It’s that spooky time of year and once again, it seems only fitting that we get in the spirit by watching horror films. 

Films in this hair-raising genre have various qualities that cause us to quiver in fear. Visuals, narratives and cinematography all play a part, however, the soundtrack is quite possibly the most important part, adding to the intense atmosphere created on screen and enhancing the audiences’ experience. These ‘scary’ sounds are often heard amidst highly intense scenes, when the narrative is building up to its unnerving climax. 

But what exactly is it that makes the music in horror films so scary? 

One argument is that horror soundtracks consist of noises and sounds that instinctively give viewers goosebumps and the chills. The science behind this isn’t certain, but it seems that certain pitches, volumes and staccato sounds cause those watching to be on the edge of their seat. 

Researchers for howstuffworks (https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/why-scary-music.htm) examined more than 100 movie soundtracks, discovering that nonlinear sound is an important part of scenes meant to stir up fear and negative feelings. This includes sounds such as distressed animal cries that sound harsh, screechy or disturbing. Often, these will be at the same pitch as a baby’s cry, designed to get our attention.  

A prime example of this type of soundtrack features in the 1960s American horror film Psycho, and I think we all know which scene. Just as Marion Craine is about to be stabbed, high-pitched screeching is heard and it dynamically intensifies as the murder takes place. The music creates panic and alarm, causing an anxious trepidation deep within the viewer. 

The opposing argument as to why horror soundtracks arouse discomfort is that they have been socially conditioned to sound scary, causing people to associate it with negativity, without even realising. Similarly, when people hear a few staves of a Morricone Spaghetti Western classic, they might instantly think of Western films – the same concept applies to the horror genre, highlighting a potential reliance on the style of music used within the films, not the intricacies of music itself. 

Reading Eva Amsen’s blog on medium.com (https://medium.com/@easternblot/what-makes-scary-music-scary-125751198aa7), she says: “We made these sounds scary by putting them in scary films in the first place.” Amsen also goes on to say: “Beethoven’s 9th isn’t inherently scary or unpleasant at all, but many film buffs associate it immediately with A Clockwork Orange whenever they hear it.”

Take the famous scene from Jaws when the Shark makes its first attack near the beach. If there is ever a prime example of how audio summarises the importance of horror soundtracks in films, this is it. The following video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae1Z_fWDZ7s removes John William’s music and it makes a huge difference, lacking a build-up to the climax of the scene. The question is, is this music genuinely scary on its own or is it scary because we know what happens whenever it’s played?

A lot of the time, what we see happening on screen makes a huge difference to the soundtracks ability to terrify, and Jaws is a prime example of this. When watched without the famous deep chords, the film just comes across as being a drama about a Shark. The removal of music is also the removal of a socially conditioned level of scare.  

From analysis, it is clear to see both sides of the argument have their reasons which all make perfect sense. Of course it takes no genius to say that when high-pitched screeches and loud sudden chords are heard, it is going to sound terrifying and similar to the sort of music you’d only listen to on the 31st October each year. Despite this, the question still remains: have horror films made this genre of music only applicable to listen to when you’re in the mood to give yourself a huge fright? 

We will never know the answer, but next time you psych yourself up to watch horror films in the future, listen out for those shrieking soundtracks!

 

Image: “mother” by Flооd is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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