The Role of Lighting

This room isn’t pitch black, but it’s dark enough for us to be worried.

Though I didn’t think it was a great film, one of the things I dug about Juon 2 was the way the director used lighting to suggest some sort of abstract malice. Unlike many traditional horror movies, Juon 2 doesn’t rely on pitch-black locales to build tension; instead, it suggests that the characters in the film could be attacked anywhere where there is the slightest degree of shadow. It also seems to be necessary that the victims be alone, but the director makes it clear that well-lit rooms are no defense against the film’s traveling curse.

I think that director Takashi Shimizu’s goal here is to keep the audience on the edge of their seat by suggesting that nowhere is safe. The antagonist of the film isn’t contained by a dilapidated mansion or haunted graveyard; she can strike anywhere, even during the day or in a brightly lit room. The protagonists have nowhere to hide, and unlike many lesser horror films, the audience has no chance to relax.

Once the director has communicated this idea to the audience (as he did so effectively with a particular apartment scene in the first Juon), we begin to scrutinize every shot for possible danger. The power of a small shadow or slightly dark corner is dramatically increased, as we know that it might be the source of immediate danger.

Even a little bit of shadow in the corner can be suggestive.

This puts Shimizu in an incredibly powerful position over the audience; if he wants to create tension, all he needs to do is put his characters in a room by themselves and include the mere suggestion of darkness. Juon 2 shows that this method can produce high-tension scenes without relying on music, tricky camera work, or any sort of special effects. Any further suggestion of malice (such as the tendency in Juon for common appliances to reveal impending danger) only increases the suggestion of danger produced by his approach to lighting. The result, I think, is a rather relentless pressure on the viewer that increases as the film slowly unveils the horror at hand.

Unfortunately, Shimizu damages his own tension with a terrible script and a few completely out-of-place scenes. But there are a few moments in the film where his ability to use light suggestively makes an otherwise predictable scene pretty scary stuff.

I think that there are several video games that are already taking advantage of this sort of approach. The Silent Hill series, especially Silent Hill 2, have used suggestive lighting to dramatically increase the level of tension inflicted on the player. Unlike Resident Evil, which gives the player

Silent Hill switches between ambient light and the flashlight to produce different moods.

easy-to-identify safe rooms, the Silent Hill series has often employed varying levels of ambient light to suggest the relative danger of its various otherworldly locales. These games also switch between areas with some ambient light and areas that are are only visible through the tight beam of the flashlight. Here the message is the same but the effect is a little more direct: nowhere is safe because danger lurks everywhere. The radio in Silent Hill serves the same purpose as the rogue appliances in Juon: to incrementally increase the tension already created by the rest of the scene.

Though horror movies have traditionally relied on scenes that are pitch-black to sell the idea that danger may be lurking in the darkness, movies like Juon 2 show that the same effect can be achieved without turning out all the lights. Once the audience has been lead to believe that any shadow may harbor danger, everyday locations can easily host tension-filled scenes. Though it seems like the same sorts of techniques are applicable to video games as well, very few developers actually take advantage of this sort of iterative creation of tension.

Sorry if this is all sort of a stream-of-consciousness. In the future I have some other random thoughts about techniques that games developers could learn from modern horror film, but this post is already long enough.

One thought on “The Role of Lighting

    I’m a more recent visitor to this site, and I just wanted to thank you for posting such interesting links and thought-provoking articles; as a writer, and someone interested in storytelling in videogames, I’m always trying to learn more about scare theory, and this site… BIG wealth of info.

    Also, you linked me to Clocktower 1 and it makes me scared and happy.

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