Whether you’re a horror aficionado or the kind of person who’s too chicken to watch Scream Queens, you’ve probably seen at least one movie that really, truly freaked you out. In some cases, it’s easy to understand why you’re scared—Annabelle’s entire face, for example—but in others, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why that hallway is terrifying the bejesus out of you. Cosmopolitan.com talked to four people who’ve spent a lot of time on horror sets—two costume designers, a production designer, and a cinematographer—to get some insight on how scary movies actually go about scaring you. And yes, horror professionals get freaked out too (though they’re a little harder to scare than your average Paranormal Activity fan).
- Leah Butler, costume designer for Annabelle 2, The Lords of Salem, Paranormal Activity 3and 4, and The Bye Bye Man
- Michael Fimognari, cinematographer for Ouija: Origin of Evil, Oculus, Jessabelle, and The Lazarus Effect
- Natalie O’Brien, costume designer for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch
- Jennifer Spence, production designer for Annabelle 2, Lights Out, The Bye Bye Man, The Lords of Salem, Paranormal Activity 2, 3, and 4, and Insidious: Chapter 2 and Chapter 3
How does the process of producing a horror movie differ from making something like a drama or comedy?
Jennifer Spence: When I’m working on a horror film, I have much more freedom to be creative because the supernatural is present. I make a lot of suggestions about what could be interesting to give the viewer something cool to look at and try to build on the characters’ oddities. I’m really conscious about filling out the background details about a character even though you might not see it in the words in the script. And there are always oddball things that you’d never think of that you end up doing. For example, [on one movie] there was a doll that had to be broken in a certain way when she hits the ground, and it’s really specific, the way it’s written. So we had to figure out how it would break, because you can’t predict something like that. We had to do practice runs and see if we could get it to do what the script said. What can we make it out of that would actually accomplish that? It was part of the challenge.
Natalie O’Brien: For me at least, it’s a lot of numbers, because I have to make a lot of things because things are gonna get destroyed. You have to figure out what’s gonna get ruined, who’s gonna get stabbed, where’s the blood, when the finger’s gonna be bitten off, and where the blood is gushing. It’s a lot of figuring that all out. In Girl Walks Home, there’s a scene where blood gushes everywhere, and we had to do triples of that scene. [The actor’s] jumpsuit was like a vintage Adidas jumpsuit, so I had to craft another one that was similar to that.
Leah Butler: We need multiples for sure. On Annabelle 2, I had one particular dress that is very featured on a young girl, and I think we ended up making eight dresses in total for her.
What are some techniques that your departments use to up the creepiness factor of a movie, outside of what’s in the script?
Michael Fimognari: One of the things that I find most terrifying is when you think you see something in the dark but you’re not quite sure … In Oculus, there’s an early moment in the story where they’ve just moved in to this new house, and they’ve started to get things on the walls and the furniture in place, so they put the mirror up on the wall and then their father’s walking through the house late at night, through the boxes, and turns a corner and comes face to face with someone standing in front of him. He can barely see her shape but he knows she was there, and then he looks back and she’s gone. It’s always photographically very fun to find those shapes in the room that you think might be one thing and then turn out to be another, or later turn out to be the thing you really thought they were.
Leah: Sometimes it’s color. [In one of my movies] I intentionally had some lighter-colored pieces, but one in particular was created using some pleating and straighter lines, so even though the color was light and ethereal, some of the elements of the overall design were not soft, not sweet, not innocent. We use a lot of paint, a lot of textiles, a lot of dyeing, a lot of tearing things, just to make it seem like it’s gone through something and that it has a story behind it. For example, if there’s a character that has come back from the dead, we use a lot of people that are textile artists that can help age and distress things accordingly.
Jennifer: I work closely with the director of photography, because I want to create environments that are interesting to his view. We talk about how we can create spooky images using the light and making spaces that allow him to the shoot the story in an interesting way. If it says [a character] is walking down the hall and I am in charge of building that hallway, I might give it some interesting shapes so that when you look down the hallway, it feels more narrow—like I might cheat the length and push it in so it has a bit of forced perspective. I also might design something that [the DP] could shoot through, like a grate or something interesting besides just the regular shots that you do on a film. A lot of these stories take place in one house, so I have to try and give him a lot of choices, give him something different to do each time so it doesn’t feel like the same shot. In Annabelle 2, I tried to pick things related to the character. This little girl in the story is nicknamed Bee, so to reflect that I chose things around the house that will, if you’re paying attention, reflect her presence—like I made these little bumblebees that are in the house on the staircase. Just little things to try to marry her to the place.
Natalie: Definitely color. If you have something lighter, the blood can be a little more gushy and gory. I’m starting a new film [about] Lizzie Borden, and we’ve been talking about what we want her to wear for this ax-murdering scene. Instead of doing a dark color, I was saying let’s go lighter, because then that way when we see that gory moment it’s gonna have a nice splash. I like to go with a little bit of a lighter color or a lighter texture, but nothing too thin because [then the blood] will sink through onto the actor.
Has anything creepy ever happened on any of the movies that you’ve worked on?
Jennifer: When I was doing The Lords of Salem, we were shooting at a location in downtown L.A. and one of my [friends on set] has, like, a sixth sense … We were up on the second floor of this big building, and she came flying down the hallway late in the day, white as a ghost, and said she had seen something and wouldn’t go back to get her purse unless I came with her. It totally freaked me out. I believe in that kind of stuff, so I think there’s something there. Also when we were shooting in Linda Vista Hospital [in L.A.], that was creepy. I’m sure there was something in there, especially in the basement. I never liked filming in there. It always gave me the creeps. On the second or third floor, the buzzer to one of the rooms would go off all the time when nobody was up there. There were no patients, but the buzzer at the end of this hallway would go off all the time and freak us all out. We’d go in groups, like nobody’s going down there by ourselves. And when we were set dressing in the basement [of Linda Vista] for Insidious, there was this room full of crazy old [patient] records from the’40s and ’50s. We were moving them around to do our set dressing, and everybody in the room started feeling sick and weird and heavy. We had to take a break because everyone felt overwhelmingly unwell.
Natalie: For Girl Walks Home, we were shooting in Taft, California, which is up by Bakersfield, and it’s a very kind of ghostly town on its own. There’s barely a population up there. I remember that we had rented out this basement that we had turned into the set for the Girl’s house and we were down there for a couple days. I think there was a homeless person living there while we were not there, because things had moved around. We talked to the art department and it wasn’t them at all. I feel like either someone was down there, or it could have been a spirit or something like that.
Leah: We had some very strange things on The Lords of Salem. We filmed at a studio where a lot of people shoot, but there were just some strange things happening, and people were attributing it to a ghost. I was shopping for [director] Rob Zombie’s wife in the movie and I found this T-shirt that I liked and bought it for myself. I walked into work the next morning, and Rob looked at me, and he just started laughing and was like, “What is this, some sort of joke?” and I said, “No, what are you talking about?” And he said, “I want you to come look at this bedroom set.” And the exact print of the shirt I was wearing was on the wall of the set. On Annabelle 2, the doll freaked a lot of people out. We ended up having a priest come bless the doll on set, believe it or not. There was an actress who has a very Catholic belief system, and she sort of insisted that a priest come bless the doll so that nothing would happen during [shooting]. I thought that was really interesting. I was on set when the priest came during our lunch and blessed the doll, and he did a fantastic job.
Do you think the average viewer has gotten harder to scare as horror becomes more and popular as a genre?
Jennifer: I do. I think that that’s a challenge for me, is trying to give them something to look at that they haven’t seen already. That’s something I take into consideration whenever I’m designing a film. I try not to watch everybody else’s movies until after I’ve done a project, because I don’t want to be influenced by what they’ve done.
Michael: It’s a language just like any other language. Audiences are very smart and they want to be rewarded for being as smart as they are. When they come in, they understand the genre from its history, because they’ve been watching movies all the time now—anything you wanna see, you can see. You really have to be able to elevate it and build on it. The scare is all about the unexpected, and what you thought might happen but doesn’t. To some degree it’s like a roller coaster. You know what’s gonna happen when you go up and you come back down. You are delivering the expectation, but you also want to give it that little twist that maybe hasn’t been seen before.
What are your biggest pet peeves while watching other people’s movies?
Michael: The unearned jump scare … it’s one of those language points which was really successful and now it’s just a little too overused. The best jump scares are the ones that actually deliver on the fear that you’ve been building. The jump scares that fall flat for me, because I see it coming a mile away, are the ones where the cat jumps up on the table or the thing that was just there to make you get a little jolt of electricity. I’m more in favor of the dread and the slow burn and the terrifying relentless thing that just keeps coming and won’t let you go. I want to be terrified the whole way through!
Natalie: I hate seeing wrinkles. Wrinkles in the shirt from when dress shirts have been folded or something like that. Oh god, it kills me.
Leah: The clown! What is it about the clown? There are always creepy clowns. There are so many cool clowns from the past, from history, so when I see a clown costume that is super basic, it really irritates me. You could be so creative with a clown, and yet people are so stuck in the way a clown should look.
Jennifer: Bad paint choices. Sometimes it cannot be helped. Sometimes you just don’t have the budget. I try not to judge on that part. I’ve done a lot of low-budget films, but I try not to make it look like a low-budget film. I put a lot of my own belongings in the first films that we did. I think all of the furniture in the first Insidious was mine, because we didn’t have anything. My whole house was empty. That’s my couch, and those are pictures of my grandma, and things like that. I wanted it to feel full. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t look real. That’s my pet peeve—that and a bad wig. Which has nothing to do with production design, but that’s just me. It’s distracting!
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.