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The Many Faces of Horror: How Horror Films are Crafted

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When you think about it, horror films are almost paradoxical. They're designed to scare, panic, or disgust us. These are all things we should actively avoid, yet it remains one of the most popular genres of filmmaking. 

There are many reasons for this. It could be the adrenaline rush they provide. Or perhaps it's the sense of relief that comes from having experienced 'danger' without ever actually being in danger. 

Regardless, there is an artistry to crafting these experiences. It's not simply a case of chucking non-stop gore or jump scares onto the screen. The tropes and trappings of the genre must be wielded surgically. This raises the question; what are these tropes? What is it that actually makes and defines a horror film?     

There are various steps to go through when making a horror film, just like in other movies. These steps are; 

  • Direction - A clear vision is essential to ensuring all departments are aligned on tone, subtext, and the desired outcome. If the visual FX team thinks they're working on a dark and twisted horror flick while the set dressers think they're working on a campy-horror comedy, the end product won't gel.
  • Editing - Editing controls the pace and, therefore, the film's tension. Knowing when to cut away, when to hold on a shot, when to reveal the monster, or when to keep a threat hidden is the lifeblood of good horror.
  • Sound - To achieve the ideal level of fear, horror filmmakers and editors employ a few tried-and-true sound effects methods. Particular types of music and sound effects help instill a sense of terror in audiences.
  • Cinematography - To create suspense for the audience, various cinematography techniques employed in the horror genre include spotlighting, underexposing, chiaroscuro, and shooting through objects.
  • Set design - A successful movie relies heavily on its set design. The setting of the story is brought to life for the viewer by the set. It gives the impression that the audience is viewing an actual event and aids in illustrating crucial elements of the story. Horror films frequently rely on set designs to establish the tone and provide a scare.
  • Jump scares - A jump scare (or jumpscare) is a common tactic in horror movies and video games. It aims to frighten viewers by shocking them with a quick shift in image or action, usually accompanied by a loud, startling sound.
  • Storytelling themes and plot devices - A series of unconnected unpleasant images may be unsettling but would quickly lose impact and descend into feeling like random nonsense. The story or plot of the film is what provides relatability. We need characters to follow so we can feel immersed in the story.

All these come together to make the expansive genre that is horror films. It's possible, whether intentional or not, for some movies to feel like horror films even when they aren't actually horror films by borrowing established elements. Let's explore these in more detail.

Horror is in the eye of beholder
Horror is in the eye of beholder

The Art of Crafting a Horror Film

Direction

The direction of a horror film is essential for creating the right tone and atmosphere for the story. A good director knows how to set the mood for suspense and terror through creepy music, sweeping camera angles, dramatic lighting, or the other toolsets available. Whether it's the foggy woods in a slasher flick or the shadowy corners of an old house in a paranormal mystery, the director's vision drives each scene's emotional impact. It ultimately helps to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Effective direction makes or breaks a horror film, making it one of the most critical elements in this genre.

Editing

The editing in a horror film also plays a crucial role in creating suspense and scares. How scenes are edited together can heighten the tension, setting the viewer on edge with every cut and jump cut. Additionally, careful use of sound effects and music adds to this effect, and subtle tweaks to color saturation or image clarity can create an uneasy feeling in the viewer. 

Although they make for strange bedfellows, both comedy and horror are genres that heavily rely on intelligent editing. For example, hold on a shot for too long, and the dramatic tension can wear off. But cut away too soon, and the tension won't have had any time to rise. It's challenging to pull off, and the decision can make or break a scene or even the entire movie.

Whether taking the form of sudden cuts between scenes or subtle manipulation of lighting and tone, effective editing serves as the fine-tuning that allows a horror film to truly shine.

Sound

The sound design of a horror film is another integral element that helps to create an atmosphere of suspense and dread. Often, silence is just as important as noise in a horror movie, used to ratchet up the tension before a scare. However, when noise is used, it is often very effective in jump scares or other scenes designed to startle the viewer. Additionally, a good horror film will use music to heighten the suspense, often using unsettling chords or eerie sound effects to keep audiences on edge. By carefully crafting the soundscape of a horror film, directors and sound designers can create an immersive experience that is sure to send chills down the viewer's spine.

Cinematography

Often, creative and selective use of wide shots, long takes to build suspense, close-ups, and point-of-view shots are required to help build a sense of unease. Additionally, color and lighting can be crucial in setting the mood. Desaturated colors often create a feeling of gloom or foreboding, and creative use of lighting can dictate the entire tone of a scene. How you weild light and colour, or a lack there of, is vital for establishing the look and feel of the story, making it an essential element of this genre.

Set Design

Whether it is an old, decrepit cabin in the woods or a dark, foreboding castle in the mountains, the setting sets the stage for the impending horror that unfolds within it. Key elements such as lighting, color scheme, and architectural features are carefully chosen to establish a spooky atmosphere. Textures and subtle details are also carefully considered, adding layers of nuance and detail to help convey a sense of unease. Ultimately, these carefully crafted choices work together to create an immersive experience for viewers, helping to transport them into another world filled with fear and suspense.

Jump Scares

One of the most common tropes in horror films is the jump scare. A jump scare is a sudden and unexpected event designed to startle the viewer. Often, jump scares are used to heighten the suspense or to jolt audiences out of their complacency. They are often used sparingly, as too many jump scares can quickly become tiresome. When used effectively, however, jump scares can be a very effective tool for eliciting fear.

Storytelling Themes

From classic monster tales like Dracula to modern blood-soaked thrillers and urban horror, many elements make up the horror genre. Some recurring themes in horror stories include the concept of the fear of the unknown, isolation and alienation, loss and grief, and basic human fears such as death and mortality. Whether evoking primal terror or exploring more subtle psychological themes, storytelling in the horror genre is always about tapping into our most primal fears, allowing us to confront these fears in a safe environment where we can release our anxieties by vicariously experiencing them through characters on the page or screen.

Tropes

What is a Trope?

The above covers the technicality of crafting a horror film, but that's not the only element. You will often hear film genres being defined by their tropes, and horror is no exception. At its core, a horror movie relies heavily on certain tropes designed to engender specific reactions from the audience. These may include a particular type of character, such as the 'final girl' who must bravely confront the monster alone, or a plot twist that somehow subverts our expectations. Whatever form these tropes take, they are vital for creating tension and setting up an effective scare.

Below we have some examples. See if you recognize any of them!

Let's split up!

You're stuck in an abandoned mansion with seemingly supernatural elements, and you decide to split up into easier-to-pick-off numbers. Why? because you're in a horror film, and that's the trope.

Abandoned locations

An abandoned mental asylum, school, the aforementioned mansion, whatever. It's important to have a big, empty space to have a self-contained story that features only your main cast.

Cursed Item

A cursed videotape, a spooky well, an evil book. It helps to have something central to focus on as the source of the evil in your film. It's not compelling to say, "there's a ghost, just because." Having a tangible item adds real threat and stakes, as well as something to rally against.

Finding Old Info

At some point you have to shed some light on what the heck is going on. The easiest way to do so? Find an old VHS, book, newspaper trimming, or whatever else that clues the main characters in on exactly what the evil is.

One last scare

The evil has been defeated, the remaining heroes walk out into the sunrise of a new morning, and the world moves on. Except no, wait, here's one last jump scare to let you know that the evil secretly persists/set-up the sequel if the movie makes enough money at the box office.

Those are just a few of my favourite horror tropes, but honestly, there are hundreds! Have a think and I bet you can come up with some good ones yourself.

Putting It All Together

These elements – direction, editing, sound, cinematography, set design, jump scares, storytelling themes, and plot devices – come together to create the expansive horror film genre. From classic monster movies to modern slasher and ghost films, these elements are essential for creating a truly frightening experience. When used effectively, they can leave audiences reeling, their hearts pounding, and their minds racing. So next time you watch a horror film, take a closer look at these elements and see how they work together to create an unforgettable experience.

Conclusion

To tell a convincing horror story, a horror film must appeal to your worst fears. Horror stories use your innate will to survive, whether it is a dread of the dark, heights, or spiders. Horror stories lead to tension and anxiety by exploiting human fears. 

Horror authors may produce spine-chilling tales that linger by meticulously developing a plot that plays on your deepest anxieties. You must ensure the horror film achieves its goals as an editor. If you want to start editing your own horror masterpiece, make sure you check out Lightworks at www.lwks.com. Lightworks is one of the worlds leading video editing platforms, and has all the tools you need to scare the hell out of your audience.

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