Hammer on How Horror Films Scare Us

The Woman in Black

As The Woman in Black continues to spook audiences across the UK during it’s opening week, Nic Ransome of Hammer Films discusses what tricks film makers use in order to scare audiences including some clips along the way to illustrate.

1. Music – from the stomach-knotting insistence of John Williams’ Jaws theme to the violin stabs of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, from the repetitive droning of Terminator 2 to Hammer’s often-discordant scores, music can instil unease, suspense and distress in an audience, softening them for the SHOCK to come.

2. Sound effects – creaking floorboards, howling wind, rustling leaves, snapping twigs, squeaking doors: sound design takes noises that we all know from real life and amplifies, distorts and twists them, changing something that should be harmless into something evocative of the most intense foreboding. In “haunted house” films like The Woman In Black the sound design is crucial, creating an enclosed world of heightened awareness and mounting dread.

3. Camera movement – the slow track, whip pan and dolly zoom are all used in horror. The slow track builds suspense; the audience knows something will be revealed but must wait for the camera to find it. The whip pan mirrors a film’s hero suddenly turning to face his foe, as yet un-glimpsed. The dolly zoom, though rarely used (Vertigo and Jaws are the most famous examples) creates an immediate sense of both disorientation and inevitability (both key to horror).

4. Dream sequences – often used in horror films, dream sequences take us into the darkest recesses of the human mind. For maximum effect, film-makers often trick the audience about when these sequences start and finish (there are benchmark examples in A Nightmare On Elm Street, Hellraiser and Hammer’s The Plague Of The Zombies).

5. Playing with identity – many of the best horror films play with the identity or quality of a character, creating a world in which absolutely no-one can be trusted and what we think of as reality is constantly undermined: humans who have turned into zombies, vampires or werewolves but aren’t yet exhibiting symptoms; characters that are possessed by aliens or ghosts; monsters that are more human than their creators; humans that are really ghosts; ghosts that are really human – identity is often deceitful in horror.

6. The dark – the dark is to horror what a sunny day is to romantic comedy. The dark is where monsters live. Where our worst nightmares come true. Where the light we carry always goes out. In horror if a character can survive the dark, they’ll probably survive the entire film (but not always). Stand-out examples are Neil Marshall’s cave-bound The Descent, the brilliantly-conceived Pitch Black and the [REC] films (especially the use of night-vision in [REC]2, which features one of the most inventive and terrifying sequences in all horror cinema).

Click on any of the links to read our full reviews and for more on The Woman in Black click Here.

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