frightening than what is, and filmmakers know this and toy with the idea of what lingers just out of sight. 

There are three ways to play with shadows. 

The first is masking the villain in shadows. By backlighting the creature or villain, you create separation in the frame while also making the danger feel like it doesn’t belong in the scene. Keeping the light away from the creature’s or villain’s face, you are keeping the horror in obscurity. 

Another way to play with shadows is by casting shadows on surfaces. In horror, the suspenseful build-up of a creature or villain approaching their victim or only showing the subject’s shadow acting on its own can elicit a primal fear. We see the maleficent nature of the antagonist through the shadows they cast in the scene. 

The last way to play with shadows is by concealing the subject. In Gerald’s Game, the camera asks the audience to look at a darkened corner of the room. Although it seems like nothing is there, the Moonlight Man steps out into the moonlight for an effective scare. 

The subject doesn't need to rush out of the darkness to scare the audience because the simple reveal will do enough to make the audience frightened of every dark corner for the rest of the film. 

The basics of horror cinematography'Gerald's Game'Credit: Netflix

Uncommon Camera Angles

The horror genre is like a playground for filmmakers. While there are standard, technical ways to approach the scene, there is the freedom to play around and try to do something different. 

One way of exploring the genre is by playing with uncommon camera angles.  

The Dutch angle, or oblique angle, is a go-to horror angle as it tilts an image to one side off its horizon. It’s a camera angle that can give a surreal or nightmarish feel to a scene where something already feels different from the structured shots that came before and after it. 

The basics of horror cinematography'The Purge'Credit: Amazon Studios

Another uncommon angle is the God’s eye view or the bird’s eye view. This camera angle looks at the scene from the sky. It’s great for chase scenes like in Malignant or killer transition shots like in Midsommar. The God’s eye view is visually interesting as it establishes a location and removes the audience from the fear of the sequences so they can take a quick breather. 

Lastly, we have the POV shot. Made famous by Sam Rami in The Evil Dead, the idea behind the POV shot is to put the audience in the perspective of someone or something. It’s a great angle to build suspense as the killer watches from the distance or can create some jaw-dropping terror by putting the audience in the POV of the victim. 

The basics of horror cinematography'Halloween'Credit: Compass International Pictures

Lack of Lighting

With certain genres, there are often stereotypical visual styles that go with them. Oftentimes, we will see lighting that’s intended to make the actors look as good as possible. 

But horror often flips lighting conventions in favor of more stylized and less flattering light. 

One technique is lighting from below. It’s that classic scary-story-with-a-flashlight look that draws the eyes to the terrifying face. The angle of the light distorts the face in a way we are not used to. It's a radical change in lighting that is unnatural and makes us unconsciously uneasy. 

Another way to play with lighting is by using one light source like a flashlight to illuminate a scene. A single light source allows for most of the frame to be swallowed up by shadows and darkness, creating a large portion of the frame hidden from the audience. This will make the audience tense as they wait for something to jump out. 

Other great horror lighting includes faulty flashing bulbs, flickering flashlights, or lightning. These flashing lights can create another layer of visual chaos in an already intense sense, overloading the audience’s senses and making them as confused or fearful as the character.

No matter how you use lighting, it should always serve the story or your intention. The context of the scene will inform the audience’s experience, so light with purpose. 

The basics of horror cinematography'Quarantine'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing


Some horror movies default to a gloomy, almost colorless color palette. While this works for films that want to ground themselves in reality, I find that horror films that want an audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment achieve this by playing with color. 

Horror can go very surreal and obscure without distracting the audience. Giallo films are notorious for their hues of pinks, reds, and blues that build a candy-colored nightmare.  

While horror loves to play with all the colors in the rainbow, it tends to lend toward its favorite color—red. 

Red gives both a sense of danger and violence. There are a lot of theories about how certain colors affect us, and understanding color theory can give the filmmaker the freedom to play into or against these theories. It is the job of the filmmaker to provide the context as to why these colors are being used in a particular scene. 

You can use the same color every time a person is killed on screen to set an expectation in your audience that you can later subvert. You can also play into the tropes of color as shorthand for the audience or dance between color palettes to tell your audience when danger is near. 

The basics of horror cinematography'Inferno'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Although these visual moments in horror seem like obvious things to keep in mind, they can go overlooked. Don’t be afraid to try a strange and uncommon camera angle or play with lighting in a scene to enhance the horror cinematography. 

I highly encourage you to stylize your horror project in a way that makes it interesting to look at, as long as the cinematography still serves the story. Check out the slashers of the '80s, Giallo films, and arthouse horror to find some inspiration for your horror project’s cinematography.

What horror film do you think has great visual language? Let us know in the comments below!

Source: Film Riot