There’s something emblematic about a horror movie that gives its viewer too much to pay attention to during a time when social media presents us with devastating news faster and more frequently than ever before.
That is exactly what Ian Tuason, filmmaker and founder of leading virtual reality production company DimensionGate is beginning to create. Using 360 degree video technology that records everything— the ceiling, floor and all surroundings in between— they take the term “immersive storytelling” to new heights with online horror videos that push viewers beyond the front row.
“The horror and action genre lends itself perfectly to [virtual reality],” Tuason said. “Horror in [virtual reality] evokes a new kind of fear of the dangers that may or may not lie behind you. This adds an element of paranoia in the horror experience, driving viewers to spin around in their seat, constantly looking around for scares.”
Sometimes referred to as “virtual reality,” 360 videos can be watched on a computer, where viewers use the mouse to scroll back and forth through the screen to explore the whole setting, or on either a smartphone or virtual reality headset like Oculus or Google Cardboard, where they physically turn in a circle to look at different angles.
Below is an example of an actual 360 video from DimensionGate, though viewer discretion is advised. (These videos are also best to watch using Google Chrome and won’t work very well using other internet browsers.)
360 video is still a fairly new tool, one that filmmakers, photographers and journalists alike are currently learning how to master and best utilize, but the horror genre is one of its fastest growing niches. Currently, it is still somewhat confined to certain corners of the internet. However, freelance film critic Scott Tobias, whose work is regularly published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR and Variety, believes 360 video has the potential to change the entertainment industry as we know it.
“The introduction of new technology has always had an impact on the aesthetics of film,” Tobias said. “A lot of these found footage-type films… make horror seem more personal… There’s a spontaneity to it and I think when you’re talking about horror, a lot of the effect in horror is what happens in the frame and outside the frame. So if the technology changes that and what you’re seeing is different then you can exploit that to a greater effect.”
In the world of horror, perhaps no effect is exploited greater than sound. Movies like The Conjuring have mastered the art of the jump-scare to illicit a reaction from viewers.
“If it’s a hard R-type of film, they can amplify the violence, but even if it’s a PG-13 rated horror film, the use of sound, especially, has become extremely aggressive,” Tobias said. “They’re just hitting you with this little stab of sound and that’s enough. You can’t help but react to that. It’s kind of a cheap shock, but it’s effective because you can’t not be rattled by it. No matter how unnerved you are to the genre, it’s a human instinct.”
As in traditional horror films, an effective use of sound can enhance a virtual reality scene. Tuason likes to use both audio and visual cues to navigate viewers around the video, but first lets them explore and get to know the setting before the action begins. However, he warns that just like with any other medium, the video needs to be driven by its characters and story.
360 virtual reality videos, most of which are uploaded to YouTube or Facebook, have the potential to succeed especially among the younger generations, who are becoming less likely to go watch most traditional horror films in theaters.
Despite the medium’s potential for success, Tuason does not believe virtual reality will ever replace traditional movies.
“They are two completely separate mediums, like music and books, that will continue to flourish as long as humans feel the need to tell stories,” he said.
Tobias recently wrote a column for The Washington Post about the newest film in The Purge franchise, and how horror films very often reflect the public’s fears of that time. He mentioned that Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a 1956 movie “about an insidious alien plot to turn ordinary American citizens into group-thinking ‘pod people'” debuted during the Red Scare, while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre depicted violent, bloody murders in 1972 while people watched the horrors of the Vietnam War on television for the first time.
“I feel like the history of America, at least through modern history, can be told, to some extent, through horror films more than any other genre,” Tobias said. “They can comment immediately and indirectly on issues that other movies do everything to avoid directly.”
According to Tobias, the scariest horror movies feel personal, immediate and spontaneous. What fits that description better than a horror movie that specifically submerges its viewer into an unfolding scene?