Set design is crucial in any film. In the horror genre, so many filmmakers are extremely meticulous about how their sets are arranged. It is an invaluable tool for creating and sustaining terror. Looking at three examples, we’ll see how set design can affect the way we watch a horror film.
First up, Hereditary. The film shocked audiences this year so much that parallels were drawn between its impact and The Exorcist. Despite debate over its ending, Hereditary strikes fear into the hearts of its audiences – and the set design is instrumental in doing this.
The setting of the home is key to the film. In an interview, Aster agreed the house almost feels like another character. A character has moods, motives, thoughts. The house in Hereditary has this status. Ominously, Ari Aster’s film suggests the house is as animate, or inanimate, as the characters.
The film is interested in interiors. The opening contains a continuous shot that moves from a room containing a dollhouse, into that dollhouse, which, in turn, becomes the house the characters live in. Confused? I think we’re supposed to be. Immediately, the audience is disorientated because artificial dollhouses blend and merge into the supposedly genuine house where the characters live.
The use of dollhouses and miniatures throughout the film disorientates the audience, making the characters seem either artificial, or controlled/arranged by outside forces. But they also help us work out what Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is thinking – and that’s also terrifying. The miniatures she’s making for an upcoming exhibition show the strong but dark influence her mother has had on her life. In one close-up of Annie’s miniatures, an old woman is standing in a doorway as an unsuspecting couple sleep – presumably Annie’s mother watching Annie and her husband, Steve, sleeping.
Grace Yun, who worked on the Production Design in the film, recalled how the team needed an extremely precise layout for the house. They designed all the interiors because they could not find the perfect house for the script. In an interview, she explained that the upstairs bedrooms had to be arranged in a kind of T shape, to suggest a cross. As Satanic practises are the subject of the film, these small details in the set design help boost the film’s power to haunt.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror, The Shining, also used set design to heighten the atmosphere of terror in the film. Recalling the set design, Kubrick said, ‘The hotel’s labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere’. Corridors endlessly twist and turn. As a result, both the audience and the characters cannot possibly have a strong grasp of where they are. Like Hereditary, The Shining uses its set design to confuse and therefore unsettle its audience.
The huge rooms that Kubrick draws attention to, show how set design can often unconsciously create an uncomfortable feeling. Executive Producer Jan Harlan explains ‘The set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track, so that the huge ballroom would never actually fit inside’. The film deliberately creates spatial impossibilities between the interior and exterior of the Overlook Hotel. Why? To subtly raise a terrifying question in the audience: what’s possible and what isn’t.
We’re watching Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) slowly go insane. A set design that reflects this with spatial impossibilities enhances this feeling of madness and confusion. So, the set design also reflects and foreshadows the madness to come later on in the plot. Both Hereditary and The Shining use set design to make the audience question what can and cannot be real. The terrifying events in the plot become even more powerful because of this doubt and confusion.
Get Out (2017)
The 2017 horror film was immensely popular for its surprising turns that contain both terror and humour. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) immediately feels uneasy when he meets his girlfriend’s parents. The home is idyllic and calm. So where does this sense of dread come from? And why have such a conventionally comfortable home as the site of a horror film?
Two possible answers lay in the element of surprise. As writer and director, Jordan Peele, explains, ‘I wanted everything about the house to be comforting, so we could subvert that comfort’. Peele uses the set design of the house to set the film up for a dramatic shift in expectations as the plot progresses. The tranquil house as the setting for Chris Washington’s brutal manhunt is all the more shocking because of this disparity.
Just like in The Shining and Hereditary, the set design in Get Out provides shocks and surprises for the audience. But it does this in a different way. The conventionally picturesque setting creates even more shock because of its difference to the violent intentions of the characters around Chris. In the above two films the family residence is presented as unnerving, confused, and artificial. However, in Get Out it is a serene and peaceful space.
Looking at these three examples we can see a lot of variation in set design with one outcome – terrifying an audience. Each film uses set design to challenge the audiences’ expectations. Each sets the audience up for shocks and each reveals more about the characters and plot. All these examples seem to avoid the clichés like having trap doors with ghosts inside. Instead, each has a set design with a subtler intention: to unnerve an audience, often without the audience realising exactly why. This is horror at its best: scaring its audiences and withholding the tricks it uses to do it – and set design can be instrumental in this process.