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The sounds that scare

Oct 11, 2019
The racing heartbeat build-up. The piercing screams that follow silence. The upbeat soundtrack juxtaposed beside a sinister scene. Film-makers have been using famous hair-raising techniques like these for years – and as Halloween approaches and horrors make their way onto our screens, now seems like the perfect time to explore exactly why certain sounds are so much scarier than others.

While it’s possible some auditory cues spark fear simply because we associate them with the horror films that came before, research shows being scared is also a part of our biology. Sound is our fastest sense, and so acknowledging when a noise is dangerous plays an important role in our survival.

Biologist Daniel Blumstein started studying this concept after hearing a baby marmot scream. The irregular noise he heard when picking the animal up seemed to evoke a different emotional response within him – and he found this kind of danger signal is replicated across many other species too. Blumstein named these kind of noises ‘non-linear’ – and ever since, his experiments have proven that sounds with non-linear elements like these elicit a negative feeling within listeners.

The T-rex in Jurassic park mashed non-linear noises of several animals together to create a roar that shook every screen it aired on, and many other famous films pushed noise beyond its normal range to encourage an evocative reaction in viewers. This technique is being reinvented all the time; from the high-pitched violins that perforated Psycho’s shower scene in the 60s, to the arrival of the synthesiser that shocked the 70s and 80s – and has now been brought back to life through the new Netflix series Stranger Things.
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There’s more to this recognisable synthy soundtrack than meets the eye – or ear – because a bassy heartbeat and non-linear notes of uneasiness are interwoven into what passes as a pleasant song on the surface.
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The scare tactics don’t end there either. This series won an Emmy Award for Craig Henighan’s sound design, which used the power of silence alongside everyday sounds like flickering lights to make those watching feel a little off-kilter without really knowing why.

Henighan isn’t the only sound expert to be taking a paired-back approach to achieve maximum results. The multi-award-winning mini-series Chernobyl was tasked with replicating the horror of a nuclear disaster without sensationalising a sensitive time in history – and so Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir decided to recreate the catastrophe in the realest way possible; by going to a decommissioned plant in Lithuania and recording the sounds that existed around such an environment. That meant throwing away the thriller drums and orchestra strings, and replacing them with silence and slow progressions – only including noises that really served a purpose.
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The best example of this can be heard right at the start of Chernobyl when the reactor explodes. Instead of the loud eruption we so often expect, viewers are met with a much quieter thud, which turned out to achieve a far more spine-chilling effect than bringing out the cracks and bangs of a Hollywood blockbuster.

In all these instances, we can see the important role the sound – or the total absence of it – plays in determining whether a film or TV show delivers the maximum scare to become a true Halloween classic.