Shadows in Horror Films: Fear of the Unknown

The fear of the unknown is one of the most natural and instinctive fears that we have. I will talk about how directors use the shadows to help create panic in the audience.

Being scared is one of our most natural instincts. We are scared of what we don’t understand. Shadows represent this fear as we wonder what is lurking within them. The power of the human imagination can make us believe highly irrational thoughts are true, especially when we don’t have much information about the situation. Shadows in their nature are obscure, which raises our suspicion and creates a feeling of fear. From a young age, we are taught to fear certain things. Fear is an important tool to keep ourselves safe. Our parents try to teach us the importance of our own safety and we learn to fear anything that may threaten this. We are told not to be out after dark or wander off alone. This idea is reflected in Fabiansson’s work; “Children are taught to be afraid…to be careful of the unknown and fearful of strangers.

These fears continue into our adult lives. Even though we may be scared of different things as adults, we still get scared of the unknown. If we are in another person’s house at night and there are noises downstairs, we don’t know what the sounds are and we get a little nervous. However, if we were in our own house at night and heard a noise downstairs, we could tell whether it was the dog, the dishwasher or the heating etc. There is no unknown in our own house, so we aren’t scared.

In his essay Fear Itself, John Hollander talks about the different types of fear. He distinguishes a fear of the unknown e.g. a fear that there is no afterlife, whereas a ‘nameless fear’ is “fear induced by some unknown object.” Shadows represent the unknown. If we see a shadow moving across a wall, it is very difficult to see what, or who, is creating the shadow. Even if the shadow is defined, we still have no more information about the object than its shape. Hollander talks about the “meta-fear of disorientation” which is when we do not know what exactly is scaring us, or whether we should be scared of it in the first place. He says having a fear of something is not the same as the fear that it may turn out to be something else.

A good technique used by filmmakers is to create a clearly defined shadow, with an inhuman or unrecognisable shape to create confusion. This lack of information is difficult for us to handle so we try to fill in the details ourselves. The shadow is clear enough that we can’t mistake the shape, but because the shape is unrecognisable it scares us. Even though we try, we know our ideas may be nothing like the reality, so try to think of all possibilities. As we go from one thought to the next, fear makes us think irrationally and also allows us to believe these thoughts are true. We can only know what is there when it is revealed. Filmmakers frequently use shadows because the human imagination conjures up what is most terrifying to each person. This is an intelligent method because if they had to create a monster, they would be isolating the audience that isn’t scared by that monster. It is a simple, yet highly effective way to evoke fear. Cinemas help to exaggerate any fears the audience has. The darkness, the loud noises, the huge screen and the crowd atmosphere overwhelms the senses. There are thousands of films that use this technique, but I will just mention a few.

The opening scene of the 2001 film Monsters, Inc. shows the basic idea behind shadows as a tool to terrify us. It shows the character Thaddeus Bile creeping into a boy’s bedroom. We notice that it is only after the parents leave and turn off the lights that this happens. This enhances the idea that there are things lurking in the dark. A shadow flashes across the screen, then as the monster stands over the bed, we really believe he wants to hurt the boy. We can only see his glowing eyes in his silhouette. Yet when the child screams in terror, Thaddeus also screams, and then falls around the bedroom. Suddenly all the fear we had for him disappears.

File:Thaddeus Bile Scaring.jpg

Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity is another film where shadows are used to create panic. In this film we never see the monster, and it is never revealed to us. During the 20th night we hear the creature coming up the stairs, and then we see its shadow on the door of the bedroom. It is unnerving because we can’t see the creature, and wonder how it even has a shadow if there is no solid figure in the first place. The fact that it has footsteps and the ability to drag Katie out of bed indicates it has enough physical presence, but no form that is visible to us. This leads us to come up with our own ideas of what it may be, yet this proves so difficult because we are provided with severely limited information.

Freddy Krueger’s character in Nightmare on Elm Street – both the 1984 film and the 2010 remake – uses the shadows to scare his victims. In Wes Craven’s 1984 version of the film, Tina’s death is a perfect example of how shadows are used. Just before Freddy Krueger appears, his hatted silhouette appears on a fence. He then emerges and walks towards Tina. A flicker of light reveals his disfigured face before he is in darkness once again. His arms appear twice as long as they should be, and his deformed face creates a strange shape to look at. Tina runs away from him, but he suddenly appears in front of her and she bumps into him. This serves to make Freddy part of the shadows. He represents the darkness. In the 2010 remake, directed by Samuel Bayer, Kris’ death is the remake of Tina’s. Both of the boyfriends can only stand by helplessly as their girlfriends are being slashed to death. Kris goes out to find her dog and she finds it slashed in the garden. Freddy is standing in the darkness, yet the blades he used to kill the dog glisten with blood. He then chases her around, again using the shadows. The fact that we sleep at night in dark rooms adds to this effect. Whenever the characters encounter Freddy they are dreaming, and dreams are never like how the world really is. Things can happen in dreams that don’t happen when we are awake, and this makes Freddy extra terrifying because he isn’t bound by the rules of reality like the rest of us.

Any person will fear what they can’t understand, it’s natural. We’re all rational and like to explain things because explanations take the fear out of the unknown. However, shadows only give us a warped representation of what the thing is. Shadows are used by directors to manipulate this fear of the unknown. All horror directors use images that are supposed to frighten us, and using darkness and shadows is a very popular way to do this.

Works cited

  • Charlotte Fabiansson – “Young People’s Perception Of Being Safe – Globally & Locally”
  • John Hollander – “Fear Itself”
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Paranormal Activity
  • Monsters, Inc
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