We’ve written a great deal about the role of a truly great musical score in crafting a memorable horror film, but today I’m going to dig a little deeper into what makes a movie sound terrifying. Along with dialogue and practical sound effects, there are often dozens of layers to a film’s sound design, and successful scares can depend entirely on how well those audio elements are edited, mixed and manipulated.
If you have any doubts about this, just pick out any movie that ever terrified you, then remove all of the sound except for the dialogue. Is it still scary? I’m guessing the answer is no.
Think about it: even horror films of the silent era were accompanied by tension-filled music and sound effects performed right there in the theater. Many movies have sustained scares with little or no music (as a composer, I feel a bit uncomfortable admitting that), but without inventive sound design, it just doesn’t work.
Here’s a list of iconic horror movies whose sound design made an indelible impression on me… and I’m betting if you’ve experienced these classics yourself, you’ll agree.
Turn down the lights and turn up the volume!
Enough praise and analysis has been heaped on Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi horror epic to reach to LV-426 and back… but I can’t stress enough how Scott’s famous attention to detail came into play in this film’s sound design. From the ominous hum of the ship’s oxygen supply, to layers upon layers of cold, clinical computer clicks and buzzes, finally peaking with multiple blaring self-destruct alarms, every second of this film manipulates crafted audio elements for the sole purpose of keeping you on edge… before you finally shit yourself in terror.
It’s hard to pick one scene from ALIEN which employs sound to the most terrifying effect… but this nail-biter set in the cramped, echoing confines of the ship’s air-ducts is a strong contender:
Again we have an undisputed classic — this time from the master of screen suspense himself. Even if you’ve never seen the film all the way through, you’ve probably seen clips of those giant gulls crashing into windows and setting off explosions and plucking people’s eyes out. But did you ever stop to notice that the film has no musical score?
Hitch employed Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann to electronically distort and simulate bird calls, then carefully edited them for maximum shock and awe… and it works. You’re so freaked out by those sounds that any brief moment of peace starts feeling like the eye of a hurricane.
Like in this amazing scene, in which you hear nothing on the soundtrack but a classroom full of kids singing an extremely goofy nursery rhyme while Tippi Hedren’s character waits nervously in front of a playground jungle gym…
True horror fans know this early Bob Clark effort as a prototype for the slasher films of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and if you ask them what’s the most effective element in this film, they’ll tell you in one word: “Billy.” The film’s incredibly deranged nemesis is never seen on camera, and only identified by a voice on the phone… and what a voice it is.
Sure, crank calls and heavy-breathers are annoying and all, but this guy takes it to a whole new level, making each ring of the phone more terrifying — because you never know what kind of freaked-out babble he’s going to scream at them next. The telephone would not be matched again as a source of raw horror until WHEN A STRANGER CALLS… and, of course, many years later with Wes Craven’s SCREAM.
While it made little impact at the box office in 1980, this elegant and intense ghost story has experienced a huge revival in recent years — and it’s much deserved. Director Peter Medak wisely chose to let the intense horror build within the mind of the viewer instead of parading monsters across the screen, and so much of this was achieved through sound. We never actually see any supernatural presence in this film — only the impact it makes on the physical world — so there are plenty of opportunities to drop subtle hints and clues using sound effects and music.
Also, since George C. Scott’s character is a composer, it’s a perfect solution to make the story’s main mystery revolve around a piece of music — and the way this tune works its way through the plot is ingenious.
Here’s an example of how the sound builds gradually throughout a scene, beginning with the small, hushed murmurs of the seance, and climaxing in a sonic explosion:
If you haven’t seen David Lynch’s first feature film, you’re in for a treat… and by “treat,” I mean “months of nightmares followed by intense therapy.” At least that’s what it felt like when I saw it (and heard it) for the first time. In his usual obtuse way, Lynch has suggested that the film is about his fear of parenthood, and anything that scares that guy should probably carry a warning label of some kind. But it’s also a fine example of his long and fruitful artistic collaboration with the late Alan Splet, who was one of the most inventive sound designers in the film world.
The movie itself has very little dialog and only a few moments of actual music, most of which are old songs by jazz great Fats Waller, played on a church organ — except for a creepy tune sung by the tumor-faced “Lady in the Radiator” — but the sound effects are relentless, filling every nook and cranny of the mix.
Here’s a scene that actually made me jump, thanks to one smash-cut and a loud blast on the organ…
While fans and critics have written volumes about this landmark of horror cinema, I still feel obligated to point out how much of THE EXORCIST’s success is due to the way director William Friedkin manipulates sound to create an atmosphere of dread and doom. It’s not exactly subtle — especially in the film’s final act — but it’s definitely unique, especially since no one had seen or heard anything like this in 1973.
The soundtrack is filled with animal sounds, human voices in reverse, and low-frequency vibrations that you can feel in your intestines, often blended with excerpts of avant-garde classical music and even some subtle electronic tones.
Of course, there’s also the deep, gravelly and brooding voice of Mercedes McCambridge as the demon speaking through Linda Blair’s Regan. In fact, the actress was allegedly so dedicated to capturing that now-legendary performance that she abused herself to the point of vomiting and passing out.
Have you ever sat alone in a completely silent room at night? I mean really silent, without city sounds or nature sounds to fill up the space? Ever notice how every tiny creak of your house or apartment seems louder and more… unnatural? Then your pet cat or iguana or whatever runs through the room and you lose your shit? That whole uneasy atmosphere is the mechanism which drives this classic — widely considered the ultimate example of the “less-is-more” approach to horror filmmaking.
Based on Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, Robert Wise’s classic is a tale with no answers, no explanations and no clear definition of what’s going on… but whatever it is, the people who spend the night in Hill House are afraid for their lives. When a movie about an allegedly haunted house shows you nothing supernatural on camera, then much of the burden falls on the soundtrack to get the job done. Well, in THE HAUNTING, that job gets done just fine.
Check out this nightmarish scene and listen carefully…
From here on out, I’m gonna say “fuck subtle.” Because none of the remaining three films on this list is low-key when it comes to sound design. Take Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller, for example: while Kubrick lets the ominous mood build slowly and steadily, taking its time and never revealing his cards too soon, the soundtrack is always busy — swarming with the drones, stabs, rattles and screeches of abstract orchestral works by Penderecki, Ligeti and Bartok, and the electronic atmospheres of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Not content to merely use those compositions out of the box, Kubrick had his music editor Gordon Stainforth cut them into tiny pieces and carefully rearrange them for maximum effect… and the rest his horror history.
Check out this famous sequence and listen to how the sounds of little Danny’s Big Wheel are used to create a rhythmic pulse that seems to quicken your heartbeat as he pedals his way closer to a wide-awake nightmare…
Dario Argento is best known for his masterful use of color, light and shadow, which he uses to paint his horrific visions in bold, broad strokes. But he also had a good ear for music — having worked with legendary composer Ennio Morricone (THE THING, THE HATEFUL EIGHT) for his early giallo films, and later realizing the potential of rock music as a driving force for suspense and terror. Dario hooked up with the progressive band Cherry Five to score his next film… and that group would later rename themselves Goblin.
Goblin’s collaboration with Argento on PROFONDO ROSSO (a.k.a. DEEP RED) in 1975 was so successful that the director decided to push their music front-and-center two years later — and cranked the volume unbelievably high.
SUSPIRIA is one of those films where the line between music and sound design is completely blurred — to the point where the score actually busts through the fourth wall and screams the word “witch!” directly at the audience. Most of the film’s scariest scenes have minimal dialog and sound effects, and what is there is nearly obliterated by Goblin’s relentless musical assault.
Here’s the film’s most famous scene — which represents Argento and Goblin at their absolute best.
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE
This is a great flick to wrap up with (although purely by chance, because I listed these titles alphabetically), being a superb example of a filmmaker with a singular vision that extends beyond just illustrating a scary story. Tobe Hooper wanted to create the atmosphere of a living nightmare, where logic fails and nothing looks, sounds or feels right. When it came to sound, Hooper knew a standard musical score wouldn’t cut it; the audio had to feel as broken and twisted as the visuals. So he and composer Wayne Bell concocted a sonic stew that is so warped, so grating, so nerve-wracking, that it literally makes your teeth hurt.
They did such an expert job incorporating sound design into the story that many of the sounds he used have become as iconic as Leatherface himself… I mean, is anyone reading this not familiar with the sound effect that accompanies the camera flashes in the pre-credits scene? Or the pig grunts and chicken squawks that seem to come from everywhere, even when no animals are on camera (no living ones, that is)? Or the sudden, explosive eruption of the chainsaw itself, in close quarters?
The best example is the aforementioned prologue, which plays out in near-total darkness, with the horrific environment generated almost entirely through sound…