How Do Creators Scare Us? All Tricks Revealed

In my previous post at this series I discussed how and we we (or actually our brain) like to be afraid. In a nutshell, the fight or flight mechanism and the dopamine release. At this post, I’d like to focus how they manipulate our brains and get us so scared. I’ll try and share the techniques authors and producers use to get your anxiety level elevated.

When reading a book or watching a movie, it’s all about triggering the amazing fight or flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space.

Writer, editor, and crime aficionado Sarah Weinman explains, “Unless they [the movies] are done spectacularly well or also leave plenty of room for the imagination… movies visualize everything, and too often it becomes about shock value and grossing the audience out instead of creating a truly suspenseful, scary story…” This is why Hitchcock was the master in this field, he knew how to play with our fear best.

Hitchcock continuously built the suspense level with a simple story-line. He kept the story simple but at throughout his scenes he made sure to show the audience of the danger the character is unaware of, slowly revealing the danger.

Hitchcock is playing with our emotions using techniques like the Kuleshov effect, in a most brilliant way. Just to make sure we all know, the Kuleshov effect is when the director manipulates the audience’s emotions using editing. Imagine watching an old man, then a woman with a baby, then the old man — The emotion you will feel are of a nice old man. On the other hand, the same old man with a girl in a bikini will strike a different emotion. Hitchcock in his movies periodically switched from the danger to the victim which led to building the action. What resulted from this was a feeling and anticipation of utter helplessness as you watch the character observe a dangerous situation unfold and you see he or she prove incapable of preventing the spectacle.

Image source Studiobinder

I can go on and on, on techniques he used but I’ll s hare only one more. One step ahead is a technique he uses to pull you into the story and increase, once again, the suspense level. He did it by having the camera playfully roam around looking for something or someone suspicious. This way, you, the audience not only feel like you’re involved in solving the mystery, but you also feel like you are one step ahead of the character.

Now that we know the tools for horror movies and how they can trigger our imagination and build a fear to last, let us look at the written medium. Books need to relay on your imagination to get to the same level of anxiety Hitchcock builds with his films.

Author Megan Abbott once said “I think scary books are better at prodding and provoking the unconscious, getting under your skin and staying there. Reading is a more intimate experience, and more attenuated, so it’s a deeper, more tentacled scary.” I tend to agree.

Author Ian Irvine reveals some guidelines for an effective thriller saying that the “Readers read to lose themselves in the story and, hopefully, to become the hero through identification… The reader’s hope that the hero will succeed, and fear that he will fail, creates rising suspense until the climax, where the hero’s goal or problem is resolved.” Adding that “Suspense arises out of your readers’ anticipation of, and worry and fear about, what’s going to happen next. You create suspense by making your readers fear the worst for a character they care deeply about.”

Just like reading literature can make you more empathetic by focusing on the psychology, relationships, and motivations of the characters in the story, horror novels can make you feel more terrified by drawing you into those intense emotions felt by the characters in the book. You aren’t just watching someone else experience something scary, you are experiencing something scary. Writers know it, and use it to build suspense.

Maris Kreizman, editorial director at Book of the Month, says “Things that are imagined are way better and more scary than things that are seen. Books allow me to interpret what I read in my own head, which is maybe the scariest place on Earth.”

Tali Orad·
5 min
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