Friends! So, you might have noticed but I went on a fun little horror movie binge last week. It was a lot of fun and got me thinking about what makes all of my favorite horror movies work so well… the atmosphere.
In a movie industry that is so saturated with jump scares, how do some movies stand above the rest and break into the mind of viewers and stick around for years to come? Well, as I’ve mentioned above, they build up a strong atmosphere for the jump scares to build off of. But before we get into the importance of atmosphere in horror movies, let’s first discus why jump scares aren’t effective means of making scary and memorable horror movies.
The answer for this is actually very simple— jump scares are the cheapest and easiest possible scare. They are nothing more than an innate response to a loud noise being played in your ear and an image being flashed on the screen. It’s not cleaver and it takes no real effort. The ‘fear’, if you can even call it that, is not something lasting and it leaves the viewer a few moments after the scare has finished. When was the last time someone was kept up late at night because their friend sent them one of those stupid videos with hidden jump scares that were always shared around the internet years ago? Never. Well that’s all jump scares are.
Now that I’ve trashed jump scares for an entire part of this post, you probably think I hate all jump scares and they can never be done right. Wellll that’s not really true either. A good movie knows how to combine both a spooky atmosphere and jump scares to create a memorable experience that will keep viewers up late at night thinking about it. By combining atmosphere with jump scares, you have already used that atmosphere you’ve built up to put viewers on the edge of their seat, so when the jump scare comes, it’ll be more impactful. Suddenly the viewers won’t just remember being startled for a second and then going back to being perfectly fine, they’ll remember clenching their teeth in fear or hiding their face in fear of what would happen next for the entire experience. It’s a scare that sticks with you rather than just being over the second after a cat jumps at the camera. SPEAKING OF! The best jump scares are the ones that affect the characters! Why do I care about someone popping up in the background accompanied by a loud noise that the character doesn’t even notice? Jump scares that exist only to scare the audience and not the character make no sense within the film and thus can take viewers out of the experience and break suspension of disbelief.
Now that we have established how to make jump scares work and how important developing a spooky atmosphere is to that, let’s look at how one develops this spooky atmosphere. One of the easiest way is through the use of music. Music can do a lot to manipulate a viewer’s emotions and is probably the easiest way to push you viewers to feel how you want them to. Besides music, another great way to ensure you keep viewers on the edge of their seat is through creative camera work and sets. A good cinematographer will know how to work with actors and sets to create a feeling of unease. This uneasy feeling leaves the viewers never feeling comfortable as they worry that scares could come at any second. It’s important not to relieve this tension too often with too many jump scares because it makes things feel cheap and the tension for the rest of the film will be ignored by the viewer. This is why a lot of people enjoy more slow burn horror with less scares because the real fear comes from the atmosphere and the unknown, not what creepy image is flashed in front of your face every two minutes.
I hope this little discussion gave some insight into why I prefer atmospheric horror over jump scares, and how one can still incorporate jump scares in their film but make them effective. What are some of your favorite horror films? Do you prefer more atmospheric horror or jump scares? Any lessor known horror films I should check out? What about books that incorporate horror?