It’s no secret that music has the power to tap into brain circuits that control emotions and movement. This explains how drums unite tribes in ceremony, why worship and ceremonies are infused by song, why speech is rhythmic, punctuated by rhythms of emphasis on particular syllables and words, and perhaps why we dance.

Since Halloween is around the corner, I would like to talk about horror movies and how sound designers can establish a mood, build tension, and manipulate the audience by composing sonic landscapes of anxiety.

Whether we are fans of horror movies or not, we all have experienced in theaters the slashing violin sounds, spookiest whispers, deep rumblings, or high-pitched squeals that signal that someone isn’t safe or that danger is imminent.

So what are the secret recipes to make us squirm and nervous in theaters? 

Making scary sounds is all about context and juxtaposition, making choices of where you want the audience to focus while you’re setting up the scene.

Jumpscare for instance is a technique using an abrupt change in image with a frightening sound, mostly loud screaming. Here, sound is used to draw us in and focus our attention right before something terrifying happens, like the shark in Jaws pops out of the water while Brody is grousing and shoveling chum.

The perfect marriage of visuals and sounds gets the best audience reactions. Out of context, the sound of a broken stick is not scary. It is rather a pleasant sound that reminds us of walking through a forest. But if you put this exact same sound in a context where someone is chased in the woods at dusk. He stops running, out of breath. Then silence. He looks around for a few seconds and then…. crack! At that exact moment, your brain tells you that someone is watching him or walking towards this poor guy. Run!

Because of the way human brains are evolutionarily wired, we’re conditioned to associate certain sounds like dissonant screams or low frequencies. Surprising sounds can even simulate drowning with the notion of impending danger.

Actually, most horror movie sounds play on all of our survival instincts.

Let’s take a few examples:

Infrasounds are sounds that are characterized by their low frequency (below 20 Hz) and can be caused by natural disasters and severe weather conditions like thunderstorms and earthquakes. Our ears cannot hear them but still, they make us feel disoriented when composers insert these sounds throughout a score.

Pitch variation with increased volume like the iconic sequences of the shower scene from the Hitchcock movie ‘Psycho’. They trigger fears and create an atmosphere of danger

Noisy screams terrify us and the reason for that has to do with survival. They work because they are ‘genuine’ sounds that signal someone else out there is terrified

loud dissonant noise like…. are built into our DNA. They trigger the same fear that helps us survive. They activate an unconscious survival Instinct that makes us feel fear.

Using textured soundscapes is also a technique to create an atmosphere of perpetual danger

Keeping these tricks in mind, filmmakers can harness sound as a powerful tool to create chilling movies that sustain suspense and incite terror and make us jump out of our seats because at the end, this is what we like right?

Here are another short selection of scary sounds

So this weekend, get on your couch with a blanket, turn on your TV, start watching your favorite Halloween movie and let you immerse with all these spooky sounds. Boo!

Olivier Jamin Changeart

Olivier Jamin Changeart

Founder & President, OJC, Artisan of Sound