Cartoon Pumpkins | Fear in Animation

To mark this year’s Halloween, Headstuff animation expert Joseph Learoyd has penned a new three-part column titled Cartoon Pumpkins, delving into the spooky side of the form. His final entry talks more broadly on fear in animation.

Fear. The things which scare us the most. Fear is defined as the unpleasant emotion that one feels, caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. A threat. Something that challenges us, faces us and shows that it has power. That is fear. Power versus the lack of such power. Film and animation have played with our heart strings and portrayed our fears on screen for decades. On the screen, fear is based around power. From the character’s lack of control in a situation, the viewer can feel unease, dismay and dread.

Animation and film work hand in hand in the portrayal of fear, from the staging of a character to portray a menacing, dominant presence to the use of vivid and often gory imagery to scare us, making our stomach’s churn. Gory imagery in animation is never enough because we have grown to evolve past that. Cinema, whatever form it comes in, is more complex. True fear comes from the psychological impact the scene has on the viewer. Cinematic techniques are used throughout animation as much as in film due to their symbiotic relationship within the visual medium.

Quick cuts between shots, angles and camera ranges all help to disorientate the viewer, playing on cinema’s ability to confuse. Diegetic and non-diegetic music also helps. The eerie score that is layered over a woodland backdrop, creates a sense of foreboding, painting a picture, often times before we get to our cast. In fact, animation will regularly, in the pursuit of parody, subvert these musical segments in order to introduce something far less sinister as a punchline.


But in terms of horror though, anime often uses many of the aforementioned tactics as setup before a climactic jump scare or action sequence, much like in the horror films that we know. The psychological impact of powerlessness continues. This is what keeps us returning for more, leaving us cowering and on the edge of our seats, thrilled by what comes next.

Despite the large following of animated Asian horror films and series, the West has yet to fully embrace animated horror. The form is still regularly considered for children and has only recently begun to delve further with more adult content. Thus, we see the aspects of horror, toned down for a younger audience. Fear is still present though. That is what leads to diversity in horror and fear. All of us fear different things, all of us react differently to visual and auditory stimuli within the medium, allowing for experimentation in cinema, and constant learning within the genre.

There’s also the design element. Spooky design is engrained into our minds. The full moon, the dark castle, the wind howling – that is universal. It sets a scene. This staging is set with our cast of characters playing their part upon it. Often in animation, a character will be designed to be more creepy, scary or grotesque in order to play on our fear of the unknown. Again, this is power based. If you take the design of a menacing creature, lurking in the shadows and face it off against our protagonist, then the viewer naturally begins to have stakes in the situation and worries about what may happen next. This is achieved through three-dimensionalism in our heroes and an unknowing of our antagonist. This creates conflict which once again leads to power struggles for situational control.

Like film as a whole, animation plays with our emotions. This is no different when it comes to fear. Fear is a part of us. Being able to experiment with it through the narratives of the screen is something that never ceases to be powerful and captivating to audiences.

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