Horror films are practically synonymous with darkness. That uneasy feeling of something lurking in the shadows is what directors lean on to set the tone.
But have you ever considered what kind of darkness is being used? Better yet, are you properly watching all that darkness?
In his video essay “The Troubles with Darkness in Horror,” director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) breaks down the best and not-so-great uses of darkness in horror films, as well as why you may not be seeing everything a director intended.
Sandberg makes a case for “proper darkness,” i.e. films and scenes that truly seem to be lit by a single light source like a flashlight or candle, instead of “fake darkness” where a director may light a “dark” scene in order to read the actors’ faces. However, as Sandberg notes, the issue with proper darkness is “How dark can you go?”
How you’re watching a film (on a TV, movie screen, laptop, phone, etc.) can make all the difference in whether or not you’re seeing what the director intended you to see in the dark. For example, in Sandberg’s short film version of Lights Out, some people were able to see the ghost woman creeping in the hallway, while others couldn’t see anything at all. Sandberg mentions this was most likely due to the gamma setting of their display, which most people probably don’t realize.
“Depending on the display’s gamma setting, it doesn’t always even help to raise the brightness all the way up,” Sandberg says.
Sandberg also explains that for Annabelle: Creation, his team re-created a “shitty theater experience” in his coloring suite to accommodate for old projector bulbs some theaters may be using that don’t render proper darkness.
Check out Sandberg’s essay below and make sure you don’t get lost in the dark next time you watch a horror film.