Every movie set, home haunt, and Halloween party needs to have the right feel to it. Strobe lights and “Monster Mash” may be fine for the kids, but what happens when you want to go for creepy, disturbing, or down right terrifying? That’s when you need to think about lighting and sound. I know. That means electrical things and electronic things, which means it’s scary or expensive, right? Wrong! We’ve got a two part Homemade Horrors for you that will help you create professional grade ambiance for your creepy event on a shoestring budget. This week we’re talking about lighting. Next time around will be sound.
As always, if you know of some techniques that could help the community out, don’t hesitate to share in the comments below or in an e-mail. The collective knowledge of this community is an amazing resource both for your personal project, and for Indie Horror in general. Think about it. The WAIH staff alone includes producers, electricians, writers, directors, handymans . . . handymens . . . handi . . . whatever. The goal of these Homemade Horrors articles is to combine the knowledge of Indie Horror filmmakers, DIY home haunters, trade professionals, and anyone else with an idea or opinion. The goal is to help progress Indie Horror in all of its mediums. We want to see film makers make better films on a shoestring budget, AND to let home haunters create film level special FX on a DIY budget. Because seriously, money shouldn’t be an obstacle when we’re all just trying to Keep The Fear Alive! That being said, let’s have a warning.
WARNING! Lighting involves electricity, heat, and sometimes fire. Bulbs can break, cords can trip, electricity can shock, and heat can burn. Plan your lighting as if this will all happen to reduce the risk of injury if it actually does. Ask an electrician or at least a construction type buddy for help. They’ll be happy to show off their knowledge, and your event will be safer!
Let’s start with lighting. This may seem like a no brainer, but lighting is trickier than it seems. Creating the feeling of darkness while providing enough illumination to see by can be tough. Using that same lighting to highlight your props, monsters, and backgrounds all while creating a specific ambiance can start to feel overwhelming. Darkness itself may be scary, but under-lit events can be frustrating to the viewer and even dangerous if it’s a walk through event. On the other hand, overly or improperly lit areas will give off the wrong feel. It’s common practice for people to stock up on strobe lights, black lights, and red bulbsto light their events, but don’t be afraid to expand your repertoire.
First thing to think about is the color of your lighting. Think of all the creepy lighting you see in movies. Foggy graveyards and barren forests are usually back-lit with blue or green, not red. Red lighting is bright and very stark and is usually representative of something demonic, or the presence of your ultimate bad guy. If you overuse the red lighting it will start to lose it’s effect. On the other hand, blue and green lighting is much softer and often ‘feels’ dark to people(due in large part to the conditioning provided for us by horror films). This makes it perfect for providing just enough light to see by while still feeling dark and creepy.
What about black lights? You need to be careful with your black light usage. One thing you want when creating a horror event is control. You need to control where people go, what they see, how they see it, what they hear, etc. Black lights, by their very nature, take away a large amount of that control. For instance, they cause unexpected items on your guests to glow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. You can use this intentionally as a distraction method. Or you could create a room specifically designed for it. People pointing at their costumes and laughing tends to take them out of the moment, though, and remind them that this whole thing is fake. That’s not what you want in your live horror events. So plan accordingly.
I’m going to lump strobe lights in the color section because they overlap a few different categories. Strobe lights are an amazing and inexpensive resource for the Indie Horror Community, but they are often overused. A quickly strobing light may seem dramatic, but will actually irritate more people than it will scare. Use your strobe lights sparingly, and turn the speed down. One of the best things about a strobe light is that they allow you to offer your viewers brief flashes of light in otherwise total darkness. You want to find that sweet spot that makes it look like an object is remaining still while it is actually in motion. To do this, wave your hand back and forth in front of your face with only the strobe light on. Move your hand at about the speed of the object that will be moving in the event. Then adjust the speed on the light until you can feel your hand moving, but can’t see it. This is a disorienting and effective technique that can be used in a variety of ways. Again, just be careful not to overuse it.
Once you choose your lights, where do you put them? You don’t want your light sources to distract from the scene you’re illuminating. You also want to control shadows and silhouettes. One way to do this is to work your lighting into the scene. The room or area you’re lighting could be lit by a fireplace, jack-o-lantern, candles, or a child’s night light. Another way is to put the light source behind your props. This means it doesn’t matter what the light fixture looks like. It will also cast the object it’s behind in silhouette. For example, if you have a mostly dark room with a coffin leaning against the wall opposite the door, put a light behind the coffin. Then your guests eyes will be automatically drawn to the silhouette of the coffin. The coffin will be their center of focus. They’ll creep forward, just knowing that something is going to jump out of that coffin to scare them. As they steel themselves for the jump scare they are sure is going to happen, you have your monster creeping up behind them.
Another way to use shadows is up lighting. It’s the same thing as placing a flashlight under your face to look scary. When an object is lit from below it casts unfamiliar shadows. Placing your light behind a wall of wooden slats will also create unfamiliar shadows and an eerie feel. If you’re using black plastic for your walls, you could punch holes or cut slashes in it for a similar effect. Combining these two effects by placing your lights under a deck, patio, or false floor is also an easy way to create a creepy feeling.
Each lighting choice you make is going to present its own set of challenges. If you’re using live flame, you need to keep the fire from spreading or burning anyone. If you’re using batteries, you need to make sure to check them regularly. If you’re plugging things in, you need to worry about cords and tripped breakers. The fire and battery options are fairly self explanatory, so let’s talk some more about plugged in lighting.
You don’t want to lose power to tripped breakers in the middle of your event, so find at least two plugs (outlets) that are on separate circuits. You can do this by plugging a light into each outlet you want to use, and then turning breakers off one at a time in your electrical panel. Check which lights turned off, and make a note of it. Try to divide your devices evenly amongst as many outlets as possible.
Never assume that people will notice your cords and avoid tripping on them. Instead, try to run them along the base of walls, behind walls, or above the ceiling. If you absolutely have to run cords where people will be walking, cover them with a rug or a false floor. Or you could cover them with a rectangle of cardboard. Duct tape the cardboard to the floor and you should have a relatively flat and safe walking area. If your floor is dirt or grass you can cut a piece of PVC to the length you need, then cut it lengthwise (so that if you looked into the end of the PVC it would look like a “C” instead of an “O”). Push your cords into the PVC and dig an impression in the dirt deep enough to either bury the PVC or stake it down level with the ground.
Instead of having your lights stay on constantly, sometimes you will want to control your lights to depending on where people are or what’s happening in a scene. We can’t all afford expensive control boards, but we don’t need to. There are several options for the Fear Maker on a budget. There are many types of occupancy sensors you can buy at your local hardware store, but those can get complicated and are about $20 – $40 each. Pressure pad switches are now available in some stores, but there are also ways to make your own. My personal favorite, though, is remote control outlets. For about $20 you get a remote control and three plugs. Plug them into an outlet or extension cord, and anything you plug into it will be controlled by your remote. If you buy more than one set, think about getting different brands because the remote WILL control plugs from other sets of the same brand.
Last, there are also many kits to allow you to sync Christmas lights to music. The buy in on these seems to hover around $99, and I desperately want to get one and see how well it works in a Horror application. Unfortunately the product reviews tend to be horrible, and I’m not willing (yet) to bet money that the reviews are all due to user error. If any of you have any experience with one of these kits, please let us know if they are any good.