Every year, a certain day creeps toward us, stealthily approaching while we remain unaware. Suddenly, the nightmare pounces, grasping us in its clutches. All we can do is scream!
We’re talking, of course, about the end of Daylight Savings Time. Seriously, who really thinks the sun should come up an hour earlier?
While we dread changing our clocks, we are taking comfort in the welcome approach of our favorite holiday, Halloween.
To celebrate, we’ve rounded up some horror films that use amazing, innovative techniques. Mostly, our list features makeup and special effects. Rest assured: all the examples are utterly horrifying, in the best possible way.
When Chris MacNeil insists, “[T]hat thing upstairs isn’t my daughter,” she isn’t indulging in wishful thinking. Her darling child, Regan, has been possessed by Pazuzu, the demonic antagonist of The Exorcist. To create the illusion of an evil presence, four crewmembers pumped levers to shake Regan’s bed. The props department made a rubber doll, which passed for Regan under low lighting, so that Pazuzu could rotate her head 360 degrees. Finally, engineers designed and cleverly concealed tubes for spraying pea soup and porridge, a foul concoction that simulated Regan’s projectile vomiting.
The Exorcist, which received 10 Oscar® nominations and earned $500 million at the global box office, was restored for screening at the Venice film festival in 2023. Sadly, its director, William Friedkin, passed away unexpectedly before the event, but he was fondly remembered as the creator of artistic masterpieces and the world’s first blockbusters.
The Shining (1980)
At the haunted Overlook Hotel, a psychic boy named Danny glimpses the grisly secrets that are driving his father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), to madness. Stephen King’s story about the Torrance family’s terrifying fate fueled the imagination of Stanley Kubrick as he adapted the novel for film.
To show Danny’s tricycle ride through the hotel, Kubrick worked with Garrett Brown, who had recently invented the Steadicam. In contrast to handheld cameras, the Steadicam could move yet capture footage smoothly, simulating real human perception and creating greater audience immersion. For a scene not in the novel, Kubrick’s team filled an elevator with fake blood, which gushed from opening doors and nearly swept the set away. The gory flood remains one of cinema’s most horrifying images.
In suburbia circa 1980, a sweet little girl named Carol Anne is abducted by malevolent spirits. A short documentary from Amblin Productions explains how Industrial Light and Magic helped Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers create the haunted house classic Poltergeist’s special effects. For a scene with “spectral light” streaming from Carol Anne’s closet, the crew shone strobes and other lights through smoke and water-filled aquariums. To film objects careening through the room, the camera operator was secured in place so that the whole set could be rotated on its side. Such ambitious tricks convinced audiences of what Carol Anne presciently knew: “They’re heeeeere.”
Author Paul Sheldon believes he was lucky to be found by a devoted fan and trained nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), after a terrible car wreck. Unfortunately, Annie discovers her favorite character, Misery Chastain, dies in Sheldon’s latest novel. Outraged, Annie decides to torture Sheldon until he finishes a new novel rectifying the literary murder. In Stephen King’s tale, Annie cuts off Sheldon’s left foot to prevent his escape. For the film, director Rob Reiner softened the atrocity, changing the graphic “lopping” to a mild “hobbling,” but audiences still squirmed at the impact of Kathy Bates’ sledgehammer on a convincing replica of legs and feet, wrenched to a sickening angle with the timely pull of a fishing line. By bringing Annie so vividly to life, Kathy Bates earned the Oscar® for Best Actress. More importantly, she ensured that wayward writers will now think twice before killing main characters.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
To catch a serial killer and skin collector, FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) needs to understand the nature of evil, so she speaks with a captive cannibal, the disgraced psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Although his insights help with the case, they come at the price of personal revelations, which Hannibal exploits to erode Clarice’s peace of mind, if not her sanity. The audience of Silence of the Lambs participates in the harrowing encounters through the film’s close-ups. As one reviewer explained, actors typically gaze to the side of the camera, but director Jonathan Demme asked Hopkins (and others) to speak directly to it. This unorthodox choice “turns us into Lecter’s subjects, butterflies pinned to his specimen board.” Silence of the Lambs won Oscars® for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Foster), Best Director (Demme), and Best Adapted Screenplay. It remains the only horror film to win Best Picture.
Two men chained in a bathroom realize that their only hope of escape is to cut off their feet with a nearby saw. They are victims of Jigsaw, a serial killer who contrives devious traps to punish those who transgress his twisted code of morality. While the diabolical trap that gave Saw its name is relatively straightforward, the film required more intricate devices – most notably, the reverse bear trap. If triggered, it tears apart the victim’s face. As Special Effects Supervisor Tom Bellissimo explained, he remade the original steel prop out of aluminum so that it would be easier to wear. Then, Bellissimo added salvaged parts: bicycle gears, a piece from a science kit, and a WWII bomber’s watch. The result does not merely look terrifying – it actually opens, thanks to an air piston and Bellissimo’s clever engineering.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
When Katie suspects that an intruder has been visiting the house, her boyfriend, Micah, decides to prove her wrong. Instead, his high-definition camera captures undeniable signs of a ghost, causing the couple to panic. Following the found-footage tradition, which was invigorated by The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity spooks the audience by showing what Micah’s camera records as it watches over him and Katie during the night. For one scene, producer Jason Blum hid behind the couple’s bed and slowly pulled the sheet away. In an interview, director Oren Peli explained how he intensified the horror of such scenes by angling Micah’s camera to include the empty hallway. Likewise, he discovered that timestamps, originally used in only one scene, were crucial for enhancing the overall effect of realism. This Halloween, why not celebrate by rewatching Paranormal Activity and then recreating Micah’s experiment? If you dare!
On a trip to Detroit for a job interview, Tess discovers that her rental house is in a terrible neighborhood, as well as being unexpectedly occupied by another renter, Keith. The strangers agree to make the best of the situation, but that proves impossible once Tess enters the basement. To become Barbarian’s primary monster, a subterranean creature called “The Mother,” Matthew Patrick Davis wore not a bodysuit but an array of prosthetics. They included a lurid mask, withered breasts, and a drooping gut. Additionally, Davis wore a wig of sparse, stringy hair and a horribly incomplete set of fake teeth. We haven’t seen a more terrifying sight since Gangie rasped, “I’m thirsty.” As you’re dressing up for Halloween this year, remember both the dangers of plastic surgery and the power of carefully chosen prosthetics.
That’s our roundup! We hope it kindles your imagination this Halloween.
Until next time, find some creativity wherever you can. Stay safe, and be well. #StandCreative