Going Beyond the Narrative: Horror and the use of Sensory Techniques

There’s no set answer to the appeal of horror movies. Is it because of the socially opposed actions and intentions of the characters? Is it the themes that they explore? Or is it just the adrenaline rush? One thing that remains the same is that the purpose of a horror movie is to make us feel scared, uneasy and anxious. Psychological horror films in particular go above and beyond in their intentions to make us feel this way, doing this through various techniques that have the ability to psychologically affect us as viewers. Experimenting with camerawork through different shots, angles and movements can allow the camera to tell a story alongside the actual narrative, and can majorly manipulate our feelings towards what we are watching.

Camerawork has the ability to affect how involved the viewer feels and express character traits that may not be possible to convey through dialogue. On top of this, something as simple as colour can be used to enhance the psychological impact of a horror movie. While it may be seen as something there purely for aesthetic purposes, colour is something that can really affect our mood and attitude towards the film we are watching. Our subconscious associations with colour create a story that we can associate with our own conscious experiences, and in horror movies can be manipulated by changing expectations of what colours represent. Sounds are another thing that we are constantly experiencing and making new associations with, so it makes sense that this can be used to affect us psychologically. Quiet sounds may make us feel calm and collected, but something that’s loud may make us feel panicked and on edge. These techniques are present in such psychological horror movies as Black Swan (2010), Suspiria (1977) and Eraserhead (1977).

Black Swan (2010)

Source: Fox Searchlight

Black Swan tells the story of someone being consumed by something that they love, but it isn’t just the inherently dark plot that makes you feel uneasy while watching it. One of the biggest themes that director Darren Aronofsky plays with in Black Swan is powerlessness. The protagonist is completely powerless in her story, and what makes Black Swan so impactful is that she’s not the only one who feels it. Aronofsky creates the feeling for the viewer that they have just actively experienced something. A lot of this is done through camera techniques. Throughout Black Swan, we follow Nina (Natalie Portman) in her pursuit of being a professional dancer. The camera constantly follows behind Nina; when she leaves the room, we leave the room. The conversations, lives, and sometimes even chaos will continue in the background, from a distance, but we only see what she sees, and we only know what she knows. So not only are we observing this character, we’re following her, and it allows us to understand her and why she thinks and feels the way she does. When walking we are looming behind Nina, similar to the darkness hidden at the back of her mind. When Nina sits down the camera doesn’t sit still with her, it frantically moves and gives an insight to her erratic emotions. The camera is telling us something that Nina’s socially restricted actions cannot. It gives us both insight and perspective. Even in the final scene of Black Swan, we feel at one with Nina. The camera switches between focusing on her face – allowing us to look into the eyes that convey complete resistance to the madness that she has been running from – and a point of view shot that allows us to see from Nina’s sight.

The horror Black Swan is based around is purely psychological, which is why it doesn’t matter if we like or hate Nina, all we have to do is understand her. Black Swan relies on this, rather than the narrative. It’s a story about how our own human psychology can destroy us, and in order for us to understand and fear that, we have to understand Nina. Right up until the very end of Black Swan, you feel riddled with anxiety and your chest is pounding – this isn’t just because the story is terrifying, unrelentless and haunting, but because the camera techniques used by Aronofsky turn a viewing into an experience.

Suspiria (1977)

IMG_6426Source: Synapse Films

Suspiria is undeniably a nightmarish experience. As a horror, it does its job of making you feel terrified and on edge. What makes Suspiria so terrifying is that director Dario Argento pulls you into an inescapable nightmare that feels as though it’s set in an alternate universe, and one of the techniques he uses to do this is colour. The colours used are bolder, brighter and odder than we have ever seen before, automatically leading us to not associate our world and Suspiria’s. An initial scene in which the protagonist arrives at the academy, which is filled with flashing technicolor lights amidst a storm of rain, creates suspicions that this world is violent and chaotic, just like the colours being abruptly shoved into our line of sight. The lack of familiarity between any of these colours and the world that we already know leads to a sense of panic, because, in the same way as the protagonist, we are trying to figure out what is happening. So, before any dialogue has been delivered, through the use of colour we already have a guide as to what type of film this is going to be. As the film goes on, Argento continues to use colour to stretch out the narrative for us as viewers. One of the colours that he uses the most throughout Suspiria is red – a colour that is believed to make us feel alarmed, on edge and even claustrophobic, which plays a major role in the tone of the whole film. The blood in Suspiria is bright red, almost resembling paint, which again plays into the narrative that this world is different from anything we know. The bright colours are also the opposite of what you would expect to see in a horror film with dark and gritty connotations, but through the way he applies colour into the narrative of Suspiria, we are taken into a terrifying nightmare capped in colour that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Eraserhead (1977)

IMG_6428Source: IFC Centre

If there’s any film that makes you feel as though you’re stuck in a nightmare, it’s David Lynch’ Eraserhead. Eraserhead is an experimental body horror that focuses on conveying surrealist imagery and underlying sexual themes. Ever since its release the film has been completely poloralizing due to its odd and even disturbing nature. The film is so disturbing that the majority of critics hated it when it was first released, with Variety describing it as “a sickening bad-taste exercise” While there were people who did initially love the film, it didn’t become widely appreciated until several years later, when people realised how impactful and revolutionary it was to the filmmaking process. Lynch creates an atmosphere that doesn’t just make you feel uneasy – it makes your skin crawl. The visuals and setting undeniably play a major role in the haunting industrial atmosphere of Eraserhead, but one of the fundamental aspects that accompany it is the sound design. The sound plays a major role in separating Eraserhead from being an uncomfortable film that might even make you laugh because of how strange it is, and makes it a frightening nightmare-scape that makes you feel sick to your stomach. The sounds that we hear in Eraserhead are a mix of unpleasant industrial sounds and unnerving space sounds. When watching Eraserhead you don’t get a moment of silence – the sounds never end, and we never have a moment to collect our thoughts. This is crucial as to why it feels like a nightmare, because we are constantly being subjected to these unpleasant sounds that create a constant state of anxiety and unease. Other films may use sound as a trigger; beyond Black Swan’s camera work, Aronofsky also uses sound to convey a sense of stress. If something happens that is supposed to make us anxious, the music gets louder and faster, leading to it psychologically creating an anxious response from us. Because Eraserhead is constantly using unsettling sounds, it means that we are constantly in a disturbed state and cannot leave no matter how hard we try.

Although there are differences between these three films, the one thing that they all have in common is that they are ultimately better films because of these techniques. It could be argued that without these techniques, none of the films would have made the impact that they did either on viewers or as a whole cinematically. The techniques play a major role in conveying tone and making sure that the story is conveyed as accurately as possible. They also play an effective role in revealing the mental state of characters, which may not have been possible to do through dialogue as it would be forced and unrealistic. Not only do these techniques result in a more artistic film, but they result in the horror being conveyed with a much more effective impact on the viewer, because of the psychological elements that come in to play.