Horror Films 101: The Soundscape of Terror
What makes scary movies keep us awake at night? Maybe it is the fear of the unknown, maybe it is the subtle Shepard’s tone, which gives us unconscious goosebumps, or maybe it is the theme music of the dreaded monster. There is not one answer to satiate why people are drawn to horror, but if it were not for the sound, or lack of it, the mise-en-scéne, the male gaze, or the infamous antagonist, we would not lie awake in the dark thinking something might be lurking outside our windows. This series examines the psychology behind what makes horror films so successful in terrifying people and the benefits of watching these anxiety-driven films. Plus, why do these films stick with us, especially when we are alone?
Horror Films 101: What Makes Horror Movies So Scary is divided into the following chapters of content:
1. Horror Film 101: The Soundscape of Terror
2. Horror Film 101: Fear of the Unknown
3. Horror Film 101: Surviving the Male Gaze
4. Horror Film 101: Behind the Mise-en-scéne
5. Horror Film 101: How Horror Affects Mental Health
6. Horror Film 101: The Psychology of Terror
The Sound of Horror Cinema
American and European films rely on the effects of crisp sound, whether that sound is diegetic, non-diegetic, or a brief pause of silence before a juxtaposing, raucous scream (Bordwell, 2017, pp. 496-498). The filmmakers of horror use key elements from the studies of psychology, technology, and musicology to make their films terrifying. Modern horror uses sound design technology to manipulate the subconscious mind and make the audience descend into their darkest anxieties (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 19). Mathias Clasen, a scholar of horror fiction and recreational fear, claims in his book, Why Horror Seduces (2017), that people are fearful in their nature (p. 24). He further explains that humans are truly afraid of death and seeing unconventional monsters, which just so happen to occur in a panoply of horror movies. Furthermore, humans are always looking out for danger surrounding them because “our ancestors led dangerous lives” (Clasen, 2017, p. 27). Fear is embedded within human DNA as it “has a strong and distinct evolutionary function as a response to acute threats to physical and psychological well-being” (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 3). The effectiveness of horror is due to the neurobiological fears we associate with sound and our ancestor’s survival response. The diegesis of horror is dependent on timing cues, silence, and intensity of volume.
Films are never really silent, except with intentional pauses. Even foregone silent films had an orchestra accompanying them (Bordwell, 2017, p. 264). Horror movies rely on the sense of sound, but that is not to say they do not depend on the quiet as well. Think of your favourite thriller and the hushed tones that gather before a strident scream. Humans know that specific sound cues can cause an uneasy feeling, but it is also the silence before the jump-scare, which makes the amplification of the vociferous noise much more intense. It is the “[s]pecific acoustic features such as roughness constantly perceived as threatening [used to] automatically activate the brain’s fear circuit” (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 2). In horror films like A Quiet Place (2018), the director, John Krasinski, uses a mixture of silence and sound to create fear. This movie follows a family, The Abbotts, who are trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world where sound is hazardous. The family must go through a variety of challenges, including losing a child to a feral hyper-sensitive monster. However, one of the Abbotts' kids, Regan, who is deaf, discovers the creature’s weakness with her broken hearing aid, which permeates the monsters hearing and debilitates it (Krasinski, 2018). Yet, the film is rarely silent, as it has natural sounds that occur in nature, in the diegetic world. The sounds of nature and infrequent dialogue make it more impactful when the audience does hear a noise. This translates to the real world as people are unnerved by silence. Furthermore, people often identify with the characters on screen, making it seem as if the viewer is undergoing the same experience. Despite the audience’s awareness that they are safe at home, “humans are predisposed to think[...] that whatever we see or hear is real” (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 7). This connection to the foreshadowing silence makes people associate this uncanny quiet with real life. When people identify as the protagonist in their viewing experience, they also face the monster head-on. These visceral reactions make genuine fear arise, especially when humans empathize with the likeable characters on screen, like Regan (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 9). This is “[b]ecause humans are an inherently social species, [so they] have the tendency to automatically share emotions with each other – even with the characters in a movie” (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 8). This phenomenon makes the film world indistinguishable from the real world, and that is often why people fear dead silence.
Films before the 1930s had very little sound. In fact, "music was the exception, not the rule" (Rosar, 1983, p. 392). Contrasting to early films, modern horror relies on all noises, especially music. The scores in film noirs are famous for their use of ominous music, which people associate with villains. This is due to Pavlovian conditioning, also known as classical conditioning: a term coined by the renowned psychologist, Ivan Pavlov (Rehman, 2022, n.p.). Pavlovian conditioning is “the process in which an automatic, conditioned response is paired with specific stimuli” (Rehman, 2022, n.p.). This was discovered by Pavlov accidentally when he was conducting an experiment on dogs’ digestion, but he noticed dogs began to salivate even before they were fed. He noticed the dogs were salivating at the sound of the food cart upon its arrival. He then conducted another experiment to see if the dogs could be conditioned to salivate with the sound of a bell. He was successful in his experiment, as he trained them to salivate even without food present at the sound of a mere bell (Rehman, 2022, n.p.). This rings true for theme music, associated with an antagonist of a horror film, such as the cult classic Michael Myers in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) or Bruce in Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). The directors use specific scores alongside the villain even before they arrive, creating a terrifying forewarning to the audience. This theme music creates lasting memories associated with such music. Pavlov’s theory (1897) reiterates that sound has an impact and when you hear the theme music for a monster, such as Michael Myers, the audience's preconceived expectations of fear have already risen. Therefore, when we hear the score of Michael Myers in Halloween, we associate the song with memories triggering the audience’s past trauma experience of being scared, consequently making them anxious even before something bad happens in the film (Rehman, 2022, n.p.). Theme music is often non-diegetic because the characters within the film cannot hear the soundtrack, but this still has a panicking effect on the audience as they know from the musical cue to expect impending doom. This music also provides cognitive dissonance, which is “the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions,” because while the music is catchy, it is associated with something terrible (Sultana, 2021, p. 6). Horror films like Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012) use distorted audio in the score which makes audiences uncomfortable. A myriad of horror films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian, 1931) use eerie instruments such as the organ, theremin, and waterphone (Lerner, 2010, p. 8). These haunting instruments have a tone and frequency that sound dark and omniscient. They play repeatedly in horror movies to create the Pavlovian effect (1897). There is no scary diegesis that is safe in horror movies because humans associate music with memories and trauma. Being scared when hearing a specific noise causes a traumatic experience, and people associate it with not only the memory but the music itself (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 19). Evidently, music has a significant impact on horror.
Shepard’s Tone, & Sound Effects
Along with the distinguishable sounds of horror are the noises people do not frequently consider; yet it makes them terrified upon hearing them. That noise is called Shepard’s tone (Shimizu, 2007, p. 113). Technology has advanced since the beginning of motion pictures. Modern filmmakers manipulate the audience's auditory senses through the technologies of Shepard’s tone, sound effects, and infrared sound. The Shepard’s tone is a computer-generated “auditory illusion” which overlays a loop of separate tones in different octaves: high-pitched tones, middle-pitched tones, and low-pitched tones that either rise or fall (Shimizu, 2007, p. 113). Thus, “an ever-ascending scale is evoked” (Shimizu, 2007, p. 113). Shepard’s tone is another way to create an everlasting tension that creates intense anxiety for the audience. In Aliens (Cameron, 1986), the director uses Shepard’s tone to escalate fear in the audience as the nuance sounds like it is increasing while it is not. This creates tension and suspense in the audience, as a build-up of music means something is going to happen. Hence, when the constant sound of the music rising plays the audience assumes that something is going to happen subconsciously. Infrared sound or infrasound is sound that cannot be heard by humans, which is frequencies below 20 Hz (Zarrelli, 2016, n.p.). It is also a modern-day tactic used to scare audiences in horror movies to “caus[e] the viewer to feel dread just before extremely disturbing imagery begins” (Zarrelli, 2016, n.p.). It does not have a specific tone; merely a rumbling sound is perceived by the human ear. The rumbling does not have an apparent source which creates anxiety, as humans often need to know where a noise or sound is coming from. Infrared sound is crucial because it creates tension. It warns people that something is wrong, even though they are ignorant of what it is and the location it is coming from (Zarrelli, 2016, n.p.). For example, in the opening scene of A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018), the family is on their way home after searching for medication; the infrasound can be heard underneath the background music. It is used to alert the audience that there is a danger ahead, although they do not know what it is yet. Humans have relied on their ears to keep them safe. Sound can indicate when danger is close by. Humans are acutely sensitive, especially to frequencies below our perceived hearing, which according to Nummenmaa (2021), a scholar of emotion science, have lasting physiological effects in humans that subsequently lead to discomfort, […]. Studies have consistently found that the[se] kind[s] of rough and dissonant sounds are perceived as alarming, particularly when generated with modulation rates of 30-160 Hz. The brain's fear circuit is also attuned to this frequency (p. 19).
Filmmakers are aware of this and use Shepard’s tone, sound effects, plus infrared noise to evoke visceral reactions from the audience.
This article examines the effects of sound, and the lack of it, inside horror movies. Why sound is so important to the human ear as it affects the mind and seeps into the viewer's deepest fears. Ultimately, psychological tactics (Pavlov’s effect, 1897) and the audience’s traumatic memories being linked to certain noises), technologies (Shepard’s tone, sound effects, and infrared sound), and musicology (theme music intensifying, and horror instruments) are used to determine why diegesis is fundamental in horror films and plays a crucial role in being the harbinger of bad things to come.
Diegesis: The sound occurring inside and outside of the character’s perceived senses. What they hear on and off-screen throughout the narrative (Bordwell, 2017, p. 496).
Diegetic: Sound inside the film, including dialogue, sound effects, and music that characters can hear (Bordwell, 2017, p. 496).
Film noir: “Dark film,” given its name “by French critics to a type of American film, usually in the detective or thriller genres, with low-key lighting and a somber mood” (Bordwell, 2017, p. 496).
Non-diegetic: Sound outside the film narrative; including sound effects, infrared sound, narrator’s voice, and theme music (Bordwell, 2017, p. 498).
Score: The original music composed for a movie or preexisting licensed music that is included (Ascher and Pincus, 2012, p. 646)
A Quiet Place. Directed by John Krasinski, performances by Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe, Paramount Pictures, 2018.
Ascher, Steven, and Edward Pincus. The Filmmaker's Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide For the Digital Age. 4th ed., New York, Penguin Group, 2012.
Bordwell, David, et al. Film Art: An Introduction. 11th Edition. McGraw-Hill Education, 2017. Clasen, Mathias. Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2017. https://www-oxfordscholarship-com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/view/10.1093/oso/9780190666507.001.0001/oso-9780190666507.
Lerner, Neil. Music in the Horror Film: Listening to fear. E-book, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2010. https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=7VyOAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=musical+scores+in+horror+film&ots=jqESp0O_cY&sig=nQMHcrpYEOWOMuj6rkDjnyobbes#v=onepage&q=musical%20scores%20in%20horror%20film&f=false. Nummenmaa, Lauri. “Psychology and Neurobiology of Horror Movies.” PsyArXiv, 4 Mar. 2021. Web. https://psyarxiv.com/b8tgs/https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1a56/14286ab561f021da51b50b7f2439abeac0fd.pdf.
Pavlov, I.P. (1927) Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. Translated and Edited by G. V. Anrep. Oxford University Press, London, 142. Rehman, Ibraheem, et al. “Classical Conditioning.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 22 August 2022.
Rosar, William H., "Music for the MONSTERS: Universal Pictures' Horror Film Scores of the Thirties." The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, vol. 40, no. 4, 1983, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/William-Rosar/publication/261792490_Music_for_the_MONSTERS_Universal_Pictures'_Horror_Film_Scores_of_the_Thirties/links/58d2983b92851cd76d346f4e/Music-for-the-MONSTERS-Universal-Pictures-Horror-Film-Scores-of-the-Thirties.pdf. Shimizu, Yu, et al. “Neuronal Response to Shepard’s Tones. An Auditory fMRI Study Using Multifractal Analysis.” ScienceDirect, vol. 1186, 2007, pp. 113-123. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2007.09.097. Sultana, Irem, et al. “Effects of Horror Movies on Psychological Health of Youth.” Global Mass Communication Review, vol. VI, No. 1, 2021, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1a56/14286ab561f021da51b50b7f2439abeac0fd.pdf. Accessed 22 January 2023. Zarrelli, Natalie. “How the Hidden Sounds of Horror Movie Soundtracks Freak You Out: From Altered Voices to ‘Infrasound,’ These Audio Tricks Spook and Unsettle.” Atlas Obscura, October 31st, 2016. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-the-hidden-sounds-of-horror-movie-soundtracks-freak-you-out.
Cover Image: Snapshot from The Shining (1980), of Jack and Wendy Torrance, portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, https://culturedvultures.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Shining.jpg.
Figure 1: Filmmaking crew with boom mic, recording sound (n.d.) https://happymag.tv/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Sound-for-films.jpg.
Figure 2: Snapshot from A Quiet Place (2018), of Evelyn and Regan Abbott, portrayed by Emily Blunt, and Millicent Simmonds, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6644200/. Figure 3: Snapshot from Michael Myers in Halloween (2018), portrayed by James Jude Courtney https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Myers_%28Halloween%29.