The Sound of Horror

Perhaps the most well-known and gut wrenching sound in horror films belongs to the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho Who can forget the high pitch, piercing violins from composer Bernard Herrmann that cut through with a violent, sickening metallic sound. Visually the scene is brilliant, but what sticks in your head more: the shower scene or the screeching violins behind it?

But why are sounds and music not simply scary, but something that psychologically and emotionally grips us? Science suggests that sound-based information travels faster than visual information, as humans evolved to use hearing, rather than sight, as a first defence against predators.

The aim of the soundtrack in a horror film is to trigger fear, stress, panic and anxiety – and Hitchcock certainly achieves this. Typically speaking, suspense music creates tension through a sustained high tone, a deep drone or an annoying, repetitive motion. Spectators are urged to feel that something bad lurks nearby and be compelled into a state of stress.

But perhaps the most famous suspenseful soundtrack comes from Jaws with a sinister two-note double bass line: it starts with heavy notes that then quicken into a hasty attack. Deeps sounds have a percussive ability and if the sound is loud enough, you can feel it penetrating your body.

In more modern times movie screens have been graced with Slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Slasher films typically avoid orchestra-style music, but rather use sound design and industrial and heavy metal music. Yet the main sound behind Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the Poulan 306A – supposedly the most famous chainsaw in film. The sound of the chainsaw has a sound pressure level only exceeded by a jet engine taking off 30m from an auditor.

Rather than orchestra pieces which are no doubt effective, sometimes it’s the more mundane sounds that induce horror and anxiety. For example, the sound studios of horror movies are littered with fruits and vegetables making body-snapping sound effects. Apparently a lot of watermelons had to be hacked into for the sound for Hellraiser.

So next time you indulge yourself in a bit of horror, take a care for the hours of sound design used to make your experience all the more visceral.

What are your favourite horror sound tracks?

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