The Visual Spice of Horror

It is a known fact that the use of spice in cuisine is for the purpose of adding flavor to a dish that on its own is bland and tasteless. In light of this month’s theme, I’m comparing the same idea to a completely far off field – film and the art of cinema. Films are similarly cultivated to entertain the audience and to serve as a distraction from perhaps one’s bland and tasteless life. So what gives cinema and films that added flavor, that extra spice that makes us love them so much to where we dedicate hours of our lives to go and view them? For me an aspect of that extra spice is the visually aesthetic appeal of certain films that enhance its story and thus, it’s audience’s engagement. One genre that is often criticized for not achieving the same level of critical appeal, as films of other types, is horror. When you think of horror films, the immediate visual of a terrifying caricature of evil or an ensemble of blood and gore comes to mind. While the disturbing and distressing aspects of horror films are its hallmark, and the reason why many people enjoy them, the real enjoyment comes when the film triggers the audience’s aesthetic appeal along with their fears. Despite popular belief, there are many horror films out there, all distinct, that manage to do both: they are a visual masterpiece but also manage to scare the hell out of you. Today, I’m going to recommend to you a few of these films and explain why this aesthetic appeal makes them infinitely more enjoyable – even if you are not a consistent horror fan.


To begin with a more recent release, It Follows directed by David Robert Mitchell is a film about a sexually transmitted curse that can take any form, whether it be a friend or a stranger, and within minutes, latches on to our main character, Jay, who must fight it off without continuing to pass the curse on. The first scene of the film sets the basis for the rest – the audience witnesses a 270-degree rotation of a seemingly calm suburban street until a young woman runs out of her home and down the street, continually looking behind her as if running from something. The audience never sees who is chasing her and instead the camera’s position makes it look like we, the audience, are chasing her. A moment later, the film cuts to a scene at the beach. The waves dancing behind her as she lays dead, her limbs broken and disproportioned. The tension of this scene, of the audience not knowing exactly what is happening, is repeated throughout the film with camera movements that put the audience right in the center of action among Jay and her friends. We soon learn that the “curse” is always following her and as the camera spans in a 360-degree angle, the audience can guess if the curse (taking form of a person) is following her, but can never be too sure. Furthermore, the fact that Jay’s friends cannot see this curse makes the intense scenes much more enjoyable as the shots cut quickly from each perspective – making it a perfect situation for dramatic irony. On the surface, this film seems like a typical story of a curse latching on to a host and following them until it achieves its end goal, but the reason why the first scene is so important and why it stuck out to me is because it represents the story at its core. The curse, like an STD, is sexually transmitted and after we know this, the position of the camera chasing after the young woman to her death is becomes much more significant. It represents the way society often stigmatizes people, especially women, when it comes to sex and sexually transmitted diseases. So not only is the film a visually appealing nightmare, it can also be seen as an allegory for attitudes on sex today.


Next, A Tale of Two Sisters directed by Kim Jee-Woon is a South Korean psychological thriller film following Su-mi, a recently released patient from a mental institution who returns to her broken home, reuniting with her father and sister against the eerie hostility received from her step-mother. The story is based off of a Joseon Dynasty folk tale called “Rose Flower, Red Lotus” and much of Kim Jee-Woon’s directorial and visual decisions are rooted in that whimsical fairy-tale feel while maintaining an eerie, unsettling mood. Kim Jee-Woon is most famous for his utilization of space – usually building elaborate sets for his scenes and creating an atmosphere specific to a character or a mood. He also repeats images and motifs in his films that carry thematic or symbolic meaning. Watching this film is like watching a painting that moves – the visuals and colors that the director utilizes really makes the audience feel as if they are in the web of the story. For one, he repeats floral images adorning the settings such as on walls, curtains, and clothes during scenes of either of the two sisters. In the original folktale, the sisters are named after the rose and lotus flower, the influence of which is seen in the red color scheme used in their respective scenes. Furthermore, Kim Jee-Woon plays around with bold lighting to symbolize the mental state of the characters in specific scenes throughout the film. This is seen in the purple and red hues that adorn the step-mother’s room and the green shades representing the sisters’ – moreover, this effect evokes a sense of the supernatural, of something beyond the human world, that gives off an unsettling feel to the viewer. Throughout the length of the film, the audience is overwhelmed with a sense of tension and ghostliness that the manipulation of space really exacerbates.


And last but not least… can this really be a piece about visually aesthetic horror movies without mentioning a classic? Absolutely not. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a haunting and chilling account that is visually just as breathtaking as the story. Much of Kubrick’s esteem is derived from his use of space, camera, and colors and this still holds true in regards to The Shining. Much of the color palette in this film is bold colors against neutral, deep reds, blues and greens against beige and brown. It kind of gives off the impression that there is a corruption happening – a bleeding of something evil into the mundane daily life of the Torrance family. Furthermore, almost every shot in the film can be analyzed for days on end, but for the sake of this recommendation, I’ll just say that symmetry and alignment plays a big part in the usage of space in the film; there is the use of the double and the centered shots that create uneasiness and tension. It really centers the audience in the middle of action, evoking extremely unsettling feelings. In several instances, Kubrick holds new revelations back from the audience to build anxiety. For example, shots in which the camera remains fixed on a certain character, such as when Wendy is reading Jack’s manuscript, keep the audience guessing as we see her expression change but we don’t know why. Also instances where Jack Torrance begins talking to the camera, the audience is unsure whether he is talking to someone else or to himself is — theme which is recurrent in the film. This also comes into play with the utilization of mirrors as props in various scenes. These mirrors represent the internal turmoil of the main character while also reflecting the audience’s suspicions throughout the whole film – what is real and what isn’t?

About the Author

Kiran Gokal is a long-time reader and writer who treasures books with beautifully crafted characters and enjoys reading during raging storms (the more thunder, the better). Outside of being a part of Apricity Magazine, she works as a consultant at UT’s writing center and aspires to venture into the book publishing industry as an editor.