You Said You Saw It Coming, So Why Did You Get Scared?

Cinematographers use specific techniques to trigger the audience’s brain to find horror movies enjoyably scary by detecting the fake threat.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Fariha Mabud

As spooky season approaches, people find themselves searching for fright at every corner, whether it be through a haunted house, creepy costumes, or best of all, horror movies. All of these enhance the anticipation and excitement building up to Halloween, giving them a thrill that chills them to the bone. However, people usually don’t question why they enjoy that sense of fear. Why would humans enjoy watching horror movies when the purpose to induce fear is seemingly counterintuitive to the human instinct of survival?

What distinguishes the feelings of watching a horror movie from being in actual danger is the reaction of the frontal lobe. In the case of watching a horror movie, the brain has enough time to classify the scenario as a fake threat not endangering the body. On the other hand, when we feel fear, the sympathetic nervous system engages and prepares the body for potential danger instead of the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores the body to a calmer state. In the context of a horror movie, a jumpscare triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which releases various neurotransmitters and hormones intended to put the body in fight or flight mode, but the frontal lobe calms the body down enough for the feeling to then become enjoyable. These hormones include endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, putting people in a state similar to that of a high arousal state. Essentially, the frontal lobe allows the body to live on the edge of true fear.

Still, one’s personality also has a heavy impact on how one reacts to fear and whether or not it is enjoyable. According to clinical psychologist Kenneth Carter, people who thrive in scary situations have a specific sensation-seeking personality trait. Originally described by Martin Zuckerman in the 1970s, this sensation-seeking personality trait is defined by four components: the need for an external stimulus, a propensity for spontaneity, the wish to be exposed to new things, and the pursuit of exciting and risky physical activities. To identify this trait, psychologists asked participants to rate how excited they would be to try a new activity on a scale of 1-5. Those with higher scores usually have lower levels of adrenaline and cortisol and have higher levels of dopamine. Both adrenaline and cortisol are hormones released to prepare the body for fight or flight mode, typically resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure, expanded air passages in the lungs, increased levels of blood sugar, and enlarged pupils. On the other hand, dopamine is released when the brain expects a reward, and it contributes to feelings of happiness and motivation. So when people with the sensation-seeking trait are put in scary situations, they are naturally more prone to experiencing more pleasure and less stress.

Well, what if you aren’t one of those people? How can you avoid shrieking like a banshee in front of your friends? It may help to know the sneaky and clever tricks cinematographers use to ensure the most enjoyable and frightening horror experience. Some are well-tested classics that you may be familiar with, while others are less apparent and may cause you to rethink your film-watching experience.

The first technique that cinematographers use is likely the most know—the jumpscare. The defining characteristic of a jumpscare is the jolting of the audience. The sudden stimulus causes a break in the tension, creating a sharp spike in adrenaline that gets blood pumping. However, the mere scare factor is no longer enough to satisfy a currently desensitized population that is usually anticipating a jumpscare. Masterful cinematographers take advantage of this by creating a “release” right before the anticipated scare. This could be the protagonist turning the corner to find no one or discovering the source of an ominous growl to be a mere cat. As soon as the audience lets down its guard and sighs in relief, the cinematographer initiates the jumpscare, causing the audience to respond more intensely than usual. According to Christian Grillon Ph.D., a psychophysiologist who studies fear and anxiety at the National Institute of Mental Health, “If a startle-eliciting stimulus comes, then the startle will be much larger than in a non-anxious state.” Anticipation worsens the response because it pre-activates the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with fear and anxiety. The amygdala is also part of the startle neural pathway, which means when the jumpscare happens, the response is exacerbated. So while you can’t do much to avoid screaming at a jumpscare, you can reduce the response by relaxing and accepting the scares.

A technique that may not be as well known but is in almost every horror movie is underexposure. By either reducing or strengthening a camera’s exposure, shadows are accentuated, creating an ominous atmosphere that plays with the audience’s focus. Cinematographers can use underexposure to create darkness in the parts of the frame that they want hidden from the audience. This can serve to frighten the audience by allowing another element to emerge from the darkness or build tension by teasing the possibility of it. The tip here is to focus on the positive space, the part of the frame that you can see.

A lesser-known technique is the use of nonlinear sound and infrasounds. Sound plays a large role in the horror experience but is rarely credited. Nonlinear, or distressing, sounds can greatly add to a movie’s atmosphere. High-pitched squeals often build tension by inciting chaos. Visceral sounds like growls and groans add to feelings of dread. Even silence, the absence of sound, in a tense environment is effective in building the desired atmosphere. Infrasounds are soundwaves at 19 hertz or lower. Being at such a low frequency, they cannot be heard by human ears. Amazingly, however, they can be felt by the body. Cinematographers use this strange phenomenon to create sensations of oscillation, shivering, and prickling that greatly heighten the atmosphere. “Paranormal Activity” is a well-known example that made use of infrasounds.

Cinematographers also love using mirrors and reflections. They are often used as a tool for depicting the distortion of reality in the film, whether it be by emphasizing the dual nature of its villain through reflections or using cracks in glass to incite dread. Mirrors can also be used as a jumpscare catalyst by frightening those who are overly attentive to details. If you want to avoid the screams, don’t look at the mirrors.

The culture of horror movies is hard to understand. It seems almost paradoxical to enjoy fear. But the hype and following of horror come from its ability to take its audience into a realm of reality that reawakens the primal human senses by triggering the audience’s fight or flight mode and setting their bodies on the edge of terror; the body is also able to release hormones that allow them to enjoy the fear. Cinematographers have to continually improve and sharpen their technique in order to satisfy this demand, which has led to the current complexity of horror: using classic techniques that will always work, playing off of these classics by subverting them, or even innovating new techniques. The horror genre has and follows no rules, which means its potential is boundless.