Five horrifying ways movie makers make you want to jump out of your skin

Alexis Richard ’18, Editor-in-Chief

You either love them or you hate them. Horror movies have been around for decades and they seem to be getting scarier and scarier every year. But do you ever ask yourself how these movies make you feel so terrified? How they make your heart race or how they can only make you feel safe under the cover of your blanket? Well, do not fret. You are not a ‘scaredy cat’ or a ‘baby.’ These directors know what they are doing, and they know how to make even the bravest moviegoers jump out of their seat. Here are five tactics that filmmakers use to make you want to lock the door and sleep with the lights on.

Liberal use of negative space: Negative space is everything in the frame that is not the  subject of focus. This could be to bring the audience’s attention to one particular thing or person or to make that person/thing become isolated as if they were the only person in the world. In one of the most famous cult horror movies, Halloween (1978), we see the use of negative space done brilliantly. In one of the final scenes, we see the protagonist, Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, sitting in the left corner of the screen. Because Laurie was facing the audience, we could see the killer creeping up to her from behind, holding a deadly knife that could put an end to this whole story. It is very slow, and your heart races. Alas, this was part of the directors plan all along. The negative space gave the director the opportunity to fill that negative space with pure horror that can send chills down the bottom of our spines. And he certainly did take that chance, like many directors should when creating a scary movie. Sometimes it can be scarier to look at nothing than something.  

Subversion of classic horror tropes: Everyone is familiar with horror movie tropes, or a universally identified segment in cinema, and even those who are not too familiar with the classics. A stranger on the other end of the phone, closing the mirror cabinet to find someone standing behind you, and the often secluded setting where no one could hear your screams. These are just some scenes that you can find instantly recognizable. However, writers and directors have figured out that we learned to expect this. So instead of giving us what we anticipate, they lead us right before the jump scare and then nothing would happen. They can do this by making the music louder and louder and then suddenly silencing it where the cliche climax would or be. A prime example of the subversion of horror tropes is in The Hatred (2017), when a little girl complains to her babysitter that there is a monster underneath her bed. The babysitter tries to reassure her that there is no such thing, but looks under the bed just for the comfort of the young girl. To her surprise, she finds no monster, but instead that same little girl, telling her that there’s a monster on top of her bed. This clashes with the “monster under the bed” trope, and then twists it up by putting the monster on top of the bed.

Nonlinear sounds: Some of the most emotionally-evocative scenes in the most famous and well-known horror scenes are enhanced with nonlinear sounds. These are certain sounds that become too loud for the normal musical range of a musical instrument or an animal’s vocal chords. This could be a very high pitched scream or unpredictable animal noises. Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who some argue made the first real horror movies, created the infamous movie classic, Psycho (1960), with scenes that set the bar very high for future writers and directors. The most notable is most definitely the shower scene. It sounds very risque, but the actual scene is heart-pounding horrifying. The woman is taking a shower in a motel and is interrupted by the harsh pull on the curtains and right before that the audience sees a silhouette of a man holding a knife above his head. They cut to a woman, screaming on top of her lungs, creating that nonlinear sound. Without ever showing the gore from the killing, we get a sense of what is going on by hearing high-pitched and raspy sounds. Fearing the unknown is a big part in this, and that is why some directors decide to keep their audience in the dark and leave it up to their own imagination.

Infrasound: Infrasound quite differs from nonlinear sounds, but can still create the same spine-chilling reaction from audiences. This type of sound is created when the frequency is at an extreme low point, 19 Hertz (Hz) or below. This is made to make the audiences extremely uncomfortable, even to the point where they feel nauseous and dizzy and they end up having to remove themselves from watching the movie. You might be familiar with this sound when you are watching a scary movie and it is so completely silent that you could hear a pin drop. But the fact of the matter is, it really is not silent. A noise with extreme low frequency is playing, and you do not notice it because the sound is unrecognizable to the human ear. Popular films that include this tactic are all of the Paranormal Activity movies, The Shining, and The Blair Witch Project. In Paranormal Activity, when the audience is looking at an empty doorway or a room with no one in it, they are also hearing the infrasound, which might be the reason why you feel like you have to close your eyes at that part.


Subliminal messages: People have many preconceived ideas about what subliminal messages are. Some think that they are small objects you see on screen or hear in music to make you want to purchase a certain brand or put you in a trance to make you do something you would later regret. But these subliminal messages hold a different meaning when placed in horror movies. The Exorcist represents a perfect example of using subliminal messages. Throughout the film, a demonic face pops up on the screen for about an eighth of a second. This picture goes away too quickly to completely register, but it is just enough to seep into your subconscious. This was a huge trigger for many viewers, and they became dizzy and sick when watching certain scenes with the demon face present. It is truly terrifying and adds a whole new layer of fear.


The next time you’re sitting on your couch with a bag of popcorn and a horror movie in the DVD player, keep these little tricks in mind. This information won’t make you less scared of movies, but it can give you a new perspective on the making of a very scary movie. Also, the movies that were previously mentioned I highly recommend. I would just be sure to sleep with the lights on.

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