Since the dawn of cinema the horror genre has continued to delight audiences across the world. Requiring humans to face the unknown, the frightening images on the screen speak to the primeval parts of our brain and activate the ‘fight or flight’ reaction within us, increasing blood flow, heart rate and adrenaline levels. This is something film makers have long since picked up on and, it is safe to say, they have now got the art of terrifying audiences down to a science. So, exactly how and why do these films affect us?
‘One major element used within horror is the music and score accompanying the images.’
One major element used within horror is the music and score accompanying the images. From the harsh strings in Hitchcock’s Psycho to the booming chords in Jaws, they all serve to have us
sitting on the edge of our seats. This is because these harsh and sudden notes fall into the category of non-linear sounds, which go beyond the normal range that an instrument can produce, and sound extremely similar to the noises produced by animals when attacked. This in turn sets off an intrinsic fear response within us, and a desire to get away from the presumed predator that is causing that distress, setting us on edge. This has served as a useful tool as, as science writer and author of The Music Instinct Philip Ball explains, “our response to certain kinds of noise is something so profound in us that we can’t switch it off” meaning that these sounds are a sure fire way to get an audience trembling in the cinema.
This has in turn led to a new phenomenon, in which directors are inserting infrasound underneath the overarching sound track, with French director Gaspar Noé admitting to having used them in his 2003 film Irreversible. These noises consist of extreme bass
waves beyond the range of human hearing, but despite their inaudible nature they have been shown to have extreme results, causing anxiety, heart palpitations and trembling. Infrasound is often reported before natural disasters such as storms, which may explain the fear reaction they trigger within us and, as Ball again explains, “it doesn’t affect everyone equally, but it does seem likely that in cinemas we will see, or at least feel, more of it in the future”. This is at least partly due to its impressively potent effects, with people reporting feeling ill after just 30 minutes exposure to extreme bass waves, meaning horror directors will have to walk the line very carefully, or they may find audiences fleeing the cinema rather than simply hiding behind their popcorn.
Another major element used to manipulate is the lighting. It is no coincidence that a number of horror films embrace the darkness literally as well as metaphorically. From the dark corridors of the psychiatric facility in Silence of the Lambs to the barely candle lit house in The Woman in Black, the darkness often surrounding the action may not be the centre of our attention, but slips easily
under our radars to influence us. We are programmed to have a natural fear of the dark, going back to our prehistoric days when every dark night could be hiding a deadly predator, so this lack of light within the films serves to create a heightened sense of anxiety, as we don’t know what may be lurking. However, this also works on a more biological level. Dark lighting means the colour sensitive optical cones take a back seat to the light sensitive areas concentrated around the edge of the retina, which in a paradoxical way leads to a monochrome view of what is happening on the screen. This also means that any movements in your peripheral vision is amplified, making you jump and triggering the ‘fight or flight’ reaction at the slightest movement.
‘This leads into another major trope used by horror film makers; the jump scare.’
This leads into another major trope used by horror film makers; the jump scare. As Robert Cargill, screenwriter on Sinister, said “a good jump scare is a magic trick” and it is one the industry rolls out often. The formula will more often than not involve creating tension, which is then released. It is in that moment, as the audience calms down and believes the danger has passed, that they strike. Often we will expect it. Perhaps, if you’ve seen the film before you will know it is coming, but it will almost certainly still have you jumping. This is because it activates the startle reflex, a reaction to potential threats we share with nearly every mammal on the planet, which gets the adrenaline pumping and your body ready to run.
‘…even if you know something is coming, it will often still trigger this reaction and indeed may make it worse.’
Ironically, as mentioned, even if you know something is coming, it will often still trigger this reaction and indeed may make it worse. This is because you become hyper-vigilant in the run up to the anticipated event, activating your amygdala, the part of your brain which deals with fear and anxiety. It is also the end point of the direct neural connection involved in the startle reflex, meaning when you know it is going to happen the connections are made quicker and the reaction can actually be more extreme. This makes it the perfect tool for the film makers as, if they craft it correctly, it can have us screaming whether we know it’s coming or not.
A final major influencer used within horror films is colour; more specifically the colour red. From the flow of blood in slasher films to the stripes on Freddy Krueger’s jumper, the colour red is a staple of a large chunk of movies, due to its unique effect on the human mind. As a primary colour red is very striking, easily drawing attention to it, meaning any amount of red on the screen is more likely to draw your eye. Red is also obviously the colour of blood which speaks to our primeval brain and signals danger which, within the context of the rest of the film, serves to unconsciously put us on the alert. So, a red tint to the lighting or a red dress can set us up for a fright without us even fully registering it.
‘Essentially, the horror genre comes down to an equation which elicits a reaction for the human body.’
Clearly Hollywood has quite the bag of tricks up its sleeve and with ever increasing advancements in cinema and an improved understanding of the human mind and reactions, these are likely to increase and become more profound in years to come. Essentially, the horror genre comes down to an equation which elicits a reaction for the human body. They make us scream, jump and swear we will never watch another one, but we will inevitably keep coming back for more; evidently it is an equation that works and there is nothing we can do about it.