Creating visual horror
October 29, 2021
Today we're going to talk about several visual ways, being used to create horror atmosphere.
Nowadays, it is difficult for a horror movie to surprise a sophisticated viewer. The era of bloody slashers has long been over. Disgusting scenes of terrible murders and an abundance of nasty things no longer cause horror, but only a desire to quickly switch an unpleasant moment. The viewer has become spoiled by the over saturation of the horror film market - that's a fact.

Despite the fact that young people and adolescents remained the main consumer audience, the stagnation of the genre in the last decade has only confirmed that it is not enough just to create a pretty suspense. In addition, it is necessary to recreate an atmosphere that will keep the viewer in suspense without a single drop of blood.

The phenomenon of visual tension - a way to recreate suspense with the help of non-trivial effects that do not have special effects or things that are disgusting for the viewer - existed only at the dawn of horror films in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the huge demand for films of this genre led to the fact that directors were chasing intricate plot or production speed. Horror movies were in demand in the 70s and 90s of the 20th century, and they were riveted for mass, not for art.
As I mentioned above, the stagnation of the genre in the last decade has led to the need to break the established canons and forms of horror films. First of all, it was necessary to get rid of the rule of three whales: screams, blood, screamers. But how can you keep the tension and recreate the oppressive atmosphere without it? Of course, use visual means of horror and discomfort.

The art of cinematography is fascinated by the fact that the visual component goes much deeper than the trivial ways of attracting attention. Even the smallest detail can make the viewer feel fearful when the action is completely calm on the screen.

Examples of such successful visual horror movies include Midsommar, In Fabric, Suspiria, and even TV series such as Topi or Dark. We will talk about their phenomenon and visual enjoyment a little later.

As a small disclaimer, I would like to note that all the visual methods, which will be discussed further, do not pretend to be absolutely accurate. These are just those that add aesthetics and sophistication, creating a depressing atmosphere based on psychology and creating a visual image. Visual methods are just a good aid to a quality plot, not a main substitute.
1. Symmetry

Let's admit - no matter how perfectionists want to, there is no absolute symmetry in nature. Man, plants and everything that surrounds us and is created naturally, has at least minimal asymmetry. Absolute symmetry will give a person psychological discomfort. All these beautifully folded chocolates in stores have nothing to do with true symmetry, which our brains perceive as something irrational on a long-term basis.

However, do not rush to put this visual tool on the farthest shelf. Symmetry can be a great way to make it non-trivial to know that there is something wrong with the world. It is distorted and not what we are used to.

For example, Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" literally screams that nothing is normal in a hotel, where everything is made up of the same elements. Centring and symmetry is generally Anderson's favourite example, which has already become his signature style. Excessive love for constant order only suggests that something is definitely wrong here.
A more obvious example of the use of symmetry in horror films can be seen in Stanley Kubrick's Blueness, in the scene with the twins. Throwing aside the girls' Victorian outfits and changing them into a more modern outfit, but making them exactly the same and symmetrically positioned in the frame, we still feel something amiss. Absolute order creates absolute chaos in the psyche of an ordinary person.

Incidentally, The Shining is also particularly unique in the way symmetry lets us know that the world has changed. At the beginning of the film, the picture is less orderly and similar to reality than when the family drives into the hotel. Further, Kubrick speaks to us in the language of symmetry: carpets, decorative elements, the setting of characters in the frame - all this involuntarily causes us psychological discomfort, which, together with the correct plot and good editing, turns discomfort into genuine fear.
2. The borderline of worlds (camera flip)

How else to hint to the viewer that something is wrong without the heroes running around and shouting "It seems we are all covered!" The metaphorical nature of the film language gives us the opportunity to hint so that the viewer understands our visual language. If in symmetry the potential audience subconsciously experiences discomfort and thereby discovers all the imperfection of the ideal world, realizes that something is wrong here, then more obvious methods work just as well. One of such opportunities for the director can be the borderline of worlds or, more simply, the good old camera flip.

It may sound a little convoluted, but in fact this trick is based on the same rule of symmetry. Its interpretation adds evidence to it, but still carries the same function - to create discomfort and show the abnormality and paradoxicality of the situation.

If you and I were artists, we would consider this phenomenon as vertical and horizontal symmetry. However, we will call this technique the "borderline" of the worlds in order to distinguish it from symmetry. Such complications are necessary, since both elements evoke different feelings in the viewer and carry different meanings.

For example, the Russian TV series "Topi" by Dmitry Glukhovsky and Vladimir Mirzoev perfectly plays up the meaning of this visual image. At the beginning of the series, when the main characters arrive to the village, the picture is flipped horizontally. Superficially, we see only a mirror image in the lake, but if we consider this scene from the point of view of symbolism, then the authors of the series make it clear to us that the real world is over and only "Topi" remains.
Such techniques are not uncommon, not only in horror films themselves, but also in other genres of fiction and documentary films. As I mentioned above, horizontal symmetry - the borderline of worlds - makes it possible for us to understand that the usual way has ended and now something different, otherworldly and incomprehensible awaits us.
3. Concentration on details

Another good trick for whipping up the atmosphere can be getting the right attention to detail. Why am I specifying which is "correct"? As details are a very powerful tool for the director, which can change the whole mood of a picture. For example, if the director concentrates the entire horror film on a beautiful woman's hand with a large ring, and at the end we see this large ring somewhere in the bushes, then we already feel fear. This detail has become a landmark for us, because we have seen it often and we already understand that something bad has happened. On the other hand, if we focus on insignificant details, it can turn our horror into a cheap drama, where the viewer's attention will be completely scattered.

This method is used all over the place, because these details give us, as viewers, the opportunity to understand that this thing needs to be paid attention to. For example, as in Peter Strickland's Little Red Dress, a charming black comedy with elements of a horror movie, the red dress serves as a huge bright accent from the very first minutes of the film, and then smoothly acts as the main antagonist. The play of colour, namely the combination of dark tones and bright details, acts as a psychological trigger that creates the suspense we need.
Another use of this technique is excellently shown in the movie «Get Out», by Jordan Peel. When the protagonist's mother is stirring tea with a spoon, the camera is focused only on this movement - thus we are made to understand that this is an important detail, since it is an irreplaceable part of the overall plot. If we were shown this moment in general plan, then few of us would have noticed that all the "magic" was hidden in an ordinary gesture like stirring a drink in a cup.
4. Lighting

This point will certainly be the most obvious. How many years have movie connoisseurs been talking about how darkness with a minimum amount of illumination plays on the fears of most people. Darkness, like the unknown, is afraid of many, because the absence of light plays its due role. It is difficult to understand whether this is a ghost, or whether this is the daughter of the main character will now appear in the frame. Let's admit that you won't surprise anyone with dark horror.

«But revolutionary in this context was the film "Midsommer" by Ari Astaire, which frightens not with its gloom, but with its bright light. Here the so-called phenomenon of midday horror is triggered - when, on the brightest and most cloudless day, at its peak, you suddenly begin to experience fears of horror that everything is too carefree and good. Similar techniques have already been used in cinematography, but they were not considered as an integral way of creating visual tension.
Another point that should have been added in the context of Solstice is brightness. Sometimes in the frames it becomes too saturated, which causes discomfort in the viewer and makes one suspect that something is wrong. The abundance of bright colours and light plays a role in the fact that we are not used to this in reality. The real world is very gray and dull, which means that it is already worth suspecting something amiss.

Bright light games are now playing better than the classic tricks of whipping up the atmosphere with minimal lighting and pitch darkness. However, such methods should be as much as possible justified by the plot, otherwise it will turn out to be a black comedy, and not a horror movie.
5. Visual discomfort

Continuing the theme of visual discomfort caused by too much lighting, one cannot but recall the good old technique of visual discomfort. It is unpleasant for anyone to look at terrible things like a sea of blood, physical injuries. Especially unpleasant are immoral pictures that we cannot perceive not only visually, but also morally. However, you should not overdo it, otherwise it will be unbearably unpleasant to watch such a bloody slasher.
6. Playing with colour

People choose the colour of wallpaper in the bedroom, the colour of a bouquet or even clothes based on its generally accepted meaning. For example, in most countries, black will symbolize secrecy, mourning, and white, on the contrary, will symbolize celebration and holiness. In horror movies, colour symbolism works great too.

The use of monochrome pictures with flashy colours involuntarily makes us think that "everything is worse than the main character can imagine." Even playing with colour contrast can already cause tremors in the body. Take, for example, a white canvas with red spots - that's it, your brain already independently draws terrible pictures of a bloody massacre.

In the iconic "Suspiria", the triumph of shades of red initially creates the expected visual discomfort. If there is too much red color even in minor details like clothes, hair or background, then trouble is close.
7. Giallo

Italian giallo acts more as a visual content than a plot. For those who are unfamiliar with this subspecies, now I will explain everything. Italian filmmakers discovered a separate style that was actively used in noir thrillers: long, sophisticated murder scenes, where the killer tortures his victim for a long time, and we watch this whole picture from the killer's side.

Few people like to be on the other side of the tragedy and watch such an unpleasant picture from the side of the killer. However, this technique works with a bang and achieves the expected result. The viewer may not even see the whole picture, blood and dismembered body, but he perfectly sees the actions of the killer through his eyes and does not have the ability to stop this violence.
Thus, there are more than enough visual ways to recreate a frightening atmosphere. However, you cannot replace plot holes with pretty visuals and hope that everything works out. Most people suffer from this modern horror films, which subsequently fail miserably at the box office. Any picture should have a meaning that will maintain the viewer's attention throughout the entire screen time.
Author: Olga Kyvliuk