How To Build Suspense and Scare the Audience
How To Build Suspense and Scare the Audience
The film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, was created approximately 30 years ago. It tells the story of a shark which attacks and kills numerous people off the north-east coast of the USA in a small holiday resort called Amity Island. The attacks took place around the 4th of July, which in America, is similar to the British bank holiday. During this time, many Americans and tourists from abroad visit resorts such as Amity Island for a summer vacation. The director of the film, Steven Spielberg builds up fear of the shark using many different techniques. One of these techniques is the use of music. Spielberg uses a non-diegetic piece of music which plays whenever the shark is about to attack, almost like the shark’s very own theme tune. A non-diegetic sound is one which can only be heard by the audience and not by any of the characters in the film. Spielberg uses this particular technique just before the shark attacks Alex, the young boy who is swimming on his lilo.
This technique makes the audience fear the shark, as whenever it’s played we expect another gruesome attack which adds a lot of tension to the film. Another technique used to increase our fear of the shark is showing the tremendous damage that it can cause. For example, towards the end of the film, whilst Brody, Hooper and Quint are out at sea attempting to catch the shark, it attacks their boat, resulting in the boat eventually sinking. Spielberg uses this method to give the audience the impression of the shark’s power and to suggest to them that the shark is indestructible, and that it will continue to kill innocent victims. A third technique with which Spielberg builds fear of the shark is the way in which he uses camera angles to show the sheer horror on the characters faces as they witness the attacks unfolding. For example, when Alex, the young boy is attacked, Spielberg uses a zoom, showing a close up of Brody’s face which is overwhelmed by horror and huge panic. By using this technique, Spielberg really gets the point across, from the characters’ perspective, of how terrifying the whole situation really is, which builds even more fear and tension for the audience.
The choice and use of the music in the film Jaws also adds to the overall fear and tension experienced by the audience. For example, the music which is played just before the attack was chosen by Spielberg as it can be linked with the shark itself: the music starts quietly with a slow tempo as the shark swims around peacefully. Then, as the shark identifies its prey, the music begins to get both faster and louder. Then it begins to swim faster and close in on its victim, and as this happens, the music is gradually getting faster and louder. Then the shark bites, and the music explodes. Spielberg’s choice of music adds massively to the overall fear and tension in the film, because as soon as the music begins playing, the audience knows that an attack is imminent, they just sit there waiting anxiously. Then, the music explodes, coinciding with the attack, giving the audience a shock. Another way in which Spielberg uses the soundtrack to build tension and fear in the film is through contrasts of emotion.
For example, at the start of the film before any of the attacks, a piece of diegetic music is played. This music creates a relaxed atmosphere so when the audience witness the first attack, it seems to come from nowhere, catching them by surprise. Another example of this is after the first attack on Chrissie, there is silence, and all that the audience can hear is the quiet ripple of the waves as they reach the shore. This makes the audience feel that everything is peaceful and calm, when in fact; they’ve just witnessed a terrifying shark attack. Another technique to provoke contrasting emotions is that of the music used just after Alex is attacked and killed by the shark. As Alex is attacked, everyone on the beach panics and rushes to get out of the water. At the same time, a young toddler is happily playing in the sand and quietly singing to himself. Again, as after the first attack on Chrissie, the audience can’t believe how something so terrible is happening when the mood set by the little boy is so calm and untroubled.
This use of music and contrasting emotions builds up tension and fear affecting the audience as it makes them feel confused, as they can’t understand how things can be so pleasant then suddenly so devastating. Spielberg also exploits various camera techniques to build up fear and suspense in the film Jaws. For example, during the second attack on Alex, a lot of different camera techniques and angles are being used. The start of the scene is a tracking shot, showing Alex coming out of the sea and sitting next to his mother on the beach. After some persuasion, his mother lets him have just 10 more minutes in the water. Then a further tracking shot is used, as we follow Alex up the beach as he goes and gets his lilo. The use of this camera angle, which focuses the audience’s attention on Alex, immediately makes them feel more attached to the character. The next part of the scene shows Alex running into the sea on his lilo. The camera technique used for this part is a medium shot from a reverse angle, showing him from behind. This camera angle builds up fear as all the audience can see is Alex on his lilo and the bearing sea in front of him with no-one else in sight.
This immediately makes the audience realise that Alex is vulnerable and that if something was to go wrong, help was a long way away. The scene then switches to a point of view shot from Brody, the police chief’s perspective. During this scene, a member of the public is talking to Brody, obscuring his and the audience’s view of the water. As Brody desperately tries to keep his eye on the water, the audience notice a young woman relaxing in the water. Then suddenly, she begins to scream and struggle and the audience automatically assumes she is being attacked by the shark, although it turns out that it was just her boyfriend playing around. This camera technique builds up fear as the audience realise that Brody is unable to help if an attack does take place. The next part of the scene involves a group of boys running into the water.
The camera technique used for this part is a medium shot from a reverse angle. This camera angle shows the boys all alone in the sea, making the audience realise that they are, like Alex, vulnerable. It also makes us fear for their safety as the audience have just witnessed a false alarm with the young woman, and the potential of a real attack happening is fresh in our minds. Suddenly the shot changes once more to a point of view from the shark’s perspective. This shot shows the boy’s legs dangling under the water as well as Alex’s lilo on the surface. Spielberg’s choice of camera technique for this particular part builds up a lot of tension as the audience knows that an attack is coming, and that it’s almost as if we are just waiting for which boy the shark wants as its prey. Also adding to the tension in this scene is the fact that although the audience know about an attack being imminent, the eventual victim Alex doesn’t. This keeps them on the edge of their seats as they are left almost shouting at the television screen for Alex to get out of the water! The attack the audience suspect is then confirmed as the shark’s non-diegetic theme tune begins playing and as this happens, the audience see the shark close in on its chosen victim.
Immediately, the camera changes to a long shot. In the distance, the audience see the shark grab hold of Alex and hurl him into the air. As this happens, blood begins to spray from his body as he struggles desperately. Spielberg’s choice of camera for this scene makes the audience scared, as they see the whole attack unfolding, as well as for the first time, getting a look at the shark itself and discovering how big and vicious it really is. Instantly, the camera changes again, this time to a technique called a close up. The shot shows Alex under the water, desperately trying to free himself from the shark’s jaws before suddenly; he disappears in a thick cloud of his own blood. This scares the audience purely because of how gruesome it is. Once again, the camera angle changes to a medium shot, showing Alex’s mangled lilo calmly wash up shore in the slightly bloody water. The way in which the camera shows the lilo gently drift up shore, makes the audience feel sorry and upset for Alex, as they feel they have made a connection with him in earlier parts of the film.
The audience also have contrasting emotions, as they wonder how something so gruesome and devastating could have just happened when seconds later; everything was so calm and peaceful. Spielberg also tries to scare the audience by creating a lot of tension in the overall plot and particularly in the ending of the film. For example, he tries to create fear and suspense in the film by showing the first two attacks on both Chrissie and Alex close together at the start of the film. By situating them at the beginning of the film, the audience quickly realise that the first attack wasn’t a one off, and that the shark is almost like a serial killer. Another example of this technique of building tension and fear affecting the audience is the way in which Spielberg decides to add the third attack mid-way through the film, on the 4th of July with police chief Brody’s son involved. By showing the third attack mid-way through the film, the audience feel as if they have got to know the main character, police chief Brody. So when the audience see the shark closing in on his son Mikey, they care more for his safety as they feel as if they have a connection with the family.
By situating the third attack on the 4th of July, the audience see thousands of people flocking the beach at Amity Island, after Brody had desperately attempted to stop them from visiting because of the potential danger in the water. So when the third attack happens the audience are scared and shocked, as they realise that if only the Mayor hadn’t been so greedy for money and had Brody got his way, a third attack wouldn’t have occurred and Brody’s own son wouldn’t have been in danger. The last section of the film is really when Spielberg creates a lot of fear and suspense affecting the audience. One example in which Spielberg creates fear and tension in the film is when the shark attacks the boat whilst the three men, Brody, Hooper and Quint are out at sea. The scene involves the camera using a zoom technique and showing a close up of the wooden hull of the ship. As the shark attacks the boat, it endlessly pounds its head into the side of the ship and the audience can hear the wood beginning to creak under the strain as they watch it flex and bend.
This scene builds a lot of tension because the audience think that any second; the shark is going to force a gaping hole in the side of the boat causing it to sink, which as a result would endanger the lives of the three men, who over the course of the film, the audience have bonded to. Another area of the film ending which contained a lot of fear and suspense was when after the damage to the boat had been repaired, Hooper, the shark expert, went down in the cage in an attempt to tranquillise the shark. During this scene of Hooper in the cage, the shark comes into view from nowhere and repeatedly crashes into the cage before eventually getting into it. This part of the film is full of tension because after every time the shark crashes into the cage, the more the metal frame begins to crumble.
Then the audience see the shark close up, which scares them as they can see for themselves how fierce it really is. Immediately after, the audience see a shot of Hooper as he comes face to face with the shark for the first time, and his expression is ridden with horror. This reaction of his reflects on the audience as they then realise what it would feel like if they were within touching distance of the man-eating beast. But in my opinion, one of the scenes at the end of film has far more tension and fear than any of the others. This is the scene where Brody is alone in the sea after Quint has been eaten by the shark, and Hooper is under the water trying to hide from it. Brody is leaning on the mast of the sinking ship with a rifle in his hand when we see the shark gradually closing in on him.
Brody shoots at the shark, but it continues to head straight for him, so he fires the gun again. Nothing happens, and by now the shark is just 10 metres away and Brody is down to his last bullet. He aims and fires, directly hitting the oxygen cylinder in the shark’s mouth. The tank explodes, blowing the shark into pieces. This part of the film is full of tension in the way that the shark is relentless and keeps gradually getting ever closer to Brody, who by now the audience feel connected to, and they begin to fear for his life. Also, the way in which Brody kills the shark with his last bullet keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. This scene is scary because of how unbelievably gory the shark’s death is. The audience see the shark blown up into shredded chunks of flesh as blood spurts everywhere. My scariest moment in the film is the death of Quint, the shark catcher. I think it’s full of the most fear because of how gruesome, gory and full of tension it is.
The scene is full of suspense when Quint loses his grip on Brody, and agonisingly slides down the deck of the boat, straight into the jaws of the shark. Then it gets gruesome, because as the shark plunges its teeth into Quint’s chest, blood begins spewing from his mouth. Then the shark begins violently tossing him from side to side as Quint screams desperately before the audience here a loud crack. Immediately his body stops struggling and the shark calmly drags it under the surface of the water. Overall, in my opinion Steven Spielberg has successfully created a film in which the audience experience a lot of fear and suspense. He has effectively used many different techniques to do so, and as a result, more than 30 years on, Jaws is still recognised as one of the best horror films ever made.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 4 January 2017
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