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.
In cinema, negative space is everything in the frame that's not the subject of your focus. It's meant to give your eyes a place to rest, and it can literally be anything: a wall, a refrigerator, or just plain ol' underexposed black space. Non-genre films usually try to create a perfect balance of negative and positive space because, when there's too much negative space, the audience feels uncomfortable.
You've been conditioned to watch a films in which characters exist in a visually balanced frame, so when ratios are off, the audience grows tense, waiting for something to happen. There are a myriad variations on this theme in the horror genre. Some of the best examples from the 2010s can be found in films like It Follows, Insidious, and The Pact.
By now, even people who don't love horror movies are aware of the tropes of the genre: the monster in the mirror, the final girl, the slasher waiting in the woods, etc. A new trope has risen from the ashes left by eye-rolling, smarty-pants audiences - subversion. The most obvious version of this is when a character looks in a bathroom mirror, opens the mirror, closes the mirror, and nothing happens.
Horror films have conditioned audiences to wait for the jump scare when the mirror closes and there's a spook, specter, or maybe even a ghoul waiting for its prey. When a film begins this small narrative arc and refuses to complete it, the audience is left hanging, which makes them uncomfortable. Because you know something is coming, but now you don't know when to expect it. And that's exactly what you want out of a horror film.
Sound plays a huge role in the efficacy of horror films, yet its importance is often overlooked. Frightening visuals and a spooky atmosphere are great, but they're nothing without a soundscape to bring everything together. One of the greatest tricks for creating unease in a horror film is the use of nonlinear sounds. Distressed animals, people screaming, the sounds of a clunking oil rig, all of these have been used to create tension and a general sense of unease amongst viewers.
According to researchers, humans are instinctively meant to feel danger when they hear a high pitched squeal, and this kind of sound design is exactly why films like The Shining and Suspiria are so unsettling.
What is infrasound and why is it so scary? Well, kids, infrasound is a tone that exists at 19 Hz or any lower frequency. Such sounds can't be heard by human ears, but can be felt by the body. Infrasound is a naturally occurring phenomenon created by wind, earthquakes, avalanches, and anything that's rumbly. This kind of low frequency sound naturally unsettles humans, especially when it's heard over a lengthy duration.
So in which films have you heard infrasound? Gaspar Noe used sound that registered at 27 Hz for the first 30 minutes of his 2002 film Irreversible, a movie that would be stressful enough without the creepy audio. With the added low frequency noise it's a truly unsettling movie (which is an understatement, to say the least). The sound was so off-putting it made some movie-goers nauseous and disoriented, and they left the theater.
David Lynch uses infrasound in literally everything he releases except for The Straight Story, and Paranormal Activity used the below-20-Hz frequency to freak audiences out while they looked at empty doorways and oscillating fans.