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Horror Film 101: Behind the Mise-en-scène


What makes scary movies keep us awake at night? Maybe it is the fear of the unknown, maybe it is the subtle Shepard’s tone, which gives us unconscious goosebumps, or maybe it is the theme music of the dreaded monster. There is no one answer to explain why people are drawn to horror, but if it were not for the sound, or lack of it, the mise-en-scène, the male gaze, or the infamous antagonist, we would not lie awake in the dark thinking something might be lurking outside our windows. This series examines the psychology behind what makes horror films so successful in terrifying people and the benefits of watching these anxiety-driven films. Plus, why do these films stick with us, especially when we are alone?

Horror Film 101: What Makes Horror Movies So Scary is divided into the following chapters of content:

4. Horror Film 101: Behind the Mise-en-scène

5. Horror Film 101: How Horror Affects Mental Health

6. Horror Film 101: The Psychology of Terror

Horror Film 101: Behind the Mise-en-scène

The most integral part of a film, especially horror, is the mise-en-scène. The expression "mise-en-scène", originates from French and translates to "putting into the scene", was initially used for theater. However, filmmakers use the term interchangeably now to signify what is seen on screen (Bordwell, 2017, p. 113). Mise-en-scène contains four main components: "setting, costumes and makeup, lighting, and staging (which includes movement in the shot)" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 115). Cinema relies on mise-en-scène to enthrall the viewer and make the movie as close to reality as possible. Mise-en-scène requires planning ahead; however, some filmmakers enjoy the spontaneous lines an actor may throw in or an unexpected change of weather on set (Bordwell, 2017, p. 113). Mise-en-scène is important because it uses art principles like those of a painting. It requires real work, that only detail-oriented people will notice, like the colour of the set design and the significance of a character's outfit. Mise-en-scène works wonders for film because a character does not even need to be present for action to happen on screen: a single door could slam on its own, causing tension within a scene (Bordwell, 2017, p. 115). If it were not for the setting, lighting, makeup and costume, and staging, films would lack key aspects that make horror movies so terrifying.


When it comes to the setting in horror films, most locations are in a dark, isolated environment, away from civilization, and cause the viewer to be on the edge of their seat as there is a killer present; "[t]his isolation is the essence of the horror genre" (Royer, 2005). With no one around to hear the scream of the isolated victims and help them, the setting remains one of the most horrific aspects, as it is relative to people's real-life fears. In the film Barbarian (Cregger, 2022), the setting takes place in an isolated Airbnb, in a run-down house in Detroit. The protagonist, Tess, finds herself in a mix-up with another character, Keith, who also booked the same Airbnb. They both agree to stay; however, Keith is still a stranger to her, and there is no one else nearby to help her if need be. Later, they find out they are not alone, as Tess discovers a secret layer in the basement of the rented space. This is terrifying to the viewer because the thing in the basement wants to cause harm to both of them, and they are alone. Even when Tess tries to get help from the police, they do not take the call seriously. She remains in a fight-or-flight state because of this anxiety-producing situation (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 4). Fight-or-flight state is a condition of human anxiety caused by the brain's fear circuit, which distinguishes the "severity of different threats. The midbrain circuits operate at the immediate fight-or-flight situations where direct contact with the threat can no longer be avoided. The higher-level systems in the frontal cortex are involved in prevention and planning of avoidance when the threat is not yet imminent" (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 4). Although some directors are strict when it comes to the authenticity of a set and its historical accuracy, some films commit to low-budget sets instead because of the cost (Bordwell, 2017, p. 115). This was not the case in Barbarian (Cregger, 2022), as they had a budget of over four million dollars (Barbarian, 2022). Some sets may be built, while others use "miniature buildings" to achieve the same effect (Bordwell, 2017, p. 117). Props, short for properties, on hand, are part of the setting, which also came from theater. Sometimes a prop will also become a motif, which is "an element in a film repeated in a significant way" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 497). This can be seen in the setting of the horror film, Sinister (Derrickson, 2012). The movie follows a writer who moves into a new house with his family, following the murder mysteries of the previous house owner. What he discovers is an old projector with Super 8 film reels. The projector becomes a prop and later a motif as it is discovered, the movies on the projector are what the antagonist uses to kill the families the villain finds. The projector is also a vehicle the antagonist utilizes to come through and scare the protagonist. Another aspect of the setting is colour. The shot may rely on colour to enhance the meaning of the scene. For example, horror uses a lot of the colour red, which "has a stimulating effect on the nervous system, blood pressure increases, respiration rate and heartbeat both speed up; while blue has the reverse effect, blood pressure falls, heartbeat and breathing both slow down" (O'Connor, 2011, p. 232). Along with the colour red, viewers associate specific colours with villains as well, like black. In Sinister (Derrickson, 2012), the antagonist is seen in a dark black coat and dark makeup, which makes him even more terrifying. Through his colour palette, people can automatically assume he is evil (O'Connor, 2011, p. 232). Colours may also be motifs as well (Bordwell, 2017, p. 119). The setting additionally helps transport the viewers within the film world by focusing on time and place, "so that [the audience] can think about the scene in relationship to the proper historical or cultural context" (Lathrop, n.d., p. 6). The setting assists the viewers to become more involved in the film through isolation, fight-or-flight, colour schemes, motifs, and even time and space, which makes the setting of a horror movie indistinguishable from the real world and causes extreme fear.

Figure 1: Nicholas King as Bughuul in "Sinister" (Derrickson, 2012).

Costumes and Makeup

Costumes help to identify certain characters and understand the motivation of each character within the film (Lathrop, n.d., p. 6). Costumes are used for "their colors, their textures, and even the way they flow" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 119). It is the first thing you notice about the character even before they speak and, based on colour psychology, the audience can infer a lot about a character (Bordwell, 2017, p. 120). Filmmakers have also developed costumes through CGI, to make the characters scarier (Bordwell, 2017, p. 121). Makeup was used in the early days of film "because actors' faces would not register well on film stocks" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 122). Horror uses a lot of makeup for fake blood, as well as "[r]ubber and plasticine compounds [to] create bumps, bulges, extra organs, and layers of artificial skin" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 122). In the grotesque film Saw (Wan, 2004), a myriad of makeup is used to show the gore and make the viewer too scared to witness it (McCann, 2013, p. 30). Saw (Wan, 2004) is

a world of slicing, dicing, mutilation, and dissection. [...] [T]he consistent scenes of corporeal mutilation — and the powerful emotional charge we feel when watching them — recall Freud's notion (2003) that lost 'organs' and 'severed limbs' are 'highly uncanny' because of their 'proximity to the castration complex' (McCann, 2013, p. 30).

Gore has been established by scholars as "pornography, and melodrama — [...] because it violates the classical realist paradigm of 'efficient, action-centered, goal-oriented linear narratives' and offer gratuitous scenes of uncontrollable sensation, such as terror, arousal, and despair" (McCann, 2013, p. 32). Production designers are in charge of dressing the characters and building the set. They work with "Art Director[s], [...] Set Designer[s], and the Prop Master to create and add these physical elements to the filmic space. The Production Designer reports to the Director, and together they conceptualize the look of the film well before cameras start rolling" (Moura, 2023, p. 2). Costume designers have made extravagant "large-scale monsters out of fiberglass casting, and aluminum wiring, among many other tactics" (Johnson, 1996, p. 9). Costumes influence our culture and how we associate with specific people through their colours. The audience can deduce what the characters are like through their clothes and makeup and determine if they are good or purely evil, and the makeup adds realism and gore to the villains and their victims.

Figure 2: Shawnee Smith as Amanda Young, trapped in a torture device, in "Saw" (Wan, 2004).


Lighting sets the mood in films; it "can intensify or subdue a setting, but regardless of its effect lighting is one more tool that the director uses to complete his cinematic statement. Therefore, lighting should be a vital concern to the student of film" (Lathrop, n.d., p. 6). Movies that incorporate lighting are noticeable, like the "flourescent-lit lair of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. [...]. Many of our most vivid memories of movies stem from mise-en-scène" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 112). There is specific lighting when it comes to a shot, like frontal lighting, side lighting, backlighting, underlighting, and top lighting (Bordwell, 2017, pp. 126-127). Lighting can be used to draw attention to a certain character or to distinguish a villain in dark lighting. Hard lighting is utilized to produce "defined shadows, crisp textures, and sharp edges, whereas soft lighting creates a diffused illumination" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 125). Lighting has highlights and shadows, or shading, which intensify the scene (Bordwell, 2017, p. 125). It can be used to highlight and obstruct an object, which is influential in horror to mask the creature luring in the dark (Bordwell, 2017, p. 125). The specific shots in which an actor has underlighting and is viewed from above are an automatic assumption of power, from which most villains are viewed. Even in Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017), he uses specific lighting to achieve a terrifying contrast with beauty (Long, 2017). Peele uses a camera flash as a motif in the film Get Out (2017), when the protagonist, Chris, becomes suspicious of his girlfriend's family after staying the weekend. Chris decides to get tangible evidence that something is off, so he takes a picture of a guest at the party he is at. The man becomes unhypnotized by the flashing of Chris' phone camera, and he yells at Chris to "Get Out" (Peele, 2017). This movie has specific lighting effects that can shine a light on its themes and also keep the audience in the dark and unnerved. Peele used coloured lighting and "special gels" to light the characters and the setting to achieve "texture and tone" (Long, 2017). Part of what makes Get Out (Peele, 2017) so special from other movies is that it focuses on lighting people of colour properly. Hollywood has a history of racial prejudice, as

'Shirley cards' used by film-makers to calibrate skin tones and light, only featured caucasian models until well into the '70s (and only changed because of complaints from photographers trying to advertise chocolate or wood furniture) (Latif, 2017).

Cinema put objects ahead of people of colour, which is unjust. But filmmakers today, like Peele, are making waves and finally lighting black bodies in a way that is beautiful and cinematic. Lighting can bring out the beauty of the scene but also hide the monsters in the dark, which is why it is such an effective element of mise-en-scène.

Figure 3: Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in "Get Out" (Peele, 2017).


Staging refers to an actor's performance within a scene, including "appearance, gestures, facial expressions, and sound" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 131). The most expressive aspects of an actor's influence are within their mouth, their eyebrows, and their eyes. They all work according to the specific scene at hand (Bordwell, 2017, p. 134). There is also shallow-space and deep-space within the actor's frame, which can give the shot a more uncanny or realistic look (Bordwell, 2017, p. 148). This relates to "Straub's 'extremity of circumstance in perfect safety'" as the viewer is in comfort at home while witnessing the horror that unfolds before their eyes (Clasen, 2017, p. 54). In the already mentioned film, Barbarian (Cregger, 2022), the character Keith is automatically viewed as a threat due to his social anxiety. The audience perceives him as a threat because of his sketchy presence, but after he is killed by the antagonist, the audience realizes he just had social anxiety. The actions an actor will take determine how the viewers will perceive them and may be a red herring to the end.


Mise-en-scène is an important aspect when it comes to film. Due to set, costumes and makeup, lighting, and staging, horror films achieve realistic isolation, fight-or-flight responses from viewers, colour schemes, time and space, dark lighting, and the way an actor views the situation, which makes a film scary and worth watching.

Bibliographical References

Barbarian (2022) - financial information. The Numbers. (2022). Retrieved April 6, 2023, from

Bordwell, D., et al. (2017). Film Art: An Introduction (11th Edition).McGraw-Hill Education.

Clasen, M. (2017). Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford Scholarship Online. 001.0001/oso-9780190666507.

Johnson, J. (1996). Cheap tricks and class acts: special effects, makeup, and stunts from the films of the fantastic fifties. McFarland & Co.

Lathrop, G. and Sutton, D. O. (n.d.). Elements of Mise-en-scène. PDF.

Long, K. (2017, December 27). Get out's cinematographer reveals the methods behind Jordan Peele's Brilliant madness. Motion Picture Association. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from

McCann, B. (2013). Body Horror. In To see the Saw movies: essays on torture porn and post-9/11 horror. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Moura, G. (2023). Mise-en-scène. PDF.

Latif, N. (2017, September 21). It's lit! how film finally learned to light black skin. The Guardian. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from

Nummenmaa, L. (2021, March 4). Psychology and Neurobiology of Horror Movies. PsyArXiv, Web.

O’Connor, Z. (2011). Colour psychology and colour therapy: Caveat emptor. Color Research and Application, 36 (3), 229–234.

Royer, C. & Royer, D. (2005). The spectacle of isolation in horror films: dark parades. Haworth Press.

Sipos, T. M. (2010). Horror film aesthetics: creating the visual language of fear. McFarland & Company.

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Melanie Rose Gazvoda

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