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8 Great horror film lighting examples

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Published Oct 18, 2022

With the scariest time of the year just right around the corner, those who aspire to make a name for themselves in the horror movie industry might be ready to start producing some short films of their own during this time. The key to making a brilliant horror film (or even shooting amazing horror-themed pictures) lies partially in the horror lighting. That being said, there are so many different types of lighting strategies that you can employ in order to perfect that spooky mood and really wow your audience. But where do you begin? With our horror film lighting examples, of course! 

Let’s walk through 8 great horror film lighting examples that will help you better understand what strategies today’s filmmakers use and how you can use these in your own filmmaking endeavours. 

In this guide, we’ll cover: 

  1. Spotlighting
  2. Saturation (Particularly Red)
  3. Backlighting (Silhouette)
  4. Uplighting
  5. Underexposure
  6. Casting Shadows
  7. Harsh Lighting
  8. Shooting Through Objects or Elements (With Lighting Setting the Scene)

1. Spotlighting

Nothing’s more terrifying than the sudden realization that someone or something else is nearby. However, it’s the reveal that’s often the most shocking. One effective way to scare the audience and shed light on whatever it is that’s lurking in the shadow is through spotlighting. Rather than revealing the villain or monster through traditional means, spotlighting can be used to jumpscare viewers by having the actor shine a light directly on the antagonist. This results in a quick jolt and one that’s sure to continue to deliver thrills and chills if you should be filming a shot where the monster or villain continues to pursue your protagonist in the darkness as the only thing focusing on it is the light of the flashlight. 

You might also see this employed on a much larger scale, such as shining a light on a massive monster as it rampages through a city without power. 

2. Saturation (particularly red)

Saturation can be an effective horror film lighting strategy, and it often entails the use of red. Red is a very emotional colour. Besides being the colour of blood, red can represent anger, unease, and a wide range of other emotions that are particularly fitting for horror movies. If you’re someone who really loves the horror genre, you’ve likely come across red in some of your favourite horror movies. Just a few examples worth mentioning here include Nightmare on Elm Street (where red has a persistent presence), and Seed of Chucky. Of course, the use of coloured lighting has been used in other forms across horror media as well, such as how Dario Argento uses it in Suspiria

No matter whether you’re a videographer who loves using colours or you wish to evoke a certain emotion through the use of a specific colour in your film, consider using saturation as a means to get your point across to the viewer.

3. Backlighting (silhouette)

Horror film lighting examples - the silhouette of a person standing in fog
Photo by Alexandre Lallemande

Have you ever watched a horror movie where you can see that someone’s in the distance but you can’t tell exactly WHO it is? This might be referred to in several ways, such as backlighting or silhouette lighting. One form of this you might be most familiar with is on the cover of The Exorcist where you can see the silhouette of the priest in the light of the house. This might not be as menacing as some other examples, but it’s certainly an image that most horror fans will be familiar with. Whether you’re in the initial stages of a story and you don’t want to reveal who the antagonist is just yet or you’re looking to create suspense throughout the entirety of a crime thriller until your final reveal, backlighting can be an extremely effective horror film lighting strategy for those shooting their own horror films. 

4. Uplighting

Uplighting is something that most are extremely familiar with. If you’ve ever held a flashlight under your face as you told a scary story, you’ve engaged in uplighting! Uplighting is certainly one of the older strategies on this list, and that’s because it’s extremely effective. Uplighting cast shadows on the face while also accentuating certain features. This morphs it into a different visage altogether, which can be unsettling (even more if the actor is wearing prosthetics or makeup). If you’re looking to make someone or something look especially menacing in an opening shot or even throughout the film, you might want to employ uplighting. 

Some movies only use it a few times while others will rely on it heavily throughout the entirety of the runtime. Don’t be afraid to use it too much unless it’s not translating well with your vision. 

5. Underexposure

Underexposure can be a bit of a pain point in modern horror. If you’ve watched today’s horror, you’ve likely come across a few films that were simply too dark throughout the whole thing. Obviously, this doesn’t translate to good media. Knowing how to balance low lighting and other forms of lighting is critical to creating something that people will actually be able to watch, especially if you’re building a film studio you have control over. That being said, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t appropriate times to employ underexposure. 

Say, for example, that you want to do a villain reveal as they hide in the darkest corners of a house. By utilising underexposure, you can keep them hidden from the audience until it’s their time to strike. A great example of this is in the Halloween movies, where you might not see Michael Myers until it’s too late. As long as you make sure you’re not making your film so dark that one can’t enjoy it, you should have no problem using this strategy to really shock your audience when it matters most. 

6. Casting shadows

Horror film lighting examples - A shadow stretched across the ground
Photo by Johann Walter Bantz

Shadows are thrilling and suspenseful because they precede the actual threat. They can also give you a quick glimpse of what to expect when something rounds the corner, whether it looks more menacing or not. The good news? Casting shadows is quite easy. All that’s required is the proper lighting, the right angle, and making sure that the actor’s placement creates a shadow that’s long and ominous. Looking for an example? Look no further than black-and-white movies like Nosferatu. These types of films make excellent use of shadows as a means to strike fear in the hearts of protagonists and audiences alike. 

There are a lot of movies today that use CGI for shadow effects. However, if you’re looking to go a bit more old-school and make someone in your movie more menacing so that their reveal is much more terrifying, take notes and get the right film equipment to get the job done!

7. Harsh lighting

Lighting, like most elements in movies, can set a specific tone and evoke certain emotions. For the most part, you’re going to see very little light as our fear of the darkness and more importantly, what’s inside it, is an essential component in horror. However, that’s not to say that bright light doesn’t have a place in horror at all. 

When you think of horror, what genres do you think of? Most might think of their favourite movies in the slasher genre or something that stuck with them from a supernatural movie. But these aren’t your only choices. A great example of movies that use very strong hard lighting are sci-fi movies. More specifically, extraterrestrial movies. The fear, bewilderment, and overwhelm that characters feel when they’re encountered by blinding lights from an unknown source can certainly leave an impression on the audience that extends far past the runtime. 

Additionally, the lights can indicate the presence of something without ever showing it (although you might catch a glimpse once the lights show up in some movies). While there is something to be said for all the horror movies out there that do show their monsters or characters, there’s something chilling about not knowing what the main characters are being faced with. This type of horror film lighting leaves things entirely up to the viewer’s imagination, which can be quite effective!

8. Shooting through objects or elements (with lighting setting the scene)

While this does involve lighting, it’s also about perspective. Let’s set the scene for this with a horror movie like Halloween. Remember the first scene where we see through the eyes of Michael’s mask as he goes on his initial rampage? This is a great example of how we can capture a scene through objects. Another great example of this is filming a protagonist through a window from the outside. 

However, objects aren’t the only things you can film through. If you have a person running through the forest, you can capture them through the branches of the trees to add more dread and uncertainty. Whether we’re talking about horror film lighting or scenery, don’t be afraid to get creative. 

Find your next studio location on Tutti

Having all the best horror film lighting tips makes it easy to capture the right emotion when the time comes to film. But where do you turn to when you’re ready to make your vision a reality? Here at Tutti, we help you connect directly with space owners so that you can seamlessly book your next space for shooting. Find your film studios or video studio with Tutti today!

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