Horror Film Editing
So What SHOULD An Editor Know About the Horror Genre?

Carrie among a range of other successful horror films all employed and balanced both techniques to great commercial and artistic success. It is only more recently that horror films have relied too heavily on the ‘shock cut’. I would argue that the best horror films can ‘creep out’ the audience and frighten them merely through suggestion, sound and the ‘fear of the unknown’, but they combine this style with the ‘shock cut’ to get maximum impact.

As previously mentioned, horror films tend to scare people in two different ways. There is the ‘jump scare’ which has been popularised since the 1970s and then there is the more traditional ‘creeping out’ technique that employs weird, eerie images on screen that intend to unnerve the audience evoke their fears of the unknown. Carrie (1976) used both techniques to great effect and this was largely in part due to the editing of the film. In the final scene, we see the character Sue walking slowly towards the plot where Carrie’s house once stood. To give the scene an ‘eerie’ feel, it was shot backwards. Sue was filmed walking slowly backwards away from the plot and down the street, and this was then reversed and put into slow motion in post-production. The scene looks strange because people walk differently when they walk backwards, they take more care because they cannot see what is behind them and when reversed and slowed down, it creates a dream-like effect where the character is almost floating down the street. This was particularly successful in this scene from the film because Sue was dreaming after all. The scene also employs the jump cut to great effect. As Sue bends down to place flowers on the ground, and everything seems resolved and peaceful, a bloodied hand burst out of the ground, grabbing her by the wrist and a series of quick cuts between Sue’s face and the hand around her wrist startle the audience when they least expected it.

Jaws (1975), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007)

These three generations of horror films all have one thing in common, they suggest rather than show evil. Though a close up shot of a zombie jumping out at the audience can indeed be frightening in a horror film, it is often what we don’t see that evokes our greatest fears. 

The Paranormal Activity (2007) trailer. Notice how you do not actually see any sort of ‘evil’ character once, it is merely suggested through ‘paranormal’ activity.

Minimalistic Editing in the Horror ‘Mockumentary’ Or ‘Found Footage’ Film

The late 1990s and 2000s saw a growing trend in horror films being presented as ‘found footage’ from domestic videocameras. The craze began in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project, which presented ‘found footage’ of three young student filmmakers who disappeared whilst hiking in the woods to film a documentary about a local urban legend; the Blair Witch. Their footage (as we are told as an audience) was found a year later and is presented to look unedited in the order it was filmed. Not once does the audience actually see anything haunting the students, it is merely suggested, but its success in conveying the fear of the unknown gave rise to the ‘mockumentary’ horror film which has been popular since. 

The Barrels Scene from Jaws. You do not see the whole shark much, but this scene exemplifies how by suggesting the animal’s presence, you can instil fear into the audience.

The other technique that Spielberg used to suggest that the shark was looming,  was by having the crew onboard the boat shoot at it with a harpoon attached to a number of bright yellow buoys. Consequently when the shark was nearby, the crew (and importantly the audience) are made aware its presence when they see the yellow buoys floating on the surface of the water. The editing of these buoys becomes important in a scene where the shark is chasing the boat. Rapid cuts between the buoys floating across the water and the close up shots of the characters’ faces, combined with fast tempo music  connote fear amongst the audience and as the pace of edit increases, so does the tempo of the music. We only actually see the shark a handful of times during the film and even then it is only for a few frames at a time. Jaws is another excellent example of how the fear of the unknown can be utilised to great effect, but it is important as an editor to be confident enough and often ruthless enough not to show the killer itself, be it a shark, a monster, a demon or another human being. In Spielberg’s own words “it is what we don’t see that is really truly frightening” (Spielberg, 2010).

SPIELBERG, Steven, Jaws: The Inside Story (2010) DVD

John Williams - Jaws Theme
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The first was by using John Williams’ now iconic music. Williams’ theme music from Jaws is one of the most recognisable of all films. Although it probably does not need describing, it uses a two-note bass-line on a tuba, that has become a universal code for an impending shark attack. Although Williams often composed particularly complicated music, the power of the Jaws theme lies in its simplicity. The bass-line is played very slowly at first and at very long intervals. On-screen, the shots are cut between each sound of the bass which is very effective in building up tension. Gradually the repeated sound of the bass-line becomes faster and more compelling and the images on screen are cut to match the tempo of the music, suggesting the shark is getting closer and closer, building the tension further. Then the tuba is joined by the rest of the orchestra, in a deep brass harmony, whilst still being dominated by the bass notes. Then, the bass notes are dropped and the higher pitched stringed instruments take centre stage in a chaotic melee before the bass returns, suggesting the shark is back. And then there is silence, the unknown. The audience associate the bass notes with the shark but now they cannot hear them and so don’t know where the shark is. It is at this point that the shark either attacks a character or disappears in the narrative. 

Fear of the Unknown in Jaws

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) also uses the fear of the unknown to great effect. Despite its estimated $8million budget (IMDB), even Hollywood had trouble creating a mechanical shark that looked realistic on screen. Spielberg highlighted in an interview that the mechanical shark used in Jaws (1975) was so unrealistic, that he spent hours in the editing suite with editor Verna Fields debating how many frames it should be on screen for at any one time, before it began to look fake. The mechanics of the shark also suffered from several malfunctions throughout the shoot, and it was therefore unavailable for several of the scenes that Spielberg had intended to use it in. Spielberg cited Alfred Hitchcock as a major influence towards his artistic decision from then on in and he questioned what Hitchcock would have done in the same situation. As Hitchcock did in Psycho ten years before, Spielberg and Fields experimented with the fear of the unknown. Rather than show the shark itself throughout the film, they would merely suggest its presence using two main techniques.