Focus and Horror

Focus is an important aspect of creating horror. Too often a movie will tip its hand early, showing the monster full-on in total focus before the film’s climax. Better to keep the creature only half-glimpsed, in the background, blurry and out of focus as it drifts behind the characters and through the viewer’s psyche.

Hyper-focus or lack of focus is important in creating a sense of dread in the viewer or reader. Too much detail or too little can be terrifying, but its the middle ground, just the normal amount of detail, that I think tends to kill horror. Leaving a monster at the barest sketchy outline, only the teeth and sclera and weight of it, is just enough to allow all childhood fears to leap to the foreground. Describing the minutiae of a hallway, the simple distance between the bedroom and an intruder in inches and centimeters and the way the air still smells of the repaved parking lot and the sounds of the pipes creaking as they always do at night but there are two points of light at the end of the hallway, two reflective eyes becomes a terrifying overstimulus.

Leaving the details up to the imagination allows the reader to supply their own personally horrifying details, filling in the blanks with their own worst fears. Hyper focus can cause the reader to dissociate from what is normal around them, making something banal horrifying by revealing new layers of seeing.

I remember once when I was five or six I was grounded in my room for misbehaving. Without anything else to do, I focused too hard on things, staring at the patterns in the woodgrain on my door. Eventually, I had stared at the door so hard and for so long that the random shapes and whorls resolved into something different. I saw a man’s face, and became absolutely certain that there was someone in the room with me, and screamed. My parents came running and alternated between being angry that I’d scared them over nothing, and trying to console me. There was no man in my door.

I’m not really a fan of the Insidious movies, so much so that I didn’t bother to see the second and third one, but there is a moment in the first one that absolutely terrified me. I went to see the movie with a friend, and there’s a scene after the family has moved houses, and the mother walks past the coat room in the new house. My friend leaned over to me and whispered “Was there a person standing in there?” I quickly whispered back “No, I think it was a bunch of coats.” The mother walks past the coat closet a second time, and the boy in the coats moved. I’d missed him the first time because I was focused on the mother’s movement and not the background, but my friend had been hyper-focused on the little details and so had seen him. Both of us gasped at the scene.

Hyper focus and underfocus had been effective tools in creating horror for the same scene, as well as our shared viewing of it – the boy’s sudden appearance had scared me, because I realized he had been there the whole time but I had not seen him, whereas my friend’s doubt about what he had clearly seen the first time and the subsequent confirmation unnerved him.

The now defunct P.T. game and the repetition of the circular hallway played with focus with terrifying success. By adding or removing details on each trip through the hallway, the repetition of the banal in itself becomes terrifying, and is augmented by the super-natural, such as the threat of Lisa always following, or the sink fetus. The player sees and re-sees the same corners, the same windows, the same walls and wainscotting, and knows that something else is out there, knows that the details may change. The normalcy of the picture frames becomes a terror, the scattered trash heap on an end table a threat.

I am freaking out about my hallway.


Lights Out” is a really good horror short film. For me there’s a specificity to how it scares me. The opening minute, with the figure in the dark, is a real fear for me because of my literal lack of focus – I take my glasses off at night to go to bed, and essentially become functionally blind. I could not even see in sharp resolution the horror of what was attacking me. Sometimes I wake up at night and peer into the darkness, waiting for my brain to make sense of the blurry outlines in my room, hoping none of them move.


I’m sure that “Lights Out” is a little at fault for this: I over-focused on the hallway to my bedroom, and have turned it into something horrifying. I am too aware of the angles and the short distance from the back wall to my room, because I have spent too long squinting into the darkness as I try to remember whether I locked the front door or not. The hallway seems different from the rest of the apartment, the straightness of the lines too stark.

I worry one night I will peer out at the hallway, trying to remember how many times I touched the lock, only to see something bounding down the small space on stilted too-long legs, just barely visible against the dark.


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