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The Visuals of Fear

Banes at 12:00AM, Oct. 20, 2022

A creepy pov shot works very well if the camera is looking through a window, or trees, or some other barrier. So we the audience seem to be hiding from the characters on screen.


When the director Rob Reiner was going to direct the movie based on Stephen King's “Misery”, he wanted to school himself on the vocabulary of thrillers, since he'd never made one.

So he studied Alfred Hitchcock's films. One of his big insights was the importance of closeup shots - cutaways to important objects, as seen in Psycho when the picture cuts to the envelope full of money.

Reiner took this lesson to heart; Misery is full of closeups and cuts to important objects from the first minutes: the cigarette, match, champagne glass and bottle are important to the main character, and become more important in the film's climactic scenes.

There's also the penguin figurine, that the imprisoned main character knocks over and puts back, facing the wrong way - it's one of multiple ticking time bombs that builds suspense in the movie: will his captor discover the moved statue and realize he's been leaving his room and roaming the house?

With little or no exposition, many objects are focused on and give us a whole story of visual world-building and suspense. Misery is one of the best thrillers ever made.

Another staple of some scary stories is the ‘killer’s pov' shot, that was probably popularized in the first HALLOWEEN movie. The camera moves through the house, and we see a small arm reach out and grab a knife; we then watch, through the camera, at the potential victims that don't notice us.

This is used constantly in the Friday the 13th series, as well as other scary/stalker/slasher movies.

The POV shot, or a version of it, can be used in scary comics as well - of course, the “camera” can't move in comics. You lose that handheld effect - but watching the potential victims from behind trees, or through a window - something the camera can be “hidden behind” in a way - that seems to be a good way to create the right effect. Another way is to have the camera some distance away from the people we're stalking.

But the insert shots and building of Significant Objects in to the story is a technique that can slide right into a well-planned scary comic!

I had more on this but I'll save it for next week!

Bye for now,


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Banes at 5:03PM, Oct. 21, 2022

@PaulEberhardt - I agree and that's what horror is really about to me: not blood n' guts, but the dread and anticipation. Good call on the foreground objects - it's something that occured to me after posting this article and pondering it more. I'm not sure if I could pull these visuals off personally, either - I do think there are other techniques in comics, like a sudden switch of scene/perspective. Carrying over dialogue like you say sounds like one way to keep it clear that we're still in the same scene during the cutaway shot.

Banes at 4:59PM, Oct. 21, 2022

@InkyMoondrop - I don't recognize those titles Cache or 'The Cure - thanks for the recommends! There is an element of music that helps these visuals, as well as the movement a movie allows, for that handheld effect or something dropping into the foreground. It's different in comics.

PaulEberhardt at 1:28PM, Oct. 21, 2022

The thing these techniques have in common is that they give you a premonition of imminent death without actually showing the deadly creature / killer / thing. It's the high art of using the reader's / viewer's own imagination to make them chew their fingernails. In a comic, using shadows of something you can't quite identify in the foreground can sometimes be helpful in marking the scene as an ominous POV shot. To be honest, though, I'm not sure if I could pull off any of these fearsome visuals myself without making them look silly. That's partly because I'm usually too lazy to do proper shading, which I think may often be a key element in getting the eerie atmosphere right. // Btw. with extra panels featuring an object as a comic version of cutting to it, I have the impression that they often contain some dialogue or narration carried over from the previous panel as well, to make clear that it's not a cut between scenes. I might be wrong about that, though.

InkyMoondrop at 12:59PM, Oct. 21, 2022

Nice. Yeah, these are some good ways to raise suspense / fear. I'm wondering about my favorite examples in film that worked well for me. I think the intense music and showing mostly the faces of characters does the trick (Eyes Wide Shut, Repulsion), or I really loved the way Caché builds up suspense. A mysterious stalker leaves video footage to someone, only about their house from outside, no actual killing or anything. But it's sort of a psychological warfare. Something Lynch used as well in Lost Highway. Perhaps my favorite thriller, that's on the level of Se7en is Cure (1997). You don't understand how the murders happen or why and it relies a lot on showing you simple things like a light or water and allowing your mind to get alarmed by them. It's masterfully directed, but also has some interesting philosophical reads to it, for it can be interpreted in various ways. It's a must see!

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