Seven Ways Horror Likes to Scare Its Audience

'The Strangers'Credit: Universal Pictures
We all love a good jumpscare, but there are other cinematic ways to scare your audience. 

It is almost that time over year again where everyone is watching horror shorts or films. We all have our favorite films that expand various subgenres of horror, but one thing that they all have in common is their use of horror’s cinematic language. 

Any movie that dives into the horror genre likes to keep its audience on its toes. While a good ol’ jump scare can get our hearts racing for a few seconds, the scare doesn’t last very long.

Here are seven ways that horror movies manipulate you into being scared throughout the movie’s runtime.

Sub-bass sounds

Have you ever experienced a certain level of anxiety or an extreme case of chills while watching a horror movie? That strange feeling was probably caused by the sub-bass sounds in the film.

These sub-bass sounds, also known as nonlinear sounds, are low-frequency sounds that are right at the limit of what a human can hear. The human ear is best at registering sounds between 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz. Horror movies love to play sounds right around that 20-hertz threshold to key up tension and anxiety for the audience. 

We often feel these sounds more than we hear them. The low-frequency sound waves feel like vibrations in our bodies which causes an anxiety-induced reaction since there is no exact location or source of the sound. In the film Irreversible, Gaspar Noé fills the first 30 minutes of the film with nonstop sub-bass sounds to keep the audience paranoid and trapped in the world of the film.

BBC reported that 30 people watching the film at the Cannes Film Festival fainted during the film and needed medical attention. It was the sounds that operate right at the outer edge of our hearing range that pull us into a feeling of discomfort. 

'Irreversible'Credit: Mars Distribution

Hidden shots

Sometimes, there will be shots of jarring imagery or of a demon spliced into a scene that sends a chill down your spine. What was the image you just saw? Did you even see anything? 

While these hidden shots are often referred to as subliminal images, they are deliberately placed images that the audience can see and comprehend. Each of these images only lasts about ⅛ of a second, a blink of an eye, but their effect is undeniable. 

People who are presented with threatening images become faster at identifying additional threats no matter how briefly the image was shown. These hidden shots raise the audience’s state of hypervigilance. Sometimes, these hidden images can flash on the screen so quickly that they make the audience question if they even saw anything. 

Some filmmakers will alternate the images in different versions of the film. An example of this would be in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. In one ending, Mrs. Bates’ skull is edited over Norman Bates’ face while in another ending the skull is never there. The variations of prints of the film make you question whether or not you saw the image. You begin to doubt yourself, and no one knows what they saw. 

One of the endings in 'Psycho'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Too much negative space 

There is a rule to film about how a subject is placed in the frame. Typically, filmmakers follow the rule of thirds to create a balance of positive and negative space. The direction that the character is facing will have more space, which is called lead-room, to create a sort of spatial awareness for the audience. 

Horror movies deliberately violate those framing rules. Sometimes, horror directors will place a subject at the edge of the frame line and leave an overwhelming amount of negative space in the frame. A common framing technique used in horror is leaving as much negative space behind the subject as they can to create anxiety for the audience. The off-kilter visuals strike a certain emotional cord that makes audiences uneasy.

Camera movements also emphasize the negative space in a scene. Oftentimes, the camera will linger on an empty spot in the frame, or the camera will leave with the subject to move through an open space. The lack of a subject allows the audience’s mind to wander, creating suspense for when, where, and how the threat will come forward. 

'It Follows'Credit: RADiUS-TWC

Lack of negative space 

Similar to having too much negative space, the lack of negative space will make an audience feel too close for comfort. The camera frames only the character's face and forces the audience to look as terror takes over the character. 

A common horror movie pattern is when the monster is revealed to the audience, but instead of watching the monster approach the protagonist, the camera switches to a tight closeup of the protagonist’s reaction to the monster. This is extremely effective because we know that the monster is approaching the protagonist, but we are not allowed to see it happen. We can only watch the experience through the protagonist’s horror. 

'Black Swan'Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Shallow depth of field 

Another way that directors keep the audience in the dark about what is happening around the protagonist is by manipulating the camera’s focus. 

In Donnie Darko, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhall) is filmed from behind, but the camera switches to an out-of-focus medium close-up of his face. As he slowly walks into focus, he becomes clear, but the background remains blurred. We can’t see what surrounds Donnie, and our fears begin to rise. 

This shallow focus is used in all types of film to allow filmmakers to choose which people or objects in the frame stay sharp. It tends to highlight the importance of a moment. Horror being horror likes to weaponize the shallow focus to make the audience uncomfortable. The Strangers constantly keeps the masked killers in the blurred background as the protagonists try to survive their attacks. You can miss it if you’re not watching very closely, but looking for the killers puts you in a state of anxiety. 

'Donnie Darko'Credit: Pandora Cinema

The dark voyeur

Horror is all about playing with perspectives. A perspective that we often see in the horror genre is the hidden onlooker. The camera is watching the protagonist behind an object like a bush, or through a window. This perspective puts the audience in the uncomfortable perspective of knowing something that the protagonist doesn’t—they are being watched. 

The voyeurism of watching a protagonist can also separate the audience from a scene. While the characters are in a separate room, the audiences can only watch as something terrible is about to happen. Think Emily (Annabelle Wallis) from Malignant as she watches the murders of people she doesn’t know. That is us, being tortured as the camera forces us to watch the horror play out. 

First-person perspective 

The first-person perspective can be split into two different categories, the first one being the first-person-killer perspective. This perspective is a classic hallmark of a slash film and makes the audience an accomplice to the killing. While there are so many examples of this in film, I think the best one is Peeping Tom. The perspective switches to the lens of the killer as he begins to prey on the women he stalks through the night. 

The other first-person perspective is the victim’s perspective. This perspective is just as powerful as the killer's. Instead of making us loath the killer’s horrific actions, the victim's perspective forces the audience to fear the victim. Many horror movies will use a shaky-cam or a zooming effect to make the audience feel as disorientated as the victim. The Blair Witch Project forces the audiences to feel the ever-increasing danger as the camera becomes shakier throughout the movie. 

Whether it is the killer’s or victim’s perspective, the first-person perspective is an assault on all of the senses.

'Peeping Tom'Credit: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors
The language that horror movies use makes us doubt our senses. We could be emotionally preparing for an attack that never happens, or be caught off guard by the quick cut of an image that could mean something to the bigger plot of the movie. Overall, the language of horror is designed to make us feel confused and on edge. Who knows what could be lurking right behind you…

Do you have a film that has one of these seven horror ticks in it that you love? Let us know what the scene is in the comments below!     

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