Have you ever noticed how dramatic lighting can be in some of your favorite horror films? The silhouetted killer in the dark street, the glowing red eyes in the dark room, the broken flashlight that flickers and reveals the monster.
Those were intentional, important choices that the director and cinematographer chose to use to force the audience to feel a certain way. The way you use light can easily make or break a film. Let's figure out why lighting is important.
So, what is the purpose of lighting in film in general? It’s meant to help shape a frame, set the mood, and highlight important elements within a scene. Of course, there are some exceptions when it comes to style and a director’s preference, but the key purpose is to guide us along and shape an idea.
So, what's the purpose of light for horror films then? To compose a feeling of dread or uneasiness, to cause you to sink into your chair and cower behind a blanket. The use of darkness is far more prominent than the use of light, and it stems from low-budget films using it as a way to be creative with their limited resources.
What came out of this restriction is a total revolution and now a staple in most horror films. There's a motto for horror films when it comes to using light. “Darkness is your friend.” Fitting, isn’t it?
But not every film revolves around a dark mansion or a haunted house. What about films like SAW or Hereditary? These films revolve around times of day and night. How about Midsommar, which takes place during the day?
The purpose of darkness is to hide something, a monster or a killer, an idea that the audience knows about. The most compelling use of low light that I’ve seen recently is in Hereditary where one of the characters discovers strange people inside his home, hiding in the darkness, naked. (I kept it vague to avoid spoilers!) You can just barely see these people, but you know they’re there, watching you.
When you hide something in broad daylight, the panic is still real. If you’re given an opportunity to hide from a monster in daylight or darkness, you would pick daylight nine times out of ten, right? It’s because it feels safe, and you can see your surroundings and potentially the monster. But what if the daylight was just as much of an enemy as the darkness? That hopeless, helpless feeling you get is what really draws in an audience when they watch a horror film. It’s the feeling that “you’re never safe,” no matter where you go.
When you watch a horror film, ask yourself why they might be lighting a certain scene or location that way. Is it because they’re hiding details to reveal later? Or is there really a creature that’s lurking around, but you just can’t see it yet.
What’s your favorite horror film? Did the lighting stand out, and, if so, why? Let me know in the comments below.
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