A well-made horror film can’t rely on jump scares alone: while those can be effective, it can only take a movie so far. Far more important is the atmosphere and ambiance as that will draw the moviegoer in and keep them there. Indeed, if applied properly, a creepy atmosphere will linger with the audience long after the movie’s finished, but how do you create one?
We turn to Jim Ronsel, who has worked on many large scale Hollywood horror productions as a videographer, and currently works a far less scary job at Memory Tree Productions in Hamilton, ON.
Essential Elements for a Scary Atmosphere
The atmosphere needs to convey a sense of mystery, suspense and dread, and in many cases isolation (wherein the characters feel or are alone). Production design and cinematography play vital roles as well, but you don’t need to go overboard. Unless you’re creating a slasher flick, the tone should be more brooding and suspenseful instead of being outright horrific.
A good example of this would be the film the Devil’s Backbone, wherein a hellish boy appears from the pool slowly, and it fills you with dread. Rather than go for shock value, atmosphere builds up the terror slowly until the climax.
Popular Film Techniques for Creating a Scary Film Ambiance
There are a lot of ways to create a scary ambiance: the Dark Voyeur perspective shows you a character is being watched by someone or something. This effect can be achieved by shooting around or through a closet, window curtains, branches etc. What makes the Dark Voyeur so effective is in puts the character in seeming danger, and at the same time, the audience knows but cannot warn him / her of impending doom. Using this technique, it’s easy to get the viewers involved.
Another option is to see someone / something that’s stalking the main character without he / she knowing what’s going on. This doesn’t have to be done like a jump scare as you can have the antagonist revealed slowly, which creates a more chilling effect.
Into Unknown Territory
This has been done time and again, but having the protagonist go to a place where they shouldn’t is almost always effective. While some may argue that it’s cliché, when properly staged it makes for a great and scary ambiance. The danger here of course, is the possibility of the protagonist being caught, which is what makes it such a potent technique in scary films.
Jump Scares and Other Methods
Being trapped and unable to run are tried and tested techniques as they delve into our fear of being trapped or paralyzed. Then there are jump scares, and while some view them as cheating or an annoyance, they can be effective when properly done. For a basic jump scare you just need to have something scary pop up, but it works best when there’s been a buildup of suspense before it, or when everything before it has been quiet and ordinary.
The bottom line is there are many ways to create a moody, scary ambiance in film, and what it all comes down to is executing it properly with the help of a high quality production firm. Just remember to integrate the scene with the story and your audience is sure to have a chilling good time.