How To Build Suspense

I chose to look only at horror movie trailers to get a better and more broad understanding of how this genre structures its trailers. The eight trailer lengths ranged from as short as 1:27 to as long as 2:37. The “average” trailer length seemed to hover around 1:45. All of the trailers also seemed to follow the same structure in terms of how the trailers build suspense. First, the trailers all seemed to open with positivity by highlighting some background information about the protagonist in a bit more lighthearted way. Narration did not seem to come from an omnipresent voice. Instead, background information was given through voiceovers of various scenes from the movie. For example, In The Shining (1980), the hotel workers describe the past caretaker who murdered his family to set the stage of the trailer. In The Conjuring (2013), Mr. and Mrs. Warren are introduced in the beginning scenes from dialogue in the movie. Their characters are also shown to be trustworthy and positive. The trend of horror trailers to begin with positivity is especially relevant for the trailer for Prom Night (2008), which begins with a teenage girl who is excited for her prom. The music is upbeat and sounds positive which mirrors the happy tone the movie is trying to set up. One could argue that this set up of positivity builds suspense even more. For example, in the trailer for American Psycho (2008), there is only lighthearted and upbeat music throughout. This is unique in that the entire trailer uses happy music even when there are scary images. Instead of confusing the audience about the genre, the use of happy music seems to build suspense as the audience waits for the inevitable scary scenes to come.

Following the beginning scenes, the pace seems to pick up. This pace change is emphasized by the fact that the trailers often had shorter shot lengths, which intensified and sped up the pace of the trailer. It was also noticed that the shot transitions tended to be without effects or they faded in and out. The fading transition also seems to add to the suspense since it conveys eeriness since it makes the transitions smoother and connected, evoking a sense of continuity and calmness. Similar to how happy music builds suspense, the fading transition builds tension as well. The cuts, on the other hand, seemed to intensify already scary scenes. For example, in When a Stranger Calls (2006), there are fading transitions when positive scenes are shown, such as when the parents are at home. At the end of the trailer, where there are scarier images, the cuts have no transition effects and the shot lengths are much shorter. The combination of shorter shot lengths, less shot transitions, and a quicker pace increases the scariness of the trailer.Interestingly, the scariness of the trailer is intensified by certain sound effects. Often, the scenes where something pops out is accompanied by a loud boom. Other scenes often have sounds of heartbeats, deep bass notes, or scratching sounds. Each of these adds an eeriness to the trailer.

In terms of typography, there was an even split among trailers that used serif font and sans serif font (4 each). However, the similarities were that the fonts were very simple. Even if the font used was a serif typeface, it would be one that was more basic and did not evoke too much formality.

The recut trailers manage to “tell the story” by changing the voiceovers and by picking out certain aspects of the original trailers that could be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, the recut trailer for Meet the Parents (2000) cut and used certain scenes that were seen as scary such as the polygraph scene.  However, while there was not extensive use of explanatory type, I do not think these montage scenes could have “told the story” without the use of typeface and voiceover, since the scenes themselves look lighthearted. For example, in the Meet the Parents recut trailer, music that is screeching and usually used for thrillers was used. The Dumb and Dumber (1994) trailer, which was changed to a thriller, also used the typography to explain the story at a maximum of five times. The typeface is sans script, and looks similar to how other thrillers look since the font was made large. Audio synchronization was another aspect I noticed. For example, most of the speakers either were talking alongside the correct voice. When there was a narrative voice over using dialogue from the movie, then the characters’ mouths were not moving.

Movie trailers: Saw (2004), The Ring (2002), Paranormal Activity (2007), The Conjuring (2013), When a Stranger Calls (2006), Prom Night (2008), The Shining (1980) American Psycho (2011)

Recut trailers: Meet the Parents (Comedy converted to thriller), Dumb and Dumber (Comedy converted to thriller) to thriller, Mrs. Doubtfire (Comedy converted to horror)

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