How to inspire fear?

How do you instill fear in an audience?

What makes a character scary? Does he have to be some creepy monster like Alien?

What if I told you that one of the creepiest characters in movies is an ordinary person? I’m referring, of course, to Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs (and the series of novels and movies about him in general). But today we’re going to talk specifically about Silence of the Lambs.

Lecter is ranked number one on the American Film Institute’s list of best villains. But what makes him so creepy that he beats out the Joker, Darth Vader or the same Alien? That’s a question that will require our close study and great attention to detail.

We don’t see him for the first time until the 13th minute of the movie. But by this point we already know something about him, the picture introduces him to us a little earlier. We learn what kind of man he is from the dialogue between Clarice Starling, the main character, and her boss, and then from a conversation with the head doctor of the clinic where Lecter is being held. Hannibal is a psychopath, a true monster who doesn’t even deserve to live on Earth. And the doctor tells us that Lecter is the most interesting and valuable research material.

Already from these – extremely short and vague – descriptions we understand that we will encounter something never seen before. That Hannibal Lecter is a devil in the flesh.

And after that, they let us into the prison block. Clarice is here and we see some sick people – and this episode here is no accident at all. It still helps create the image of Lecter as a psychopath.

Clarice walks slowly down the corridor to his cell and sees three prisoners, each one crazier than the last. And our confidence in the words of the warder and the doctor only grows stronger.

The first is just a little creepy, he smiles and says hello to Clarissa. The second barely reacts to her, he just sits and stares into the void. The third jumps around the camera like a monkey. And this is a stroke of genius on the part of the director. We realize that the fourth prisoner – which is Lecter – will be far worse than all three of them put together. He’s not just crazy, he’s the worst of the human race.

And we’re ready for him to start throwing himself at Clarice, trying to grab her… but instead we see this.

He just stands there in the glazed cell and, unlike the previous prisoners, shows no signs of insanity. And this is the first shock to the viewer. He appears to be an ordinary man… but just a second later we realize that there is something wrong with him. And a seemingly innocuous phrase begins the confrontation between Lecter and Clarice.

The request to come closer and show his ID is perfectly innocuous, at first glance. But it is through it that Hannibal Lecter seizes the initiative and begins to manipulate both Clarice and us as an audience. He doesn’t take his eyes off her (and us), shows his power over her, and it makes us uncomfortable, we feel defenseless – and yet he is the one in the prison cell, not us! He can’t physically harm us, so why should we be afraid of him?

But… is that really the case? It seems to me that it’s exactly the opposite. It is Hannibal, not Clarice, who has the power. Clarice comes in asking for help, and therefore she is vulnerable: he can easily refuse her, and then she won’t catch the criminal. Hannibal does not care, and so he is in an advantageous position. And Clarice’s defenselessness only adds to the creepy impression the character evokes.

The film is careful to emphasize this. At the beginning of the film, Clarice sits and Lecter stands: this positioning makes her lower and, again, emphasizes her weakness in comparison to her opponent. The camera is even positioned so that he looks down and she looks up. At the same time, Lecter’s face takes up almost the entire screen, while Clarice’s face takes up about half of it. This – you guessed it – also works for a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.

But when he finally agrees to help her, she stands up and is on the same level as him. Moreover, when Clarice successfully parries Lecter’s retort, she takes away some of his power, and this is immediately reflected in the composition of the shot. Her face immediately occupies most of the frame, and Hannibal – for the first time in several minutes – takes his eyes off her. Subsequently, Clarice only strengthens her position, and the episode ends with an absolutely fantastic face-to-face confrontation, after which Clarice finally loses her composure – only to quickly pick herself up on her way out of the building, which is underscored by the approach of the camera.

We’ve only talked about eight minutes of the film, but this pattern works in other episodes with conversations between Lecter and Clarice. Later, he regains at least some of his power and influence, and she once again has to fend off his attacks. The film will even end with a spectacular scene where the protagonist and his adversary seem to be on equal footing, but then.

In short, the main thing in creating horror is not blood or dismemberment (not that anyone doubts that, though :)). It’s the proper construction of the characters and their interactions that’s most important. This is what creates the desired atmosphere, the atmosphere of weakness, vulnerability and horror.

Chapter II. The urge to inspire fear

It is strange that specialists who study fear pay little attention to the tactics of intimidation and the mechanisms of using fear, although this is exactly the other side of the coin. There is spontaneous fear and purposeful, deliberately provoked fear. An erupting volcano, a menacing tsunami or a plague do not inspire fear, they cause it, while the background of dictatorial brutality, terrorist attacks, blackmail, domestic abuse, preventive attacks and acts of terror is fear as a means to an end. Its effectiveness is easy to explain. Fear induces us to act in a certain way in order to avoid the threat and to free ourselves from the anxiety caused by it. Therefore, he who seeks to intimidate enslaves the will of his victim to a certain extent. Of course, not all violence has a similar purpose. It is one thing to want to do evil and quite another to want to subjugate. A man who kills his wife deliberately takes a man’s life. The man who terrorizes his wife is guilty of deliberate intimidation and tyranny. He forces her to respond to the threat with one of the oldest stereotypes of behavior: obedience.

So there is a close connection between power and intimidation, for fear inevitably appears in human relations when there is a factor of subordination in them. It must not be forgotten that power, or more precisely the ability of the strong to impose its will, rests on three pillars: encouragement, punishment, and influence on the feelings and convictions of the weak. Punishment is terrifying and so effective that Kurt Gold called it the basis of power: “Power should be thought of as the ability to harm another person.” In these words, as in every exaggeration, there is some truth.

We should pay attention to the strategy of intimidation, because then we will better understand the mechanisms of fear. No one is more familiar with them than those who use them to their advantage. It is very profitable to instill fear. The barbarian almost always gets his way. In fact, the most authoritative social structures are precisely designed to prevent this injustice.

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