As a child, the most terrifying place in the world was my grandparents’ basement. Their home is a log cabin in the middle of several dozen acres of woodland – the perfect picturesque setting for a horror film. Jutting out to the side of the cabin is a rusty cellar door, which we were always warned to stay away from.
In the basement my grandfather always kept several hundred jars in neat rows on shelves along the rough cement walls, filled with homemade jams, jellies, and a variety of pickled things. In the darkness, those jars always reflected eerie sparkles of mottled light, bringing to mind the mad scientist type lab I had so often seen in horror films.
In the recessed, rarely visited part of the basement was an assortment of old tat – antique furniture, an old dollhouse, and long-disused holiday decorations that my grandparents never bothered with anymore. The spiders, mice, and cellar bugs ruled the roost back there and even at my bravest, I could never stay there for long without running back upstairs, my heart pounding in my chest. Even the stairs were terrifying. They were simple and wooden and open underneath – perfect for imagining a hand reaching through the gap in the steps to grab your ankle as you descend.
Logically, I knew there should be no reason to fear the basement. My grandfather was a jokester and would tease me about monsters living down there, but he also tried to convince me that humming near the hummingbird feeder would attract the little nectar-loving birds. I was onto his shenanigans from an early age.
And yet, I couldn’t shake the fear. In the dark, senses heighten. Every noise is a possible threat, every shifting shadow is a creeping menace. Sometimes even the absence of sound is a sign of impending doom; Why is it so deadly silent, suddenly?
We fear the unknown, the unquantifiable, the unidentified. The less we know about a thing, the greater our fear is. The best horror films capitalize on this fear. The less we know about the antagonist, the scarier it is. What is it? Where is it? What will it do? These are questions that heighten the chilling suspense of the horror viewing experience.
There are many films obscure the antagonist in order to heighten suspense. Some do it better than others. Below are some of the best examples. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen some of the films, I’ve kept this article spoiler-free.
Ridley Scott has a gift for pacing and editing. This film is one of the coldest, darkest, most beautiful and tense films ever made. Part of the reason the alien is never fully seen — except in brief shots — is because if Scott had shown a long shot of the creature, the practical effects illusion would have been shattered.
While the decision to obscure the creature was partially pragmatic, Scott also understood that the less we see and know about this creature, the better. We know it’s there, stalking Ripley and the crew. What we don’t know is how it gets around, what it wants, or how and who it will kill next. It creates a thrilling and immersive experience for the viewer and has cemented Alien as one of the best horror films ever.
It Follows (2014)
It Follows takes a different approach to obscuring the antagonist – rather than not knowing what it is, the audience is constantly questioning who it is. The slow-stalking, ever patient killer could be anyone since it takes on the appearance of its past victims.
In a world where anyone could be the dark, menacing curse that’s following you around, it isn’t just shadows that are frightening. Running away from everyone, on a planet inhabited by seven billion people, is an impossible and hopelessly terrifying task.
The premise of Identity is that a group of strangers with some mysterious connection all end up at a creepy motel, start dying off, and any one of them could be the murderer. One of the beautiful things about this film is that every time a question is answered, it opens up a dozen more.
As the viewer, you are learning at the same rate as the characters. You are in the dark just as much as they are. The structure of the film seems to be set up to help you guess the murderer, but you’re kept on your toes until the very end wondering who and why.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The key to the tense atmosphere of this film is that the motives of the antagonist, and indeed who or what the antagonist is, is extremely obscure. Rosemary’s struggle to know just who she can trust as her mind becomes increasingly frayed by her circumstances is beautifully played out, to the extent that the viewer begins to wonder whether the odd occurrences are actually just in her mind or not.
Roman Polanski is a master of planting questions in the viewer’s mind. He makes unsettling suggestions and then asks the audience to justify the suspicion that those suggestions created. Throughout the movie, who the antagonist actually is and whether there even is an antagonist is artfully obscured, creating a beautiful gothic horror classic.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
One of the more literal versions of an obscured antagonist on this list, Paranormal Activity takes the technique and plays it out with an invisible entity plaguing the protagonists in grainy shots. The viewer can see that something is happening, but the motives and abilities of the entity are entirely unknown.
In other scenes, the action is happening entirely off camera and all we have is the audio of screaming, garbled conversation, and sounds of crashing furniture. The tension is extremely high in these scenes because the audience has no idea what kind of wreckage or aftermath will be seen and needs to use imagination to deduce what exactly happened.
In Hush, rather than visually or psychologically obscuring the killer, we experience the film through the eyes of the deaf antagonist. When the film plays from her perspective, the absence of sound is unnerving. This makes for a unique take on the technique that plays out terrifyingly well.
The plot is beautifully simple. A masked killer plays a cat-and-mouse game with a deaf writer in a wooded retreat. The tension of this movie is perfectly strung in quiet, unsure, heart-pounding moments. The viewer wonders again and again “What would I do in her shoes?” It’s cleverly done, and one of the most elegant examples of the technique I’ve seen.