The Eyes Have It: Horror Films and the Look of Fear

A new supercut traces the history and impact of scared expressions.

Fear is contagious. For most of us, just like yawning or nausea, if we’re in the presence of fear it makes us scared, too. Which is why in regards to the horror genre in film you see a lot of reaction shots. No line of dialogue, no act or actions can convey terror like a person’s face can, and as such a scared look is the one of the best and simplest ways to really engage an audience’s emotions. Because fear is beyond description, it is an experience and when we recognize the experience in another’s expression, it transmits itself to us, we become a mirror of the fear for just a split-second, and that’s all it takes to get a hold of us as well.

Think about the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a scene that’s a maelstrom of cuts, technically and narratively. It’s a flurry of frenetic images and disparate perspectives spliced together, fractured seconds in which we see the killer in silhouette, we see the knife coming down again and again, we see water circling the drain start to run red, and we even see the see the dead eye of Marion Crane staring directly into the camera, but far and away the scariest moment of this infamous scene isn’t Marion’s death, but rather when she realizes – suddenly, immediately, irrefutably – that she is going to die.

This facet of the scene has the strongest impact because even before the knife slashes her for the first time, we know, as does Marion, that her part in this story has come to an end. We project ourselves into her place, we can imagine the ultimate vulnerability that comes from being naked and defenseless in a place that isn’t your own, like we can imagine the ultimate terror that comes from something inconceivable showing up out of nowhere and ending everything. In this moment more than any other, we are Marion Crane, we are the murder victim, we are the casualty of senseless and in fact insane violence, and it all is born from from a single, unforgettable look.

It’s in this spirit of fear as a communicable disease delivered by one’s contorted countenance that compelled Daniel Mcilwraith to make for Fandor this succinct supercut chronicling the look of fear across a panoply of horror films including, of course, Psycho, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Innocents, The Exorcist, Jaws, Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria, and tons more, all based around a central question: which look is scarier – one accompanied by paralyzed shock, or by a piercing scream?