Film is a visual medium. This is as true of the horror genre as of any other, but horror films use images in ways that are unique to the genre. The visuals of the horror film are almost always anti-visual—they obscure as much as they reveal.
For this reason, horror is an ill-named genre. Many of its finest films include little actual “horror.” What they focus on instead is the potential for horror, the anticipation of it, the build-up to it, the mood that surrounds it—which we call “terror.” Terror is the true territory of the horror film. Without terror, the horror film is merely a slideshow of repulsive imagery—all shock and no shiver.
The first writer to really differentiate these two extreme psychological states was Ann Radcliffe, pioneer of Gothic fiction, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho. She writes, “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” For her, terror is “not distinctly pictured forth, but is seen in glimpses through obscuring shades, the great outlines only appearing, which excite the imagination to complete the rest.”
A century and a half later, literary scholar Devendra Varma built upon Radcliffe’s terror-horror dichotomy in his 1957 book The Gothic Flame. He explains that the difference between terror and horror “is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.”
Terror withholds, teasing the viewer with creepy ambiance; horror imposes, foisting upon the viewer outrageous grotesqueries. Terror is the tickle on the back of your neck, the sense that someone is watching you, the knot in the pit of your stomach; horror is the revulsion at the sight of a cadaver, the stab of a knife, the eruption of blood. Terror is the anxiety that something dreadful might be happening, the suggestion of an unnerving possibility, the lingering uncertainty of it; horror is the disgust of something dreadful that is happening, the response to a disturbing actuality, the seeming certainty of it. Terror questions: “Is this real? Is this happening? Or am I imagining things?” Horror answers: “This is really happening. Everything you fear is true.”
If terror is born from a looming absence, the shadow of the occulted world (all that remains hidden beyond human comprehension), then horror is that absence becoming present, the imposition of that occulted world through a materialization of the macabre, the supernatural, or the unfathomable.
Of course, these definitions are crude and imperfect. Any attempt to surgically sever terror from horror or horror from terror is a futile effort. That which is occulted is always present and always absent. Terror can’t be the product of a true or complete absence or else we wouldn’t notice it. Terror infiltrates only when we become aware of the absence, when the uncertainty bubbles up to the surface. Of course, horror can’t wholly succeed at making the absence present either because the occulted world, even when seemingly made material, must remain forever shrouded in uncertainty, mystery, doubt—terror. The genre is ouroboric—the horror of the snake head forever eating its own tail, forever circling back to the terror that extends far beyond its horrible venomous fangs.
“Why all this terror?” a character asks in The Mysteries of Udolpho. It’s a good question. Why would there be all this terror in a genre named for horror (terror’s fraternal twin)? By Varma’s reckoning:
Terror creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitious shudder at the other world. Horror resorts to a cruder presentation of the macabre: by an exact portrayal of the physically horrible and revolting, against a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair. Horror appeals to sheer dread and repulsion, by brooding upon the gloomy and the sinister, and lacerates the nerves by establishing actual cutaneous contact with the supernatural.
Some viewers may love the laceration that the horror film offers, the “cutaneous contact” with the occulted world. They may object to my assertion that terror is more essential to the horror film than horror. But notice what Varma claims makes horror work: it needs “a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair.”
If we examine the horror genre as a whole, looking at these films as fellow travelers in a single project, trying to discern their “purpose” or “meaning,” what is always there in any horror film worth its salt(ed wounds) is the always-already-terror—the frightening uncertainty and unknowability that undergirds all things. Horror films are horrifying because they are terrifying, because even in their confrontations and impositions they remind us of the limits of our power not only to avoid pain or to survive assault, but to know, to understand, to make meaning.
In sub-par horror films that focus too much on the horror and not enough on the terror, the occulted world becomes too easily absorbed into the film’s understandable universe, constituting the extraordinary as ordinary, the paranormal as normal, the supernatural as natural. Horror films are at their best when they eschew this normalization process, when they don’t quite let you understand the world, when even while we are confronted by real worldly or otherworldly horrors we still feel the terror of the un-understandable.
II. Lewton’s Three Laws of Motion Pictures
One of the early filmmakers who first conceived of the horror film as a terror film was RKO producer Val Lewton. Few producers in film history have gained the status of “auteur”—a distinction usually reserved for film directors whose guiding hand, idiosyncratic style, and personal touch marks them as the dominant force directing the creative production—but if any producer deserves the title, it is Lewton. Each of his productions (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim, Isle of the Dead, etc.) bears the stamp of his aesthetic, thematic, and narrative signature regardless of the writer or director.
The screenwriter of Cat People, DeWitt Bodeen, called Lewton “a marvelous producer,” but Bodeen also admitted that Lewton “attempted to do too much.” According to the screenwriter, Lewton “tried to move into every department, which was unfortunate. Val was the only producer, in the American sense of the word, to whom the credit producer really applied. People give him credit for the whole thing and in a way they’re right. It’s just that it became impossible for Val to work with anybody, and he couldn’t do it all by himself.”
In 1939, RKO, the smallest of the major studios, made a big, bold move. After Orson Welles’ iconic 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, all of Hollywood had come calling. But RKO president George Schaefer wooed Welles with the sweetest deal: a groundbreaking contract that gave him almost total creative control, including the approval of final cut, something that was unprecedented to give to any director at the time, much less an untested young novice.
According to Welles, RKO was “the greatest electric train set a boy ever had.” Unfortunately, Welles derailed that toy train, nearly bankrupting the company in the process. In 1942, amidst the backdrop of the ongoing Welles-caused chaos, RKO hired Lewton, a one-time story editor for David O. Selznick. They offered him his own production unit and relative artistic freedom with only a few strings attached. He had to produce horror films (in an attempt to encroach on the lucrative monster movie market that Universal had cornered) using titles given to him by the marketing department (that he would then have to build a story around) on a shoestring budget (under $150,000).
Lewton accepted the offer and changed the course of horror films forever. At the time, he told Bodeen, “They may think I’m going to do the usual chiller stuff…but I’m going to fool them…I’m going to do the kind of suspense movie I like.” He later admitted: “We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning.”
The first title given to Lewton was “Cat People,” which was meant to be a werewolf-type story in the vein of The Wolf Man (a hit for Universal the previous year). Though Lewton’s film flirts with the same ancient curses and therianthropy that form the backbone of the plot of The Wolf Man, it has little else in common with the Universal picture.
Whereas The Wolf Man takes place in an ancestral estate in the old country, Cat People is set in New York City. According to Lewton, “The characters in the run-of-the-mill weird films”—by which he mostly meant the Universal monster movies—“were usually people very remote from the audiences’ experiences. European nobles of dark antecedents, mad scientists, man-created monsters, and the like cavorted across the screen.” While these aristocrats and ancients, evil geniuses and monstrous creations did manage to cause some fright in American audiences, Lewton understood that these horrors felt distant and impersonal to the average viewer.
One of Lewton’s breakthroughs was his premonition that “it would be much more entertaining if people with whom audiences could identify were shown in contact with the strange, the weird, and the occult,” so he made it an integral part of his productions “to show normal people—engaged in normal occupations.”
But the biggest difference between the two films was in the relationship between horror and terror, between certainty and uncertainty, between image and anti-image. Universal pictures never shied away from putting their horrific monsters front and center. They employed innovative makeup artists like department head Jack Pierce who developed the iconography of many of the Halloween horrors we still dress as today: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, etc. The review of Universal’s 1931 classic Frankenstein in The New Yorker noted: “the makeup department has a triumph to its credit in the monster and there lie the thrills of the picture.”
Lewton went looking for thrills elsewhere. In contrast to the Universal formula, Cat People never shows Irena transforming into the black panther—and we barely even see her in cat form. More often, we witness her in sound and shadow. We are meant to question whether we’re actually seeing her at all.
Whereas the classic Universal creature feature formula was to scare by utilizing horrifying visuals (show the monster, show the violence—as much as could be shown in those days), Lewton’s oft-quoted formula for his horror films was much different: “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror, and one scene of actual violence. Fadeout. It’s all over in 70 minutes.”
By “suggested horror” Lewton meant “terror.” He admitted, “No grisly stuff for us, no mask-like faces hardly human with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end. No creaking, physical manifestations. No horror piled on horror—you can’t keep up horror that’s long sustained; it becomes something to laugh at. But take a sweet love story or a story of sexual antagonisms, about people like the rest of us, not freaks, and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion, and you’ve got something.”
Over the course of the 1940s, Lewton produced a handful of horror films; each of these adhere to his formula, or something like it. They hint at horror, suggest it through terror. Even as the credits roll, the viewer rarely knows for certain whether they’ve witnessed the ordinary or the extraordinary, the normal or the paranormal, the natural or the supernatural—and which would be the worse of the two to be forced to confront.
About his film The Seventh Victim, Lewton said: “This picture’s appeal, like that of its predecessors, is based on three fundamental theories.” These theories, which I call Lewton’s Three Laws of Motion Pictures are as follows: “First is that audiences will people any patch of prepared darkness with more horror, suspense, and frightfulness than the most imaginative writer could dream up. Second, and most important, is the fact that extraordinary things can happen to very ordinary people. And third is to use the beauty of the setting and camera work to ward off audience laughter in situations which, when less beautifully photographed, might seem ludicrous.”
In horror classics from Jaws to Hereditary, Rosemary’s Baby to The Blair Witch Project, The Shining to It Follows, the discerning viewer can trace Lewton’s three laws of motion pictures. As Martin Scorsese once said of the king of suggested horror, “Val Lewton made no claims on posterity, but posterity had other ideas.”
III. Suggested Horror
Suggested horror—like that on display in Cat People, The Seventh Victim,and other Lewton films—often works through omission, through limiting the viewer’s understanding of the physical properties, spatial layout, and relational dynamics of a scene. Horror filmmakers achieve this through any number of techniques which discomfit the viewer because they deaden or disorient that most trusted of senses: sight. “Seeing is believing,” we say, and even though we know it’s not true or logical in theory—for we understand that “looks can be deceiving”—in practice we engage with the world as though what we see is truth. To doubt everything we see would debilitate us, paralyze us, so we use our eyes as crutches, helping us hobble through the world. We lean on them with all of our (un)dead weight. Thus, the less we can see, the more unease we feel.
One such anti-image technique used to create an atmosphere of unease and terror is the avoidance of establishing shots. An establishing shot is generally a long shot at the beginning of a scene which is meant to give the viewer an understanding of the setting and a sense of the relationship between the characters and objects in that setting. The horror genre is the only genre where allowing the viewer to achieve such comfort is consistently a detriment to the mood, menace, and meaning of the picture.
Not only do horror filmmakers often avoid establishing shots, but they also tend to use very tight framing throughout any scene meant to ratchet up the tension. While tight framing too denies the viewer the comfort of the lay of the land, it also goes one step further: in placing the viewer alarmingly close to the characters, everything begins to feel overwhelmingly claustrophobic. When you’re in close proximity to someone in the grips of terror, some of that terror almost inevitably bleeds into you.
The combination of an underuse of establishing shots and an overuse of tight framing is what makes the jump scare such an effective tactic in the horror genre. If you understand where every moving thing is in a scene, then it makes it much harder to scare you with a sudden movement, but if a filmmaker doesn’t establish those spatial dynamics and keeps the camera unsettlingly close to the characters, then when something pops out to surprise those characters, it will surprise the viewers too (often even if they sense it might be coming).
This lack of spatial awareness allows for play with sound as well. Both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are frequently used in the horror genre to add to the atmosphere of terror. Minor-key compositions, off-key notes, and unsettling noises are all put to use in the genre to great effect, but one auditory trick popularized by Lewton that hinges on suggested horror is the technique known as the “Lewton Bus.”
In one of Cat People’s most infamous scenes, Irena (the cursed “cat person”) is tailing her husband’s female co-worker, Alice. As the camera focuses on Alice, we hear the click of Irena’s heels on the sidewalk behind her. Suddenly the sound of the shoes stops. She looks around. There’s no one there. Has Irena transformed? Alice looks worried. We hear the hiss of a cat. Is she about to pounce? Suddenly a bus pulls up out of nowhere. What we thought was the panther’s hiss turns out to be merely the screeching of the bus’s breaks. Alice is rescued! But did she even need rescuing? Was it all in her head? Now any time a filmmaker misdirects an audience through the building up of tension in this way only to dissipate the terror with an innocuous bait-and-switch, it’s called a “Lewton Bus.”
Moving the camera frantically is another anti-image effect used to disorient the viewer. Whether through shaky handheld camerawork or the use of whip pans and crash zooms, a fast-moving camera is an unstable one—and leads to instability in the viewer too. The terror that suffuses a movie like The Blair Witch Project is almost entirely dependent on the suggested horror of jolty found footage.
The camera in The Blair Witch Project is all over the place, maniacally moving about, most of the time not showing us what we really want to see. In theory, this seems like it would disappoint the viewer, but in actuality, the terror of not seeing the horror only makes the potential horror more menacing. Adam Wingard, the director of You’re Next, has described The Blair Witch Project thusly: “In some ways it’s the most honest found-footage film, because they didn’t even give a shit about how that film looked. It’s the actors filming a lot of it to the point where it’s so realistic that about 40% of the film is literally shots of people’s feet.”
Though these shots of people’s feet are not the most textbook example of what’s called a cutaway, they do provide the same service. A cutaway—another occulting technique in the horror filmmaker’s anti-image toolbox—is a shot that interrupts the action, inserting a view of something other than the main activity in a scene. If instead of a woman being stabbed the camera cuts to a cat by the window, we are left to imagine the gruesome stabbing ourselves.
Negative space works in a similar way by framing the scene through highlighting or amplifying the parts of a composition in which the action is not taking place. By exaggerating negative space in the framing of a shot, a filmmaker creates unbalanced compositions which offset our usual visual equilibrium. The void of negative space, not populated by characters or action, wants filling. When a filmmaker doesn’t fill it for us, we fill it ourselves. Though not all negative spaces are inherently dark, they work in the same way as Lewton’s “patches of prepared darkness.”
Lewton loved to fill his productions with darkness, with shadow, with black, with night. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he said to an interviewer for Life magazine. “If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.”
Using night and shadow, darkness and fog, the visual palette of the horror film becomes anti-visual, even when the camera is not frantically moving around, even when the mise-en-scène is not tightly or strangely framed.
The same logic behind all these anti-image techniques is behind the nighttime setting of most horror films. Night obscures—it’s our most commonplace confrontation with suggested horror, with the absence of image, with the occulted world. In the night we imagine the possibility of horror; thus, in the night is terror.
IV. Pavor Nocturnus
“I don’t like the dark,” a character whimpers in John Carpenter’s 2010 film The Ward. “Bad things happen in the dark.” Nearly every human is on some level afraid of it. There are degrees of this fundamental fear, of course—not everyone is immobilized by it—but humans are, for the most part, more comfortable in the light. We are not nocturnal animals. We seek our safe structures at night. We lock our doors. We bolt our windows. We check under our beds. We pray at night hoping to avoid becoming prey at night.
Our minor and major nyctophobias are triggered by the brain’s assumption that danger lurks in darkness, the dread of what would or could happen when our most trusted sense becomes useless.
Because of this, horror films are almost always tenebrous—long nights of occultation, dark nights of the soul. There are a few exceptions—this year’s Midsommar is one notable example of sun-drenched day horror—but the majority of the films in the genre take advantage of the anti-image qualities of the darkness and the existential terror that flows from and through it.
Because of this, these films beg for a particular showtime. They are better to watch at night. In that abyssal darkness, when our primitive sense of danger is already awakened, the black edges of the screen, the shades and shadows of its images, melt into the Stygian space of the room. The film’s long night becomes our long night.
The darkness brings uncertainty. The spatial uncertainty of the anti-visual witching hours becomes a more primal, generalized uncertainty. We imagine what might be out there—each of us inventing our own bestiary.
“There’s someone out there,” Kristen McKay says in The Strangers. But is that truly the sole reason for her fear? That someone might be out there? Are we only afraid of the night because it is teeming with horrors? Her next line hints at the greater terror: “I don’t know what happened.”
Like Lewton’s “patches of prepared darkness,” the night allows us to people it “with more horror, suspense, and frightfulness than the most imaginative writer could dream up.” Film professor J. P. Telotte claims in his book on Lewton that “the absence marked by those dark patches speaks of a fundamental—and disturbing—relationship between man and his world: it signals a black hole or vacant meaning in the physical realm which, in spite of man’s natural desire to fill it with consciousness and significance, persistently and troublingly remains open.”
The night too persistently and troublingly remains open—no matter whether we try to fill it with meaning or menace. It swallows all we populate it with.
“Those who think they see ghosts are those who do not want to see the night,” claims author Maurice Blanchot. In “The Outside, the Night,” Blanchot argues that there are two nights. “In the night, everything has disappeared,” he writes. “This is the first night.” Blanchot admits this first night is welcoming. It is of this night that you would say “in the night,” “as if it had an intimacy.” This first night is “another of day’s constructions.” The first night is a possession of the day’s; it is the “day’s night.” This is the night of sleep and dream, in opposition to our daytime existence of action and thought. This is the night of nothingness and oblivion, in opposition to the day’s somethingness and perception. This is the night of poets, the night of prayers. But there is another night.
It emerges from the first night, and is inextricable from it, but it is not the same: “When everything has disappeared in the night, ‘everything has disappeared’ appears. This is the other night. Night is this apparition: ‘everything has disappeared.’”
“What appears in the night,” according to Blanchot, “is the night that appears.” Darkness—like the occulted world it echoes—is both the absence of image and the image of absence. As philosopher Eugene Thacker explains, “Darkness ‘is’ but also ‘is not’—and, in a way, this ‘is not’ also ‘is’ darkness. Put simply, the concept of darkness invites us to think about this basic philosophical dilemma of a nothing that is a something.”
But what is this somethinged nothingness? What is this void we can’t avoid? Why does it seem to be lurking, looming, growing, engulfing…breathing?
We hear the respiration of not just Michael Myers in those final moments of Halloween, but of the darkness itself—inhaling and exhaling with a life of its own.
The word “darkness” leads multiple lives. As a signifier for the unsignifiable occulted world, we approximate it by relating it to evil (“Prince of Darkness”), corruption (“the darkness in his heart”), trouble (“his darkest hour”), foreboding (“a dark cloud on the horizon”), ignorance (“the Dark Ages”), and uncertainty (“grasping in the dark”). Yet we know that even these approximations are but attempts to fill a lacuna, to make understandable the un-understandable.
A night of the living dead is horrifying, but what terrifies us in deeper, more primal, and more unsettling ways is a breathing anti-image nothing that is something—a night of the living night.