Light and Horror

August 01 2010 — by Philip Rose
Light is a fundamental part of the cinematic experience. Along with the musical score, light helps to create mood, drama, and suspense. While special effects and techniques have evolved over the past century of filmmaking, lighting remains crucial to the success of both black and white classics and modern Technicolor blockbusters. Its greatest impact, however, is in the horror genre. From the earliest days of German impressionist films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919) and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu (1921) to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Donahue, Leonard and William’s Blair Witch Project (2002), the light – or in many cases the lack of it – has been integral to creating the fear factor. In horror movies light is commonly used to reveal or conceal the object of horror by employing various lighting techniques:

Silhouette – the use of a bright light source behind the figure allows it become a dark figure void of any features or expression of mood. It is the menacing posture of figure with the occasional use of colour that creates suspense.

Uplighting – the lighting of a figure or face from below creates heavy shadowing to the face especially to the eyes, nose and brow. Distorting our perception of human features generates a feeling of unease and mistrust.

Spotlighting – spotlighting a figure, especially from behind, is similar to the use of silhouette by limiting recognisable features. It is often the use of shadows and the figure’s posture that creates a sense of foreboding as you realise that this is that place you must enter – and wherein the terror lies.

Shadow – the use of projected shadow creeping along a surface creates tension and fear. While you do not see the figure directly, the distorted shadow exaggerates its features and feeds the imagination.

So next time you watch a horror flick check out how many times these techniques are used (that’s if you aren’t behind the sofa).