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Spooky Set Design

Everyone loves a good fantasy or horror film at Halloween. But we want to know, how does set design help to make a film iconic year after year?

Like everyone else in the world, we love popular culture, Halloween, and blockbuster movies. Therefore, as it is October, the start of the spooky season, we wanted to share our appreciation for the most iconic spooky set designs. Everything from fantasy to horror, we want to talk about it.

The Shining

A lot of the terror of The Shining is amplified using spatial awareness and defects in the set.

A lot of the terror of The Shining is amplified using spatial awareness and defects in the set. The huge pattern on the carpet highlights how small the boy, Danny, is. The large windows and high ceilings dwarf all the characters and create this feeling of the set being this immovable force trapping the characters inside. The never-ending corridors and confusing layout with random dead ends and impossible windows and doors give us a feeling of a labyrinth or maze. This lonely and confusing layout creates a sense of panic and entrapment despite the wide space. The set is so iconic, particularly the carpet, that it has become the talking point of many conspiracies surrounding witch hexes with the hexagonal shapes or related to chess and war strategy. Among all Stephen King films there are elements that tie all the films together into one fictitious universe culminating as a final piece in The Dark Tower. With many aspects popping up that seem familiar, the audience is caught in this continuous hellscape over and over.

Everything Tim Burton

Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Sweeney Todd are all live action Tim Burton films that utilises Burton’s distinctive Gothic, German Expressionism style as a storytelling anchor within the set design.

In Edward Scissorhands, Burton is particularly successful at using the set to aid the story telling of the film. He uses the contrast of the overly saturated in colour town against Edward’s own looming gothic manor to create a creepy juxtaposition between the two set locations. Throughout, Edward’s monochrome colour palette is at complete odds with the straight edged and colourful Pleasantville, right until the end. In the end, Tim uses bright flowers and sculptures within Edward’s habitat to show how the two worlds have now come to overlap since Edward had found love.

Beetlejuice has a similar set design concept in that the house itself is very normal looking, in stark contrast to the abstract and surreal underworld. In the underworld, everything is much more cartoon-like with the wonky doors, bright colours, and the distinctive Burton stripes and spirals. These styles start to mix more and more as Beetlejuice is brought into the mortal world.

Meanwhile, in Sweeney Todd, London is depicted as dark, dingey, and sapped of colour. The effect of this is to exaggerate the dankness and infested world that is the inner city. The only time there is a burst of colour is when Mrs Lovett fantasizes about a world outside of London ‘by the sea’.

Harry Potter

The sets for Harry Potter are so well renowned they have been recreated at Warner bros studios in London and in Universal studios. The set design team created a whole world.

Everything from labels on potion bottles to the great castle that is Hogwarts itself, every detail was accounted for. The Hogwarts set was inspired by multiple UK cathedrals, particularly Durham Cathedral in which some scenes were filmed. The Norman architecture really adds to this Middle Ages, magical feeling. The mixture of studio sets, real life castles, and green screen meant that Harry Potter, arguably, has the most iconic and fully fleshed out set designs ever created. From the release of the first film 20 years ago, the sets from the franchise are still relevant and undeniably timeless. These grand studio sets and locations not only look magical but also made it possible for the franchise to become darker and spookier as time went on. The dungeons, animatronics, gargoyles and more leant themselves as perfect backdrops for the eventual battle of Hogwarts. Although Harry Potter is a children’s film, it had its fair share of scary scenes and definitely earned a place on our list of spooky set design inspiration!

Buried - Rodrigo Cortes

This thriller has one of the most stripped back set designs ever, being just the inside of a coffin.

The use of clever camera angles allowed continuous movement inside an extremely claustrophobic and horrific set. The film manages to keep you holding your breath with Ryan Reynolds as his air runs out for an hour and a half. The simplicity of this set design really allows for you to immerse in everything the main character is feeling without the need for a fancy set. The coffin encompasses all of the horror that the film needed.

Midsommar

Much like with Harry Potter a whole world was created for Midsommar, but with a very different desired effect. This is not for fantasy fiction but pure horror.

The hieroglyphics on the walls and throughout the film were heavily based in Nordic runes and made specifically to tie characters to specific runes and characteristics. Every actor on set was given this character list and choreography so that the community/ cult that Midsommar is set in seems to have its own language and is more immersive and seductive. Aster wanted to make sure to avoid the usual pitfalls that cult films fall into , and that is forgetting to show the seduction of the cult in the first instance. The brightness, over saturation of colour and faces everywhere from trees to tapestries is all to fuel this hallucinogenic feeling of being on a trip. The brightness and daylight are crucial to lean into this trippy feeling. The audience needs to know why anyone would ever be persuaded to be part of such a community. Furthermore, the artwork and countryside feeling are massively influenced by a dark twist on Swedish folklore. The tapestries and the rituals like ‘skin the pig’ are direct ways in which this Swedish folklore inspired set and choreography foreshadow the horror to come.

We could go on and on about the wonderful world of set design and the spooky classics that have inspired their conception. There are many ways in which the set design of a film can add to the story or franchise. Surrealism, folklore, the occult, spatial awareness, simple colour palettes, bold colour palettes and more. All these techniques add to the atmosphere of the film and allow the audience to truly immerse themselves into the storyline. The most iconic Halloween films are the ones that you can truly get lost in.