What is this zoom camera effect that they use in horror movies?

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Image source: FX

This week, watching the season seven premiere of american horror story (one of my favorite shows), I had an achievement. The first episode of Worship has a lot to offer. There are different levels of fear, but much of the fear builds up in main character Ally’s (Sarah Paulson) twin phobias: trypophobia and coulrophobia. The first time we learn of Ally’s crippling fear of clowns, she snatches her son Oz’s copy of Twisty the Clown Chronicles. As soon as she lays eyes on our old man Monster show friend, she drops the comic. This is where my awareness comes in.

I’ve totally seen this camera effect before, and there’s a huge chance you have it too. It’s a disorienting and hugely effective way of communicating Ally’s total collapse right now, so I decided to dig in. Preliminary Google searches included phrases like “camera effect where it zooms in and out at the same time” and “weird horror movie zoom camera effect”. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for.

Image source: Universal Images

This is called a “zoom dolly”, and it was first used by Alfred Hitchcock in the years 1958 Vertigo. He had hoped to convey the dizziness his main character was feeling due to his condition. It’s a fairly simple technique: the focal object stays in the same place (in the above case, it’s Sarah Paulson) while the camera moves closer or further. The goal of shooting is to keep the object exactly the same size in the frame, which is achieved by zooming in or out of the object at the same rate in the reverse direction. Basically, if you move the camera towards the subject, you need to zoom out, and vice versa.

These days, the effect is surprisingly common, both inside and outside the horror genre. It’s such a revolutionary and effective tactic, in fact, that it’s also known as Zoom Hitchcock. american horror story is a great example, but there are many, many more notable moments from 1958 to today. This could be an iconic moment from a horror classic like Jaws or it can be an excerpt from one of the 100+ episodes of ABC’s fantastic fairy tale Once upon a time.

Image source: Universal Images and ABC

So the next time Ally loses her temper thanks to the possibly mock clowns on american horror story, or just about any character in a huge horror movie suddenly feels overwhelmed by the spirit or the zombie or the vampire or the demon or the murderer or the possessed doll or the monster or whatever they are. continues, just know: all thanks to good old Alfie Hitchy.


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