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Fear, Anxiety, and the Horror Genre

Updated: May 18, 2021

(Part 1 of the Eliciting Fear in Horror Films Using Sound Design series)

Hi, and welcome to the first article of my series on eliciting fear in horror films using sound design. This article will work as an introduction to the rest of the series but won’t explore the specific principles of eliciting fear using sound design, which will come in later articles. In this article, I will introduce you to the horror genre, then explain how fear and anxiety work, and finally, look at how filmmakers, in a broader sense, elicit fear in horror films.

What is a Horror Film?

Horror is very wide ranging in its subject matter, making it difficult to define the genre clearly. The plethora of horror sub-genres: Gore and Disturbing; Psychological; Killer; Monster; and Paranormal; create diversity and intrigue. Horror films must have a threat, such as a monster or serial killer. Horror often polarises audiences and causes controversy, and it is considered one of the most creative genres, allowing directors a greater degree of artistic license. The genre regularly incorporates new concepts, which prevent audiences from becoming too comfortable, and makes horror films less predictable, providing a better environment to generate shock. However, narrative clichés are still a staple of the horror genre. For example, there is usually a journey undertaken- either our suggested hero travelling to a scary environment or a threat somehow being invited into our hero’s peaceful world. Generally, in horror films, it is the case that female characters outlast males. There may also be a plot twist at the end, such as the killer’s body disappearing, which acts to set up a sequel.

Films within the horror genre are intended to generate fear in cinema audiences. They provide a challenge for audiences, who try to ‘survive’ the film. Humans are naturally drawn to danger, and horror films allow the audience to go down the path of discovery. Horror movies explore our most disturbing and deep-rooted pre-existing fears. Audiences can confront these fears head on. Noted horror filmmaker Wes Craven, said: "Horror films don't create fear, they release it".


Fear is said to be amongst the most powerful emotions and it has significant ramifications for psychological and physiological wellbeing. When under immediate threat, fear triggers robust reactions that help humans remove themselves from danger. Fear was crucial to our ancestors, to act swiftly and firmly when faced with threats, like predators. The sources of danger have changed with time, but humans still have the same automatic reactions to these new threats. Learned fears, can help prevent injuries or death. The triggers for fear, what people are afraid of and responses to these fears can vary depending on the person.

When faced with danger, the human brain sends messages to the brainstem which cause bodily reactions. Several parts of the brain have been found to react to fear. Research suggests the amygdala is a crucial part of the fear system, and that it may be very important for evaluating and representing fear intensity. The amygdala controls our experience of fear. It decides the appropriate responses to stimuli, and affects fear responses by sending signals to the brainstem. The amygdala is also crucial for fear learning. It has been suggested that fear also causes increased activity in other regions of the brain, such as the insula, and the inferior and ventral prefrontal cortex.


Anxiety is a variety of fear that relates to worry about future events, instead of current events, and it can persist as time goes by, eating away at someone. It acts as a response to potential danger that triggers adaptive defensive responses, such as heightened alertness and behavioural modifications to evade potential danger. Humans may initially decipher the threat level to primarily feel anxiety, and as the threat gets closer, feel fear. Anxiety causes reactions which are less extreme and not as urgent as those fear triggers. Anxiety is not only a response to a perceived threat to oneself, it can also be a response to a threat posed to someone else and people can feel anxiety upon seeing someone else who is anxious.

Fear and the Horror Genre

Fear is seen as a pleasurable emotion in a horror movie context. Horror film audiences are aware they are watching fictional events yet can still be scared by them, as frightening scenes trigger their survival instincts and give them the thrill of being in danger without truly being in danger. Even if we know why something scares us, we can still be scared by it. Horror movies must have a perception of realism to be genuinely frightening, and to achieve this, along with a feeling of presence in the environment of the film, sound is a major contributor.

Horror films generate empathy for the characters caught up in the horrific events. Filmmakers try to make audiences relate to the characters through characterisation, so that they care about what happens to them. When audiences care about characters whose lives are threatened, they can be genuinely scared on their behalf. Additionally, the audience may relate ordeals that characters endure during the film, to comparable ones in their own lives, such as someone close to them dying, and they feel empathy for the characters as a result.

Many horror films will also play on contemporary anxieties, like fake news provoking injustices or the damaging impact of social media, if users cannot haul themselves away from their screens. Often, they will reflect socio- political themes, such as the paranoia that a brutal war or deadly contagious disease could arrive on our doorstep.


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