Modern Horror Movies & the Rise of Negative Space

With horror films such as Blair Witch, It Follows, and Sinister, why it's sometimes what you don't see that matters...

This article contains spoilers for It Follows, Sinister, Ringu, the original Blair Witch Project and – as always – Fight Club.

It’s everywhere, it’s terrifying and it’s preying on our fragile psyches. It’s the sky, the darkness, the woods or just the background in the frame surrounding the people we see in our television shows and movies. It’s where the threat is, or might be – the unknown in which something could suddenly appear at any moment.

Negative space can be an essential element of any visual composition, but it’s horror movies that often rely on what you don’t see to make a story work. Pinhead, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers et al might make for formidable foes, but the terrible thing we imagined lurking under our beds as children – or the actively awful person we imagine might be following us home as adults – exists in our imagination, where we tend to create the worst things possible.

Using negative space within the frame to create a lurking sense of unease is nothing new (what could be back there? Is it…it?) but in modern horror it’s become an absolutely crucial technique to master. If we think back to the original The Blair Witch Project, we might feel frustrated by the film-makers’ use of negative space (they didn’t show us the witch and, believe us, we looked!) or still wholly unnerved (they didn’t show us the witch and, believe us, we were desperately trying not to look!) but the use of it around those three characters lost in the woods was utterly imposing.

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Two recent films in the genre have used negative space extremely well. One crosses the finish line as, arguably, a great piece of modern horror, and the other… well, it kind of doesn’t – but let’s examine why.

It Follows

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is described as a “supernatural psychological horror film” for good reason. Not only does the film’s basic concept cripple the main character psychologically, it slowly takes apart our own ability to be comfortable with what we’re seeing.

The movie doesn’t waste any time setting the pace. Jaime (Maika Monroe) is on a fairly pleasant date with her new boyfriend, which involves a consensual sexual encounter between the two toward the end. As Jaime lies in the back of his car in a state of post-coital bliss, he suddenly chloroforms her, drags her out to an abandoned concrete location and ties her to a wheelchair. He explains that now they’ve had sex, she’s infected with what is essentially a supernatural virus. She will be pursued by an ambling figure in various guises that won’t stop until it’s killed her – at which point it will fall back to pursuing the person who originally infected her.

The only way to rid herself of the mysterious and homicidal stalker is for Jaime to have sex with someone else and “pass it on.” In this way, the concept is similar to Hideo Nakata’s 1998 classic Ringu, where demented well-dweller Sadako could be thwarted by showing a copy of her videotape to some other poor bugger.

It Follows ostensibly makes for a macabre modern pantomime. As the audience, we begin to feel near-compelled to yell “IT’S BEHIND YOU!” as various characters are slowly dogged by the rambling It, and at some indistinct point during the film’s running time we come to realise that we’re now barely watching the main characters and are instead completely focused on the negative space surrounding them, our skin crawling and our fists clenched with tension.

The film could be a textbook example on how to use negative space to make a story and its atmosphere work, and however you feel about the ambiguous and often frustrating third act, there’s no doubt that the final shot still holds as much menace within its negative space as the preceding ones.

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Director Scott Derrickson paid his horror dues writing Urban Legends: Final Cut and directing Hellraiser: Inferno in 2000 before snagging hit The Exorcism Of Emily Rose in 2005, but after striking out with the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still in 2008 it would be another four years before he hit pay dirt again with the supernatural horror Sinister.

The film, starring Ethan Hawke, was an unlikely hit. Hawke had effectively avoided the entire horror genre throughout his career (and by Derrickson’s own admission took a lot of convincing before agreeing to sign on) and the basic plot of the film sounds terribly silly.

Hawke plays Ellison Oswald, a true crime writer who hasn’t had a hit book in a decade and who is absolutely desperate to find some unsolved mystery to research, expose and basically get his teeth into. Finding a box of Super 8 snuff films depicting various horrific deaths in the attic of a house he knows to be the scene of an entire family’s murder, he starts to probe the mystery of the films and the face of a demonic figure that appears in the negative space within them.

The scenes where Ellison watches the Super 8 footage are fraught with dread. In the first two acts, our eyes repeatedly flick to the darkness behind him as his face reacts to the terrible violence he is witnessing. We feel that the awful demonic face will appear in the negative space of Sinister, just as it does in the films within the film – it’s only a matter of time.

During the third act, Derrickson falls back on genre convention and starts to show us the ghosts of the dead children and the demon, Bughuul, as an active and visible presence. Understandably, the threat of properly showing them to us is much more effective than actually seeing them – our minds can start to pass these images off as actors in make-up and masks, and the deftly-constructed atmosphere disintegrates swiftly.

Derrickson, currently in the big leagues polishing off Marvel’s Doctor Strange, likely feels fine with it – but it’s a shame that the third act of Sinister wasn’t quite as inventive at the risk of frustrating some viewers, because his use of negative space during the first two-thirds of the film is quite exceptional.

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Admittedly, negative space can also be used well in various other genres. We might see two people sitting opposite each other in a diner having a tense conversation while other patrons mill around in the background, unaware that a shoot-out is about to take place. We can feel the hopelessness of a man lost in the desert as the horizon stretches on forever in front of him. The sky darkens around a desperate Michael Shannon as a storm gathers in Jeff Nichols’ 2011 masterpiece Take Shelter. Fight Club’s negative space illustrates the encroaching presence of Tyler Durden in background ‘blips’ until he finally emerges to wreak havoc.

Hell, it’s even creeping onto our television sets. The team behind the USA Network’s hacker drama Mr. Robot have extensively used negative space as part of the show’s visual composition, to the point where viewers have often complained that the show’s characters are virtually disappearing from the frame entirely.

Why has this particular trend become more prominent and is it a good thing? Well, that’s for you to decide. Negative space might have always been there, but like the monster we never see it’s slowly creeping out from the elsewhere, existing both in our imagination and our reality at the same time – and scaring the absolute crap out of us now more than ever.