5 Ways Horror Films Build Suspense and Tension (and How You Can Use Them for Content Creation)

By David Winter
Jul 14, 2023
4 minute read





Why are horror films scary?


Let's use an example of a recent horror film to answer this. I randomly picked one from a Google search of recent horror films: The Conjuring 2. Let's oversimplify the plot: the ghost of a grumpy older man doesn't want a beautiful family in his former home.

I can’t imagine reading that sentence was particularly scary for you. Even though it contains the word ‘ghost’, the barebones premise isn’t likely to instill much fear. But it’s not the premise itself that makes a horror film scary. It’s the execution of it. The way that direction, editing, sound, lighting, and more all come together to build tension and suspense. The funny thing is, even if you know the general plot, it will still scare you when you watch it for the first time if these elements are done well.


So, yes, horror films are scary. Not because of what they say but because of how they say it. Long, creeping silences, eerier music, shot placement, blurred backgrounds, transitions, subtle camera movements, etc., work around the reveal to build tension, suspense, and anxiety. It is truly a delicate art form. It makes the film exciting and scary at the same time. 


As a video editor, learning these techniques will help you create videos that invoke the right feelings and emotions in your audience. This article discusses the tools and techniques used in horror films to make them scary and how you can use them in your video creation.


1. Lighting techniques


The best example of how filmmakers can use lighting to get the horror effect is kids holding flashlights when telling scary stories around a campfire. Have you ever stopped to think why we do this? The unusual placement of lighting casts dark, long, unnatural shadows. Features are distorted, and key parts of the facial structure are hidden or changed. It’s unnerving. It creates a feeling of something being not quite right. It also tends to ensure only the storyteller is lit, at the expense of anything around them. This ensures you’re fully pulled in and immersed and, therefore, easier to scare. 


Horror films largely use these principles to achieve a similar effect, including underexposure, spotlighting, silhouettes, brutal and noir lighting, etc., to invoke anxiety, tension, and suspense. 


Silhouettes and partial shadows conceal some part of the scene or image. If a film were to show a full ghost doll (I'm looking at you, Annabelle: Creation), it wouldn't scare the part of the audience that thinks dolls are adorable. But if it conceals most of the doll in shadows and silhouettes, each viewer imagines the scariest thing takes up the hidden part. It’s often what we can’t see that is most terrifying. 


When watching a horror film, we’re all just children gathered around the fire, waiting to be scared. 


2. Cinematography


Horror films use different shots, angles, and movements to control the story and build suspense and tension.


For example, shooting through an object gives the sense of being observed. If a character is walking in a forest, and the next scene is shot through tree branches and leaves, the audience understands they are being watched, which builds tension. Bonus points if the camera is moving subtly.


If the antagonist is superior to the protagonist, they use low-angle shots for the antagonist and high-angle shots for the protagonist. They use far, medium, and close shots of the character to express different emotions or emphasize a point.


A simple technique of building tension is using a handheld camera to put viewers in the character's shoes. It's a sense of 'reality' to the proceedings to draw the viewer in.



Scary clown horror film


3. Editing


Editing films is putting together different shots to move the audiences' feelings and emotions in a certain way. Horror films use editing to control how the audience perceives the story as it progresses until the big reveal. For example, a movie starting with shots of the victim will keep viewers in suspense throughout the plot as it reveals bit by bit what happened.


The order of the shots also matters. If a character falling from a building is followed by a shot of a silhouette disappearing in the dark at the top of the building, it's clear they didn't commit suicide, even if it didn't show them being pushed.


The same shot can have different meanings depending on the shot that follows, according to Gestalt psychology.


The choice of how to pace your scenes — when to cut and when to hold — can often make or break a horror film. The tension and scares must be given enough time and space to build up and breathe without going on so long that viewers become bored.  


4. Costumes, props, and makeup


Costumes, props, and makeup are critical when painting a scary or uneasy image of the antagonist in horror films.


The visual appearance of the characters is used to build tension and suspense. In The Nun, if the antagonist wore only the costume, they wouldn't be unsettling as they were with the pale white skin, black eyes, and bloody mouth. Another example is The Purge, which had characters wearing terrifying masks.


Props are also quite important. Chasing kids with knives at the tips of your hands is way scarier than with bare hands, as A Nightmare on Elm Street showed us. How you dress up characters in your video influences how viewers feel about them.


5. Sounds and music patterns


Horror films use sounds and music patterns in several different ways to build suspense and tension.


In many horror films, music is usually used to build up tension when something is about to happen to a character. Then when it reaches the climax, silence follows for a few seconds before it happens immediately in a loud, almost violent soundscape. This buildup of tension and suspense allows horror filmmakers to control what the viewers feel right before the scare—which is the goal.


Different sounds invoke different emotions and feelings. Whispers indicate the ghost or something related is about to happen; animal cries invoke fear and distress; calls of the wild build suspense; etc.


Incorporating music and sounds in your videos excellently allows you to control the feelings and expectations of the viewers.


Get the Right Tool to Edit Your Videos


Every part of a horror film is designed to invoke specific feelings and emotional responses from the audience. The right mix of the above tools and techniques successfully allows horror films to build suspense and tension to create a scary story. You can apply them to your own video creation to get the desired effect on the viewers. But do you have the tools?


If you are looking to edit your videos, Lightworks is a video creation tool that can help you whether you are creating a personal or professional video. It has been a favorite of many creators ranging from YouTubers to Oscar-winning Hollywood legends for over 30 years. It also helps you collaborate and share videos fast and easily. Get Started with Lightworks and change how people see the world through films.