Fear is a universal emotion. Everyone feels it. We all share many fears (afraid of the dark, tight spaces, clowns, etc.) but just because we know what scares us doesn’t mean we necessarily know how to scare others.

In this sense making a horror movie is similar to making a comedy. You may laugh at good jokes and recognize great humour in situations and stand-up performances, but does that mean you know how to create a movie that makes others laugh out loud? So if we know what scares us, then how do we make our audience scream with fright at our scary movie?

Crafting a truly scary scene is our challenge today, as we look at a few techniques and tricks to keep in mind next time you’re making your opus horror movie.

 

So turn the lights off, check under the bed and cover the mirrors before we get started.

 

 

 

TIMING & ANTICIPATION

What is the number one rule when it comes to pulling off a good scare? Timing. Think of a jack-in-the-box. The anticipation that builds as we wind it over and over…waiting for it to pop up…

When we think of times when we were really scared enough to shriek out in terror, it was because of something that surprised us. A jump-scare like an annoying cat jumping out of nowhere with a loud “MMROW!” Or that stalking killer that’s crept up behind you suddenly reaching out and grabbing you.

Or when we were sitting on the edges of our seat slowly covering our eyes while also being unable to blink because we were too scared to not see what was coming next. Usually, while we watch an unsuspecting victim inch closer to the closet door about to inspect what that mysterious noise behind it was.

Fear is built on timing: the anticipation of what comes next and/or the complete shock of something we didn’t see coming. In the short horror Lights Out (a VERY effective, dialogue-less scary story…watch it below first if you don’t want it spoiled), it plays with our ability to anticipate what’s coming next.

 

lights out

 

As an audience to so many stories in the past, we have learned to pick up on patterns and cues to anticipate what’s about to happen. Ever heard of the expression “Everything happens in 3’s”? The director David Sandberg has. That’s why he chose to put the scary reveal on the FOURTH beat of his opening sequence.

The woman hits the lights on and off repeatedly, with the mysterious figure appearing only in the shadows. As she flips the light switch once, twice and goes for a third we are anticipating that scare. We’ve seen horror movies before! You can’t trick us that easily! But then…no scare on that 3rd beat. The pattern is broken. The jack-in-the-box doesn’t pop up. For that second or two, we realize we’ve been tricked and we don’t actually know what’s coming. And then she hits the lights off the fourth time…and THAT’S when the scare comes. The mystery figure has jumped from down the hall to directly in front of her. The jack-in-the-box pops.

 

 

This sequence plays with our ability to detect patterns and cues in horror scenes. It’s tough to always keep your audience guessing. Sometimes you want us to see what’s coming…but it’s truly shocking when we don’t have a clue.

As you build your scary sequences, try to consider what setup you are creating. Are you leading your audience to guess what happens next or are you misleading them so that they are going to jump a little in their seats?

Also, take a look at this comparison video created by video essayist Now You See It. It shows the difference between this scene and when it was remade for the theatrical version of Lights Out (2016). They made one change that drastically changed the scare factor of this sequence.

 

 

 

WHAT YOU SEE AND WHAT YOU DON’T SEE

At the risk of oversimplifying the horror genre, it can be argued that you can boil it down to two distinct categories: the gross-out, gory, creature-feature, bloody ‘n guts horror and the use-your-imagination horror.

Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, An American Werewolf in London, the Saw series and the Hostel trilogy all mostly rely on showing you what’s scary. For the most part, we see the monsters, we see the violence and gore, and very little is left to the imagination. And that certainly is one way to go about entertaining your audience (or make them throw up in their seats).

 

 

Sometimes it’s not even about showing blood and gore but showing something to the audience that our protagonist cannot. Like in The Strangers (2008) when we see a silent killer step out from hiding to simply stare at Liv Tyler’s character as her back is turned. The moment seemingly lasts forever, making us squirm in our seats trying not to shout at the screen to warn her that the killer is right behind her. The movie has given us this extra visual information because the director wants us to feel helpless. This is a killer that doesn’t need to hide from you. That alone gives us a dreaded sense of “All you can do is watch the horror that is about to happen”.

 

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

 

Other horror movies use a less-is-more technique. In the original The Blair Witch Project (1999), we never actually see the evil threat that is hunting our main characters. Using the found-footage style of filmmaking, we only ever experience what the protagonists experience while recording. We see what they see. The closest we ever come to witnessing the dreaded Blair Witch ourselves is when the three doomed filmmakers (Heather, Michael, and Joshua) are running from it in the dark woods and Heather shrieks “What the f*** is that?!” as she catches a good look at it off-camera. But we feel every bit of their panic and horror as they run and scream for their lives.

Want another classic movie that scared the bejeezus out of audiences everywhere with only the idea of a predator stalking them helplessly? How about one that made you think twice about getting into the water?

 

 

Almost 50 years old, Jaws (1975) still manages to freak out audiences to this day and make you second-guess yourself before wading out into the ocean. The crew shot around not being able to show its central villain on-screen (the mechanical shark prop was broken for the first few weeks of production). Instead, we only get hints that there is a monster in the water.

When the shark is sliding through the water bearing down on unwitting swimmers, we switch to a first-person view of the shark itself! Up until then, this was very unconventional, seeing through the eyes of the monster.

Or when somebody treading water starts to detect that they are being hunted, we experience exactly what it would be like to be in the water with them. Unable to peer below the glassy surface, but something is definitely down there about to pull us down. We see the horrified expressions on their face indicating that something is wrong…and then they are suddenly thrashed about and yanked down under.

 

 

Can you honestly tell me that the last time you swam in the ocean the terrible thought didn’t occur to you at least once that something unseen could have been swimming around your feet? It was that fear of what we can’t see that Spielberg tapped into when he needed to scare his audience. And the rest is cinema history.

 

 

WHAT YOU HEAR AND WHAT YOU DON’T HEAR

In the same vein of controlling what the audience can see on the screen, you also have complete control over what they can hear. This can be incredibly effective in building your scary moment, as auditory information can often seep into people’s subconscious as they are immersed into a scene. Unlike the moving shapes and colours on screen, sounds can be experienced sometimes without drawing attention to them.

By the way, if you’re looking to craft your own spooky-sounding scenes we are offering a limited Editor’s Essentials: Eerie Transitions sound effects toolkit for free. Use them in your next horror movie!

 

Paranormal Activity (2007)

 

The found-footage, smash hit Paranormal Activity (2007) was made on a reported budget of $15,000. So fancy effects and CGI to depict the ghostly events happening to our two main characters were out. Instead, the filmmakers utilized a drone sound effect to signal the presence of the demon haunting the couple. The drone was almost too low to even be recognized, so it serves as that sensation you get when you feel like you’re being watched from the shadows.

 

It Follows (2014)

 

Synth scores have made a tremendous comeback in recent years, most of that helped by the release of the creepy It Follows. Focusing on the threat of a silent, hostile figure that relentlessly stalks its victims, the movie features a now-iconic synth score in the style of John Carpenter and other 80’s horror directors. The electronic music builds in intensity as the creature approaches. This twisted signal helps us know when the creature is around because it also can take the form of other people to blend in. So when we hear that music, we know that we’re being hunted by something terrible…and it’s getting closer…

 

 

And of course, if we’re talking about music and sound being used to ramp up a horror scene, we need to give props to the master of horror, Alfred Hitchcock. He delivered to us a revolutionary horror movie with Psycho (1960). If Jaws made us afraid to go in the water, Psycho made us think twice about showering alone.

Marion Crane relaxes in the shower while all we hear is running water, a familar and comforting sound that we all know well. Then the killer yanks back the curtain, plunging a knife into her over and over. Sharp, orchestral strings accent each stab along with her terrified screams. Stab and strings repeat over and over until she collapses and we are once again left with the running water. Hitchcock masterfully built this scene with simple sounds and left a huge mark on cinema in doing so.

If these scenes left you with chills just imagine what eerie sounds could do for your audience. Check out Soundsnap’s collection of The Sounds of Fear to use in your own horror movie scenes…if you dare!