Enjoy the Silence: The Unsettling Art of Quiet in Horror Movies - Dread Central
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Enjoy the Silence: The Unsettling Art of Quiet in Horror Movies

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This week marks the release of John Krasinski’s horror-thriller A Quiet Place on Blu-ray, and I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to checking out the film again at home as soon as possible. This is so I can enjoy the movie again, of course, but also to see (with all cynicism aside) if the film holds up as well in the comfort of my own abode as it did in the theaters back when it first hit. I personally think that the silence in a movie theater can be much more effective than the silence in our own homes.

Allow me to elaborate.

A year ago I made my first feature film, Echo River. I knew the film had to be made for under $10,000 (and we ended up shooting it for less than $1,000…) but what I knew right out of the gate was that the film was going to be horror. Because one, I’m a horror movie fanatic. And two, because horror movies are a great place to start your filmmaking career, just ask Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, etc.

But what does this have to do with silence? Well, I knew that the film was going to have to be made on the extreme-cheap and so I knew right out of the gate – before a script had even been written – that this was going to be a creeping dread horror movie, not a blood and balls to the wall gorefest. This is because, having been a fan of such films as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, along with being a student of early M. Night Shyamalan films such as Signs and The Sixth Sense, I knew that silence, as they say, is golden.

Take a look at the original Halloween for instance. Sure the score keeps a-poundin’ for large portions of the movie, but look how much Carpenter gets by with just leaving a wide angle lens to sit on an empty suburban street. The trick here is we know we are watching a horror movie so the simple act of not showing the viewer anything scary (or much of anything at all) makes what you do show them filled to the brim with dread. That guy washing his car is obviously hiding a sinister secret. That lady walking her dog is going to get super-murdered with the quickness. The rule of thumb with creeping dread movies is that the mundane is suddenly infused with endless horrific possibility just by employing a lingering camera.

And the same works for silence. Cut out the music and sound design altogether and an audience will immediately begin anticipating the STING(!) of screeching violins, and a cat jumping out from some dark corner of the screen. To go a bit deeper, my theory on the suspense of silence goes a little like this: Most people love noise. Plain and simple. Go ahead and look around at all your friends and neighbors. How often do they sit in silence? Not often if at all, I bet. More than likely if you start paying attention to those around you, you will find that as soon as there is no one to talk to, or no one talking to them, they will quickly go and turn on the TV or some music. Anything but silence, please God.

And that is something horror movies offer the common person that he/she might not even realize throughout their daily lives. Horror movies offer silence. And silence, especially for parents or people with loud siblings/significant others, is a truly terrifying sound. Why the hell is it so quiet? Everyone must be dead. In the entire world. That’s the only logical explanation for momentary silence.

Horror movies are one of the few occasions where people will turn off the lights and all the other distractions and settle in for the long haul. It’s only then that talented filmmakers will use the art of silence against them, leaving them stranded with nothing more than the voices in their heads to keep them company. And we all know what our paranoid minds think the second we allow them to: “There is a killer in their house! He’s real and he’s been following me since I was a kid! It’s the same man that’s been hiding under every bed I’ve ever owned and behind every shower curtain I’ve ever encountered! He’s real and he knows I’m finally all alone!!”

This is what silence gets you. And not only that, but you can do this theory one better by, get this, not having the characters talk to each other. Think about it. Say you’re sitting around with a group of friends and/or family and everyone just stops talking. Total silence. What’s your reaction? Nine times out of ten you’ll speak up and ask, “What’s wrong?” Again, this is because silence is something we as humans find deeply unsettling if it comes out of nowhere.

I recently wrote a piece here on Dread Central about The Shape of Water and the Power of the Silent Performance and the lesson give or take is the same here. In that post, I gave you guys a challenge. I asked you to make your next short film and/or short story feature a character who is speechless. And today I give all you short filmmakers the challenge to make a short film all about silence. Hear it, use it. Put a sequence together with a character doing the dishes home alone. That’s all. Add creepy music and then show it to friends and family. Record their reactions. Then go back to your editing suite and remove the music. Remove the sound design. Find a white noise track online (or create one with an oscillating fan) and then share the scene again with a new set of friends and family. Again, record their reactions.

So give the use of silence in movies a closer eye – or, natch, a closer ear – especially when checking out John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place this week on Blu-ray. Then try out the short film challenge I just detailed above. Afterward make sure to hit us up and let us know what you found out in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram!.

Until then, enjoy the silence…

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