So You Want to Make a Horror Film? On Jump Scares and Other Basics of Fright
If you’re looking to make a horror film simply because you think it might be an easy road to notoriety, you’d be dead wrong. This is a dish that’s best served cold by filmmakers who are fans — those who have long loved being chilled to the bone — so it should be in your blood. If you’re a filmmaker who’s new to horror, immerse yourself in the classics and study their techniques before you set out to try to create a monster of your own.
The potential pitfalls you face when making a horror film are what’s really frightening. Technique, execution, and timing are crucial. Yet many filmmakers don’t think to model scare and suspense moments using tried-and-true design patterns, leaving themselves open to technical risks (on top of all the other risks of making a film — never mind making a good one). Consequently, we end up with an overabundance of horror films that don’t work, that don’t deliver on what they set out to accomplish in the first place: to frighten viewers.
Learning more about the psychology of fear and the design patterns that make these films work can really shed light into the darkness.
What Scares Us
Culturally, much of what frightens us evolves from generation to generation, influenced by tragic world events. We look to art (and film) to help us overcome these fears. Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” You may agree or disagree with Mr. Wilde, but no one would argue that horror films have become more visceral — and so, too, has the news. That has left folks feeling anxious and defeated as opposed to genuinely creeped out and scared, like when we sat around a campfire telling ghost stories as kids. You know, the good ol’ days.
Whether it’s telling campfire tales or watching a scary movie, there’s comfort in experiencing terror in a safe place. We get a kind of high from it, a burst of pleasure from the safe relief that follows fear. Focusing on shock value alone frightens away the ghosts and shifts the conversation to gore porn. Over time, the shock effect is reduced. The overexposure desensitizes us. It’s counterintuitive to think that simply increasing shock value will continue to scare audiences. If that’s your cup of tea, go for it, but know that what you’re treading on is likely more disturbing than scary. I would argue that, to really scare our audience, we should focus more on understanding our collective fears and weaving them into our stories so we can exploit those fears with established cinematic techniques.
A good horror film is not a steady stream of jump scares (more on those in a moment). A good horror film has an underlying atmosphere, a moody visual undertone that creates a sense of dread, wonder and mystique and leaves us with snapshots of unforgettable imagery. This is well exemplified by foreign-language films like The Devil’s Backbone, The Orphanage, and Tale of Two Sisters (the original Korean version). These films rely more on isolation — both literally (through creative use of location) and figuratively (in the mind of the characters) — coupled with evocative cinematography and production design. They create an ominous, brooding tone without being overt in their use of horror. For example, the ghastly little boy in Guillermo del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone, that scene oozes with atmosphere when he emerges from a dark swimming pool in the cellar of an abandoned orphanage — his pale blue complexion is a glowing example of exceptional make-up design skills. You get the idea, atmosphere, it’s more about haunting foreplay than bang, bang, and you’re dead.
While atmosphere is tonal and visual, suspense is the unnerving feeling that something bad is going to happen. It should be a natural byproduct of your narrative (the tense situation at hand) but there’s a few classic ways to amp it up.
Darkness and dramatic shadow are often used to elicit suspense, like when we hear something and can’t see what it is, or catch a glimpse of something moving in the background but can’t quite make it out. The sense of blindness increases tension. It’s creepy to hear something and not know where it’s coming from. And this can work just as well in a daytime setting, perhaps even more so since it’s more unexpected, playing to our false sense of security.
Other techniques that keep the suspense level up: The Dark Voyeur perspective is a framing device used to imply a character is being watched (or hunted) by a malevolent other. This includes shooting through branches, window curtains, or from within a darkened closet. While these types of framings can also be used for purely aesthetic purposes, the Dark Voyeur POV deliberately puts a character in the crosshairs, indicating their vulnerability to an unknown entity, as opposed to being merely a stylistic choice used to convey the visual tone of a film.
Seeing someone (or something!) behind the protagonist, in the same shot, without our hero knowing he’s in danger. This doesn’t have to be executed as a jump scare; it can be a subtle reveal, a slow dolly move, just enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck.
How about having someone trespass the boogeyman’s realm, being somewhere they shouldn’t, with the possibility of being found? That always works. It’s like playing a game of hide and seek with your own worst enemy. Tag and you’re dead.
Of course, primal nightmare stuff works too, like not being able to run during a looming chase (playing to our fear of paralysis, a universal fear).
Jump Scares. There are different types of jump scares, and you’ve probably seen them all. They can either add to the thrill ride or just come across as a series of annoying bangs. Some may think they’re cheats but when done right, they’re a vital part of horror filmmaking.
First there’s the basic Jump Scare, when we suddenly see something creepy and punctuate it with sound design (an orchestral swell or a percussive hit). These moments work best when preceded by a steady stream of suspense or the extreme opposite, a passage of mundane activity. It’s important that the frightening imagery be out of place, something odd or monstrous. J-Horror films make great use of jump scares, often inverting an eye, mouth, or appendage or using backwards choreography which is later reversed in post (think the way Samara crawls in The Ring). It’s subliminal but it sure looks weird, if even for a second, and that’s key. You can argue that these have been overused, but there’s always a way to put a new spin on something good.?? One of my favorite jump scares is from The Exorcist III, the “Nurse Station Scene.”
The camera sits idly at the end of a long white hospital corridor watching a few nurses as they clear out for the night. The last nurse goes to grab her purse or something, temporarily stepping out of frame, leaving us with an empty hall, then she crosses the corridor and YIKES, what’s that behind her?! Editorially, this particular jump scare is brilliantly punctuated with a quick zoom and a subliminal insert of a religious statue — yet another clever device to heighten the effect.
There’s also the Faux Scare (a.k.a., Cat Scare, Cabinet Scare), you know, like when something is making a sound (WTF is that?) and it turns out to be just a cat—one that jumps out, hissing, at the protagonist (or at camera). We breathe a sigh of relief in that moment, but then, oftentimes, we’re hit again, BANG!!, the Double Scare – BUT this time, it’s the boogeyman. The Woman in Black made great use of these, e.g., dirty water suddenly blasting out of an old rusty faucet, CAAAW!, CAAAW!!, crows flying out a window, that kind of thing.
Finally, there’s a variety of Reveal Scares (e.g., Door Scare, Mirror Scare). Like when the protagonist swings open a door, obscuring the background, then they close the door, revealing the monster standing right behind them, like a magic trick. That one gets me every time. And it also works great with mirrors. I mentioned this type of scare above, under Suspense, but without the overt use of sound design, it plays out differently, adding more suspense rather than triggering a jump.
These are all time-honored devices of the horror genre, so use them wisely. Better yet, couple them with eerie atmosphere and you can really raise the bar without needing to revert to cheesy gore.
Atmosphere and suspense may be the cinematic nuts and bolts of the genre, but the blueprint of horror is in the screenplay.
All of the techniques described in this article must first be manifested in the screenplay, using words that effectively and succinctly convey dreadful imagery and tone without an over abundance of adjectives. Good writing is good writing and all the same rules apply here, whether you’re writing drama or horror. A sense of fear should bubble up naturally from the situation at hand, situations where we feel dread for a character we care about and believe in, not just some two dimensional caricature or archetype.
There aren’t many horror films that stand the test of time. I heard Scorsese talk about character-driven versus plot-driven stories and how he found the former to be more timeless. I find the same to be true for horror. Plot gymnastics, more often than not, will leave your audience (as well as yourself, as a filmmaker) feeling cheated. The thing you want to watch out for is when you force your characters to behave ridiculously in an effort to drive a crazy plot—it’s manipulative. Sure, there’s some decent plot-driven horror films but overall there’s a lack of character-driven material in this genre. Good examples? The Shining springs to mind. We could use a few more of those, I think. Can you think of others?
With so much of a good scare dependent on post-production, communicating effectively with your editor is vital. Very few editors will know exactly what you had in mind when covering a scene to execute a scare or amp up suspense — to them it may just be a series of shots but to you it should be a well defined puzzle (one that fits together a certain way, an assembly you know will work ahead of time BEFORE production). Sometimes it’s important for the director to make their own cut of these scenes to share with the editor. The editor can then further finesse and improve, saving time overall. Also, your script supervisor should help ensure your intentions ripple through to post when you’re not around; they should keep detailed notes of how these scenes were intended to be assembled.
Visual Effects are a staple of horror films, so you better have a solid VFX supervisor and a talented special make-up effects artist. You’ll often sequence shots together before final effects are in. This makes editorial (and sound design) all the more challenging because of potential timing issues. Shy away from “fix it in post” whenever possible; make sure you get it during production. The best results combine practical effects with CGI, each improving upon the other’s weakness to create a more realistic image.
Which leads me to sound design: this could easily be a whole other article in and of itself. Sound effects editing and music score play a fundamental role in horror films. Take the scariest movie you’ve ever seen and re-watch it — or at least its scariest scenes — with the volume on mute. This will be educational for two reasons. First, you’ll realize that sound is AT LEAST 50 percent of the equation. Without it, the scares will be gone and much of the mood will dissipate. Second, you’ll be able to watch the film in a whole new way, dissecting scenes more effectively without the distraction of audio. If you can piece together something that’s relatively creepy without sound, it should only get better with sound.
By now you may feel like directing horror is a lot more difficult than directing drama. Well, that’s a good thing. It’ll force you to dig deeper before you start shooting blindly.
One final note, when it comes to acting in a horror movie, it’s crucial to cast amazing talent. Of course, that’s true of every genre, but here even more so. I’ve always felt it’s easier for actors to latch on to beats in a realistic situation (because they know where to pull those emotions from), but to act as if they’ve just seen the devil or are facing an evil alien from a distant planet when, in fact it’s just a big blue screen, well, that takes extraordinary talent. So, Happy Halloween and hats off to Karen Black (may she rest in peace). I still have nightmares of that damn Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror. Yikes.
A.D. Calvo’s first feature, The Other Side of the Tracks, a romantic ghost story, was released in 2008 on Showtime and internationally by 20th Century Fox. His second, The Melancholy Fantastic, features an eerie life-size doll and premiered at the 2011 HBO New York Intl. Latino Film Festival. More recently, Calvo completed two back-to-back thrillers, House of Dust and The Midnight Game — both slated for North American release in 2014 by Anchor Bay Entertainment and internationally via Raven Banner Entertainment. The Midnight Game premiered at the 30th Miami Intl. Film Festival and Telluride Horror Show. His company is Goodnight Film.