possessed girl

The Codes and Conventions of Horror Films


Horror films often feature the dark and ominous atmospheres of dimly lit rooms, nightmarish music, and characters who should not be venturing down into their basements alone. Perhaps the house is cursed by malevolent spirts or the rural community is being terrorised by a masked maniac.

We enjoy watching horror films because they provoke a pleasing sort of terror.

It does not matter if the story takes place in an old graveyard, the haunted woods at the end of the lane, or in the vacuum of deep space where no one can hear you scream. The film just has to be scary. That is why Brigid Cherry (2009) argued the “function of horror to scare, shock, revolt or otherwise horrify the viewer” was more important to the definition of the genre compared to “any set of conventions, tropes or styles”.

As filmmakers continue to find new ways to frighten the audience, we are going to focus on the essential conventions and aesthetics of the genre, its enduring appeal, and why companies continue to profit from horror films.

The Iconography of Horror Films

Iconography refers to the pattern of signs which are closely associated with certain genres. We already know horror films are set in bleak and gloomy locations, such as haunted houses, abandoned buildings, small towns, and remote cabins in the woods. There is usually a sense of isolation and confinement in these dark spaces. The audience will expect to hear the wind howling across the desolate landscape and the old floorboards to creak with every step.

The poster for The Conjuring uses some of codes and conventions of horror to grab the audience’s attention. First, the title denotes paranormal tricks and demonic possession. The references to Saw and Insidious establishe the director’s genre credibility. Of course, the lonely farmhouse looks forsaken along the rough and misty trees. This isolation increases the sense of threat because its occupants will be helpless against the evil forces.

Perhaps the most sinister signifier is the noose tied to the bare and misshapen tree. Did you notice the shadow of the girl? The combination of these elements is the punctum designed to strike fear into the audience.

Finally, the macabre tone is reinforced by heavy, grey sky and the dying leaves scattered across the field. The poster is certainly trying to make the audience feel uneasy and want to experience this nightmare for themselves.

The Conjuring movie poster
The Conjuring (2013)

Many horror posters will contain variations of this fusion of codes – their settings and props will be just as menacing. We might see incomplete glimpses of the monster, such as a close up of its hideous fangs or its shadow cast against the wall, so its reveal will be shocking when it appears the big screen.

In his discussion on genre, Steve Neale (1980) wrote “all the resources of the costume and make-up department are mobilised” in horror films to “frighten and terrify” the audience. These monsters are coming to get you, Barbara.

Most of the characters will not make it to the closing credits, but another common trope in horror movies is the “final girl”. She is the last survivor of a group of friends who defeats villain. Inevitably, there will be plenty of guts and gore along the way.

Technical Codes

Imagine paying a penny in the early days of cinema to see the black and white film stock being projected onto the large screen. There is no doubt that flickering, spectral quality made the characters and settings seem scarier. Even more recent films shot on digital cameras, such as The Blair Witch Project or 28 Days Later, can give the footage a gritty reality which will terrify the audience.

The genre has always exploited a range of filmmaking techniques to elicit fear.

Music and Sound Effects

A lot of effort and innovation goes into creating a scary mix of dialogue, effects, and music.

Orchestral scores are a familiar, unnerving presence in horror films. Dissonant chords and demonic whispers help create the unsettling atmospheres and deepen our understanding of the characters. How many times have you heard the music build to a crescendo during moments of high tension, such as a frenetic chase scene, or jump scares punctuated by sudden and jarring sounds? Composers will also use motifs to signal the arrival of certain events – epitomised by John William’s famous theme each time the shark appears in Jaws.

Another famous piece of music is Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho which uses an amazing range of deep bass sounds and screeching violins to great effect. Perhaps the budget was only enough for string instruments. This article by Aaron Gilmartin is a good introduction to the composition and contains relevant extracts from the film.

Synthesisers became popular in horror films produced in the 1980s because they were more cost-effective. Listen to John Carpenter’s distinctive theme for Halloween – its disturbing pattern of pulses will have you looking over your shoulders. 

Music can enhance the emotional impact of a horror film, but diegetic sound is just as important. When the protagonist moves down the dark hallway of the farmhouse, the audience will expect to hear the nerve-tingling creaks of old floorboards – the awful silence in between each footstep should emphasise the character’s vulnerability. The sound of a distant clock ticking can develop a sense of impending danger and the awful buzz of chainsaw will surely disturb any viewer.

An interesting example is the motion tracking beep in Aliens when the increasing speed indicates the vicious monsters are getting closer and closer.

This scene also stresses the importance of dialogue. Private Hudson counts down to 6 and Ripley exclaims, “That can’t be. That’s inside the room.” The effective use of sound can be the difference between a good horror film and a truly terrifying one.

Lighting Design

Lighting sets the tone of the film. Bright and well-lit scenes feel safe, comforting and uplifting. By contrast, dark and dimly lit spaces create a sense of uncertainty and danger by playing on our natural fear of the unknown. When a character is alone in the dark, they are cut off from others which should make them seem more vulnerable.

Filmmakers also use deep shadows to obscure details and only show glimpses of the horror. Leaving the signifier to the viewer’s imagination can be more terrifying than actually seeing the monster or villain.

Light can be just as effective in creating a sense of dread and unease. A harsh spotlight might draw attention to a character’s face, making their frightened expression more intense for the viewer, or a flicking strobe light could highlight the monster’s erratic movements. Have you ever held a torch under your face while you told your friends a ghost story? This effect is called uplighting.

Consider the lighting design in this scene from The Conjuring which relies on light bulbs and matches to terrify the audience.

Derived from the Italian words chiaro (light) and scuro (dark), the term chiaroscuro refers to the use of strong contrasts between light and dark in a composition. In horror films, the effect can make the viewer feel incredibly anxious about what is lurking in those shadows.

This iconic shot from The Exorcist makes excellent use of the technique.

screenshot from the horror movie The Exorcist
Screenshot from The Exorcist (1973)#

The image of Father Merrin arriving at the home to perform the exorcism was used all over the world for the film’s original poster. Symbolising the intense battle between good and evil, the chiaroscuro draws our attention to the connection between the silhouetted priest and the room where the demon has possessed the innocent girl.

By manipulating light and shadow, filmmakers can deliver a cinematic experience that is both visually striking and emotionally terrifying.

Framing the Horror

In cinematography, framing refers to the way the image is composed within the boundaries of the screen. Filmmakers have to decide what to include in the shot and how to arrange those elements in the frame to elicit the right response from the audience.

Wide shots are used to establish the setting, but they can also encode a sense of isolation and vulnerability by showing the characters in large, empty spaces. If a director wants the audience to connect with a character’s fear, they can tighten the camera into a close up of their face. Close ups are often used to highlight details of a monster’s face or body to make it more terrifying. The audience might even feel like they are the ones being hunted by the monster when the director cuts to a point-of-view shot.

Low-angle shots can make the villains appear larger and more powerful, while high-angle shots can make victims seem small and exposed. Tilted angles are disorientating and disrupt our comfortable view of the world.

Camera Movement and Editing

The process of selecting, arranging, and manipulating the different shots into a congruent narrative or visual sequence is called editing. These decisions can make or break a horror film. Have a look at the opening shots of It Follows.

The wide frame pans around the suburban street suggesting there is some sort of invisible danger stalking the young girl. There is a tremendous sense of dread encoded in that shot. The first take lasts an unnerving one minute and fifty seconds before we cut to an interior shot of the car. It is an over the shoulder shot. When Annie turns around to see if she is being followed, the fear is obvious in her eyes.

The third shot is another wide frame. She looks completely lost in that horizon between the sand and black sky. Even in the next shot, which is tighter on the character, encodes her vulnerability.

Annie reacts to the hidden threat, and we cut to a POV shot. The lights of the car make it appear demonic, especially the red taillights. Perhaps the evil force is hidden in the empty spaces either side. Then there is the shock cut. The appearance of her broken body is sudden and unexpected. Horrifying.

In this next sequence, the protagonist is in school when she notices a strange figure in the distance.

The slow push in, which moves the audience closer to the window, is intercut with Jay’s increasing anxiety. The more the old woman dominates the frame, the greater the threat. Jay’s distress is reinforced by the close up and then wide frame of her awkwardly leaving class.

The Steadicam follows her around the school corridor. This camera movement suggests she is disorientated by her distress, especially the image of her walking away from the lens cutting to a shot of her walking towards the audience.

When she realises the old woman is in the corridor, the smoother camera dolly pulls back in each shot, almost invading the audience’s space. The series of quick cuts intensifies the conflict between the characters.

The Interplay of Codes

Steve Neale (1980) argued cinema was a “semiotic process” and meaning was constructed through the “interplay of codes”. Horror films are “specific variations” of these codes. It is the combination of scary visual elements, frightening music and diegetic sound, careful lighting design, and cinematography which provokes that pleasing sort of terror we want to experience when we sit down in our comfortable seats to watch a horror film.

The Narrative of Horror

Horror films explore a variety of themes that tap into our deepest fears and anxieties, raise questions regarding our mortality and what lies beyond, and depict the darker aspects of human nature. Some stories explore the psychological impact of trauma, often featuring characters who are struggling with past events or mental illness. Other films feature a vengeful antagonist seeking revenge for perceived wrongs, creating a sense of moral ambiguity and justice.

Neale (1980) suggested “the disruptions in horror films are often violent”. The gruesome monster attacks the isolated village, a wicked demon takes possession of an innocent child, or a crazed killer begins their terrible revenge on the group of teenagers. Moving the narrative into a state of disequilibrium, these inciting incidents are “often linked to questions about being human and what is natural”.

The narratives obviously rely on action codes – the protagonist closes the bathroom cabinet to reveal the stalker is standing behind them or the vicious dogs chase our heroes through the foggy cemetery.

The Conjuring’s poster also draws attention to the film’s use of enigma codes with the reference to the “true case files of the Warrens”. The two demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, agree to investigate the origins of the dark forces which are haunting the farmhouse. They soon discover the terrible story of the witch and her unholy sacrifices to the devil.

The Japanese horror film Ringu is also driven by enigma codes because the protagonist is a journalist who sets out to uncover the truth about a series of bizarre deaths. The clues lead her the tragic story of Sadako who could project her rage onto video tapes.

We might try to classify horror films into the genre of order because the central conflicts are “externalized, translated into violence, and usually resolved through the elimination of some threat to the social order”. In many early Hollywood studio productions, the monsters were defeated by the end of the story, providing reassuring and confident messages to the audience. More recently, in The Conjuring, for example, the curse is lifted and the witch is condemned to hell. Despite The Mist’s incredibly grim ending, the army are exterminating the creatures and saving the world.

Thomas Schatz (1981) suggested a “genre film’s resolution may reinforce the ideology of the larger society”. He also emphasised the narratives could “challenge and criticize” our values. Perhaps that is why horror films tend to have more ambiguous conclusions.

A great example is when Damien turns to the camera in The Omen, breaking the fourth wall, and smiles at the audience. The image of the devil relishing his victory leaves us with despair.

Screenshot from The Omen (1976)

Horror Subgenres and Hybrids

Cherry (2009) argued the horror genre was “constantly shifting” with “new conceptual categories in order to keep on scaring the audience”. Her outline of these subgenres is a good summary of the different forms of horror.

The Gothic refers to films based on classic tales of horror, often adapting pre-existing horror monsters or horrifying creatures from novels and mythology. Cherry classified films which involved “interventions of spirits, ghosts, witchcraft, the devil, and other entities into the real world” as supernatural, occult and ghost films.

Psychological horror films explore psychological states and psychoses, including criminality and serial killers. Monster movies feature invasions of the everyday world by natural and extra-terrestrial creatures leading to death and destruction. Slashers portray groups of teenagers menaced by a stalker, set in domestic and suburban spaces. There are also body horror and splatter films, including postmodern zombie stories.

Filmmakers borrow codes and conventions from other genres, such as science fiction, war and even westerns, to find new ways of terrifying the audience.

Finally, Cherry noted “what might be classed as the essential conventions of horror to one generation may be very different to the next”, so the genre will continue to diversify and fragment.

What Makes Horror Films Appealing?

Horror films are constructed to provoke negative emotions from the audience. Some people find the stories too scary and distressing to be enjoyable, but others are eager to experience that thrill of being frightened for many different reasons. Some horror franchises even have dedicated fandoms.

Going to the cinema for a good scare is a chance to escape the horrors in our own lives. In terms of the uses and gratifications theories, this motivation is called diversion. As well as being entertaining, watching a horror film with family or friends can create a shared experience and develop our personal relationships. It is almost a rite of passage for two young lovers on a romantic date to protect each other from the frightening images on the big screen.

Horror films can also be life-affirming because they empower the audience to confront and process their fears in a safe environment. Many story arcs conclude when the evil presence is destroyed, and a new equilibrium is established. Seeing the protagonist defeat the supernatural villain might inspire us to overcome the lack in our own lives.

There might be even deeper psychological explanations for our desire to watch horror films. For instance, Sigmund Freud (1919) argued the “uncanny” signifiers in fairy tales, such as severed hands and re-animation of the dead, could help readers resolve some of the emotional disruptions they experienced in childhood. He also suggested the supernatural themes challenged our rational view of the world and allowed us to imagine spaces beyond our own mortality: “it is no matter for surprise that the primitive fear of the dead is still so strong within us and always ready to come to the surface at any opportunity”.

Sometimes horror films raise interesting questions about our values and ideologies. For instance, The Dawn of the Dead is set in a large shopping mall and is an obvious criticism of our culture of consumerism. Other films might present concerns about the collapse of morality in society.

Of course, some people are simply fascinated by the darker aspects of human nature. When it comes to the gory and visceral horror stories, some thrill-seekers like to push the limits of what is acceptable.

Finally, we can appreciate horror films for their artistic value, especially when filmmakers challenge the conventions of the genre and produce something new.

Scary Profits

Although the industry seems full of creativity and glamour, making films comes with huge financial risks. Some productions will generate significant profits while many others will suffer substantial losses.

Keith Barry Grant (1986) described how the “profit-motivated studio system” in Hollywood “adopted an industrial model based on mass production” and attempted to exploit “commercially successful formulas”. If a particular style of film did well at the box office, the studios would try to replicate that success in their next feature. For instance, Universal Pictures developed Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy in the early 1930s to satisfy the audience’s increasing demand for fantasy horror films. These hits were soon followed by the inevitable sequels Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein, and a series of stories based on Kharis, an Egyptian mummy.

In his analysis of the Hollywood studios, David Hesmondhalgh (2013) described three important strategies the production companies used to “minimise the danger of misses” and ensure a return on their investment. This formatting process included a focus on star power, genre films and the development of franchises.

Neale (1980) suggested we liked to repeat our experiences of genre films because “pleasure lies in both the repetition of the signifiers and the fundamental differences”, so producers know there is always an audience ready for the next scary story. It is also worth noting horror films have a clear identity which can make the advertising message more effective.

Importantly, horror films do not need large production budgets. They usually have shorter run times which means less footage needs to be shot and edited. If the story takes place in a single location, such as a haunted house, the production company might save money on fewer sets. The producers can also reduce costs by featuring lesser-known actors.

As long as the genre remain profitable, producers will continue to make horror films.

Cherry, Brigid (2009): “Horror”.
Freud, Sigmund (1919): “The Uncanny”.
Grant, Barry Keith (1986): “Film Genre Reader”.
Hesmondhalgh, David (2013): “The Cultural Industries”.
Neale, Steve (1980): “Genre”.
Schatz, Thomas (1981): “Hollywood Genres Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!