Anatomy of a horror: How film techniques can prolong the life of a scary scene | Courthouse News Service
Friday, December 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Anatomy of a horror: How film techniques can prolong the life of a scary scene

Scary movies sometimes get a bad rap for being all about cheap thrills. But the genre has always had masterpieces, and with recent box-office hits like “Get Out," high-art horror is making a comeback.

(CN) — When Janet Leigh stepped into the Bates Motel shower during the movie “Psycho,” her on-the-run character appeared to wash away her sins as she prepared to return home and offer a difficult confession.

But while the iconic scene started out as a prelude to redemption with a bit of sex appeal, it wound up a bloody mess. 

In the process, Alfred Hitchcock’s murderous masterpiece, featuring a flurry of short shots and creative angles, would go down for one of the most studied and talked-about scenes in film — proving that the horror genre can be about much more than cheap thrills.

“You never saw the knife actually touch her,” said Andrew Stasiulis, an instructor of directing, theory and cinema production at DePaul University in Chicago, "and yet it’s considered one of the most brutal scenes in cinematic history.”

While moviegoers have long been entertained by monsters, ghouls and things that go “rawr” in the night, a truly memorable scary movie scene — like the “Psycho” shower sequence — shocks us, frightens us, and makes us opt for baths.

“A lot of people said they couldn’t take a shower after ‘Psycho,’” said Michael Zam, an adjunct assistant professor at New York University and co-creator, writer and producer of the FX miniseries “Feud.”

Water flows from a showerhead. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

With a few exceptions, scary movies don’t occupy much space in the typical Top Movies of All Time list. Yet horror flicks deserve their due.

“They started out in a very artistic place,” Stasiulis said, referring to some of the Universal Frankenstein-Dracula-Invisible Man monster movies of the 1930s. “Those are works of art, and they are adaptations of respected literature.”

Eventually, Stasiulis said, the quality of scary movies diminished as the horror genre became associated with B-movies.

By the 1960s and '70s, though, the concept of horror movies as serious art was making a comeback. Younger directors, many of whom had grown up watching Universal monsters, began making scary movies that touched on important societal issues and fears, including racism, loneliness and war.

“You have guys like Spielberg who decide, ‘I’m going to make a creature feature,’ but it was more than that,” said Stasiulis, co-host of the podcast “The Gauntlet,” who teaches at DePaul’s Jarvis College of Computing and Digital Media.

In the best-case scenario, Zam said, scary movies will feature complicated characters portrayed by actors who kill it — performing-wise. As he sees it, some of Hollywood’s greatest performances have come from horror films.

Moments before shooting the famous “Herrrrrre’s Johnny” scene from “The Shining,” actor Jack Nicholson worked himself into character by jumping up and down and chanting “Axe murderer!” as he practiced his chopping motion. A few moments later, his character, Jack Torrance, thrashes an axe through a bathroom door before improvising the famous “Here’s Johnny” line.

While a great performance can amp up the fear factor, Zam said, one effective scary movie tactic gives the audience more information than the protagonist has in order to drive tension. In “Silence of the Lambs,” we watch Jodie Foster’s character struggle in complete darkness through the night vision goggles of a serial killer stalking her.

“We know what’s going on,” said Mynette Louie, who has produced three horror films, including “The Invitation,” “Swallow” and “Black Box.” “That’s where the audience is yelling at the screen.”

Another tactic, Zam said, is to have the audience let its guard down — making us, like the characters, vulnerable. In these scenes, the viewers get comfortable thinking nothing bad is going to happen. 

That’s when all hell breaks loose. “They hit us like a truck when we’re looking the other direction,” Stasiulis added.


The famous “Psycho” scene was partially shocking because Janet Leigh’s character gets murdered halfway through the movie.

“We all thought she was the protagonist,” said Louie, who also teaches feature film development, financing and film festivals at the Columbia University School of the Arts. “It’s her journey we’re on, but suddenly she’s gone.”

Scary scenes can be exacerbated when attached to everyday concerns, Stasiulis said.

In “The Shining,” we see the effects of a dysfunctional family and alcoholism. The film “Halloween” plays on our fears of home invasion.

The latter, which featured a memorable closet scene, played on an additional fear since the protagonist (Jamie Lee Curtis) was a babysitter.

“Plugging into the babysitter thing is big,” Zam said. The job of her character “is to literally protect children.”

A scary movie scene for the ages might only require a couple of minutes of film. Yet, no one can truly predict which ones will gain new life in parodies, phobias and T-shirts.

“It’s hard to engineer these moments as a filmmaker,” said Stasiulis, an independent filmmaker himself. “It’s always interesting to see what people will zero in on.”

More recent horror and gore films have relied heavily on special effects and jump scares. But when it comes to a classic hair-raising scene, the proverbial less-is-more applies.

“Hitchcock always said shock is cheap,” Stasiulis said. “Anybody can jump out of a closet and scare somebody.”

Besides, too much gore is really just a bunch of fake blood.

“We’ve become a little numb to some of that stuff,” Zam said. “It’s fun, and it’s easy, but it doesn’t understand the psychology of true horror.”

Louie said she prefers “practical effects,” using 3D models or figures over computer graphics.

The former is more artful, she said. Chilling visuals in classic movies like “The Exorcist,” “The Shining,” and “The Amityville Horror,” she said, spooked her as a child and fostered a lifelong love of horror movies.

“Those images are indelibly in my head,” she said.

The masters of the craft will not only tie horror to greater meaning; they will also use cinematic techniques like creative angles, slick edits and sound.

“When I do a movie, I budget a lot for sound,” Louie said. “A horror movie is all about activating our senses, sound being one of the main ones.”

While layered, creepy noises are a big part of that, a well-placed orchestra can elicit just as many goosebumps as a slow-walking man in a mask.

“Music can certainly create atmosphere and tension,” Zam said.

In “Jaws,” composer John Williams famously combined cello and tuba to make us clutch our arm rests as a leviathan lurks. Meanwhile, Bernard Hermann’s sudden shrieking violins punctuated the violence in the “Psycho” shower.

“We recognize the stress in the ‘Psycho’ scene or the anticipation in ‘Jaws,’” Zam said.

The movie poster for "Psycho" bills Janet Leigh as one of the leads -- even though she isn't in much of the movie.

While those scores evoke creepiness, feel-good songs can also take a scary scene to a new level, Zam said.  

Malcolm McDowell famously sang along to the chirpy musical classic “Singing in the Rain” during a violent attack in “A Clockwork Orange.” And Quentin Tarantino forever changed the up-tempo song “Stuck in the Middle with You” by pairing it with a cringe-worthy torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs.”

In the case of “Reservoir Dogs,” the unlikely pairing of soft rock and brutality proved that opposites do sometimes attract, Zam said. “If he’d used a horrifying song, it wouldn’t have been as effective."

After regaining acclaim in the 1960s and ‘70s, horror movies began to lose respect again in ‘80s. Films focused on shock and gore (think: “Saw” or the “Friday the 13th” series) upped the body count at the expense of critical praise.

Now, though, film experts say horror films are making another comeback. Movies like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2017 for its spooky depiction of American prejudices, are once again grappling with larger societal issues.

“I call horror the undead genre,” Louie said. Every few years, people say it’s dead. "Then it rises up again.”

Categories / Arts, History, Media

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.