PEEKERS by Mark Steensland has a special place in my heart. It is such a fuc…-up awkward disturbing short. The director & the writer, Rick Hautala (based on an original story by Kealan Patrick Burke) created a well-crafted & yet very simple eerie story. Here 5 takeaways to understand how suspense works so well in this short.

WATCH FIRST the short “Peekers” here before reading the insights below.

You have a great concept for a horror short. Sure. We all do. Now hold your horses & take the time to create the best suspense ever & capture your audience throughout your story. Here 5 tips to succeed:

1 TURN A FAMILIAR SETTING UNFAMILIAR

“Peekers” setting is pretty simple: a guy about to get breakfast, got his neighbor knocking his door asking him a favor. We’ve all been there, responding to someone else favor.

Except the following scene (a dialog scene) turn this normal setting into an eerie situation: the man’s wife is upstairs. Except the woman upstairs is not the guy’s wife (she is in Cleveland). Both actors start arguing about this impossible situation, while (we) the audience would love to go check what’s up the stairs.

Try as much as possible to start your story with a familiar-realistic setting. So the horror will be more effective when it pops up.

2 KEEP YOUR CHARACTER REACTIONS AS REALISTIC AS POSSIBLE

One of the great lesson of Peekers is the build-up: the lead & the neighbor discusses the absurdity of the situation for 2 minutes. We know something is wrong, but the film maker takes the time to address that from the characters POV.

Never under-estimate the power of empathy: by having your character acting a realistic way, you keep your audience engage, despite the most horrific or absurd situation in place.

3 WHEN IT’S TIME TO REVEAL, KEEP THE MYSTERY GOING…

Now we’re 4.54 minutes into the film (more than half of it length) and we get the main character to check what is wrong. The director is finally & brilliantly giving what the audience want to see: the wife. But the way she is reveals, peaking from upstairs, is so awkward that the tension remains, along with that sense of eeriness…

4 END THE STORY WITH SOMETHING UNEXPECTED YET LOGICAL

Once the lead is aware the situation is wrong, the story milk that awkward setting with the neighbor now under the same “Peekers” curse. The lead leave the house and shut himself at home, only to see the conductor on TV peaking. Great surprise for the audience, leading to the climax/end of the short with the lead being cursed himself.

5 SUSPENSE IS MORE ABOUT CHARACTER EMPATHY THAN PLOT

As you can see in Peekers, the story works since from the get-go we believe the situation, the characters, the setting. It is only once all this has been establish that you can create the most awkward situations and have the audience believing you. Always remember to build that strong necessary trinity for your story (character-setting-situation) before moving on to the mystery.