Despite being essentially ghettoized by film critics and the mainstream film press, horror movies (the good ones, at least) are some of the most inventive, captivating pieces of pure cinema that exist. It may seem like a crew can toss of a horror movie in a weekend, but truly scaring an audience isn’t easy, and the tricks horror movies use to scare you are a combination of technological know-how and an understanding of human psychology and physiology. Classic horror movie devices like the jump scare may seem old hat, but that’s because these techniques work time and time again to send a shiver through the audience. Whether you’re a master of horror, or you’d just like to know how you’re manipulated by your favorite directors, this list will help you discover truly terrifying horror movie tricks.
Of the techniques horror movies use to scare you, a few work every time they’re used. Others require other elements to be firing in tandem, such as the script and performances. Thing is, everyone has buttons that are pushed by a horror film; even if you don’t react when something crab-walks across a room, you might get anxious when you see a mirror in a shot. Horror films utilize as many of these techniques as possible to manipulate you into a puddle of fear. Most of these techniques are so pervasive, it’s rare you would see a horror movie that doesn’t use them.
The biggest misconception about subliminal images is they'll drive you to marry a crow or buy a new wardrobe after seeing them, but on the whole, subliminal images tend to make people upset, and in some cases viscerally ill. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, used subliminal messages to completely unnerve audiences who went into the film blind, specifically by including shots of Captain Howdy, one of the demons who inhabits Regan's body, for an eighth of a second at three different points during the film.
In 2012, Friedkin said he lamented that the film was now available in a digital format. “You couldn’t catch it before VHS,” he said “And now you can stop the DVD and stare at it.”
Tight frames aren't inherently frightening. They're used for close ups, punching in on a joke, or, in the case of a three camera sitcom, to build an entire scene when you may not have all of the actors present. But in the context of a horror film, tight frames can be terrifying.
Tight frames are used in horror to induce anxiety in the viewer by not allowing them to see what's directly around the protagonist. It could be nothing, it could be a hockey-mask clad psychopath carrying a machete. In a tight frame, it's impossible to know. The Babadook uses tight framing excellently, in the scene in which Samuel screams at an unknown entity while his mother drives. The scene is unnerving and, thanks to the tight shots on his yelping face, it's impossible not to feel a tingle of fear.
Jump scares may be the most maligned trick in the magic bag of a horror filmmaker, but when a jump scare is done well, it can be incredibly effective. Christian Grillon, PhD, a psychophysiologist who studies fear and anxiety at the National Institute of Mental Health, notes that when you're watching a horror film you're already hyper-vigilant, thus more susceptible to a jump scare.
"If a startle-eliciting stimulus comes, then the startle will be much larger than in a non-anxious state. In my lab, when I make subjects anxious and then I startle them, the startle reflex can be increased by 100 to 300 percent."
That explains why a jump scare executed by a director who knows how to make "cheap" scares count, such as the sudden appearance of a witch in The Conjuring (which is followed by a very '70s camera push) works so much better than Jason popping out of the woods in any Friday the 13th.
This may be a specific, personally unsettling trope, but when something or someone moves in an any way that's not normal, it's incredibly unsettling. Javier Botet, an actor born with Marfan syndrome, which gives him elongated features and a bunch of double joints, has made a career out of walking in ways humans aren't supposed to walk. His most terrifying work appears in Mama, in which he plays a ghost with an animalistic gait. While Botet's work is spectacular and frightening, and the horror movie crab walk is a real thing, the Japanese really have this technique on lockdown.
Ringu is likely the film most viewers think of when "irregular ghost walking" comes up, but Pulse is the film that will make you never want to watch someone walk like a weirdo again.