Spooky season is officially underway with Halloween looming on the horizon like a bad storm. The only thing scarier than the 31st is what awaits us on our TV screens. Something wicked this way comes … in movie form.
What is it that makes scary movies so scary? We’ve all let out a few blood-curdling screams in our horror movie-watching history. We’ve probably held on to a friend or loved one for dear life, as if whichever monster was on the screen would leap out and grab us at any moment.
If you’re a braver audience member, you might occasionally scoff at the cheap attempts at horror or try to scare a friend in a quieter moment, but don’t lie, regardless of who you are, you get goosebumps.
The difference between a run-of-the-mill horror film — borderline comedy — and some award winning nightmare fuel is in the sound: specifically the music.
Think about it this way: You are showering late at night, and you hear a weird rustling sound and you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s probably just the cat,” and then — plot twist! You remember you don’t even own a cat. You turn off the shower to hear better, and ...
Nothing but complete silence.
Suddenly music starts to play. Maybe you hear a slow, somber piano ballad that gives you a peculiar sense of peacefulness mixed with utter dread, or you hear a fast paced “Tom and Jerry” style tune, and you’re ready to bolt.
The funny thing about a horror soundtrack is that a lot of the music doesn’t have to be scary in itself as long as it’s paired with the right setting and tone.
For instance, the 2016 movie “Autopsy of Jane Doe” tells the story of a father and son who work in a morgue One scene in the film has an old radio turn on during a bad thunderstorm. There are a few crackles of static, and then an old time-y song called “Open Up Your Heart” by The McGuire Sisters starts to play. This song is the epitome of rainbows, sunshine and smiling faces, but in the movie, the two characters meet a terrible fate. It’s all about the uncanniness of it all.
Another great example is the song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” from the popular film franchise “Insidious.” The song was originally performed in the 1929 film “GoldDiggers of Broadway”. The lyrics speak of kissing beneath the moonlight and frolicking through the tulips. When it comes to the modern day rendition though, the singer Tiny Tim has a very unnerving voice. Remember how I mentioned the word “uncanny” earlier? Let’s take it a step further and add “valley” to the end of that.
The Uncanny Valley is a weird in-between state of being. When looking at a mannequin, you might think they are a little creepy, especially the prospect of them coming to life, but they look so unrealistic that it’s easy to ignore them altogether. On the other hand, if you turned a mannequin into a life-size robotic doll that could speak and blink at you, it would be extremely lifelike. The distinction between the doll and a real human would be so subtle it would become incredibly unsettling.
“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” is like that. Tiny Tim doesn’t sound genuine with the happiness he’s meant to express, but he doesn’t sound sad either. It’s an odd in-between with no conclusion, which only intensifies the fear factor.
Not all scary movie songs serve as juxtapositions, though. Some are standalone anxiety-inducers, often using chords that don’t resolve or chords that don’t end in a stable way. The “Devil’s Interval” is a perfect example of this.
“The Devil’s Interval” is an augmented fourth, otherwise known as a tritone. A tritone is the space between three whole steps. For example, A-B is one whole step on piano, so an entire tritone would span from A to E flat. According to a BBC News article, this interval was banned from churches in the Middle Ages because it ventured too far from convention and was often associated with impurity. Not to mention, it was allegedly the devil’s not-so-secret hiding spot and playing it would surely summon him, as explained in an article from BBC News.
What’s so bad about the sound itself? It’s the “nails on a chalkboard” equivalent of the music world. Notes clash and tension builds. If you listen to the opening violin chords of Camille Saint Saëns’ “Danse Macabre,” you are sure to hear it — or on a more cheerful note, the Simpsons theme. It all depends on which key you play it in and which vibe you’re going for.
Aside from specific intervals, feelings of dread can arise from the rise and fall of certain songs as well. Michelle DiBucci, a horror film composer, caught on to the fact that funeral masses are used quite frequently.
In the 13th century Latin piece “Dies Irae,” the music flows in a constant descending motion, reminding us of our inevitable fates. This song can be found in movies like “The Shining” and “Friday the 13th”.
The 1978 film “Halloween” has a fast paced piano intro that uses the idea of descending motion, too. The music has stood the test of time, considering it got revamped in the penultimate movie of the “Halloween” series, “Halloween Kills” (2021). With the rapid pace reminding listeners of a killer on their trail and the notes steadily getting lower as you descend into inevitable doom or madness — whichever comes first — it definitely keeps you on your toes. Simple yet effective.
However, the scariest type of music is the kind that doesn’t actually sound like conventional music. With the 1960 film “Psycho,” the soundtrack consists of “non-harmonic sounds used in the distress calls of wild animals,” according to Independent Co.,UK. Better yet, in the 1933 rendition of “King Kong,” actual animal sounds were recorded and modified. When we hear this type of music, we hear the sound of danger.
In the world of mainstream music and media, one particular song has been showing up a lot on my TikTok feed, and it’s typically associated with outlandish or creepy content. The song “Acid Rain” by Lorn is an EDM style track with repetitive, almost mumbly vocalization. What makes the song so chilling is the almost atonal, out-of-tune synth and the background sounds that increase in volume, sounding more like heavy breathing or borderline growling. As a whole, the instrumentals bear an uncanny resemblance to a kind of alarm — not one you wake up to, but one that signals immediate danger. An Amber Alert perhaps?
The mumbly lyrics in “Acid Rain” are hard to comprehend, which might also raise the fear factor. From a scientific standpoint, many animals feel threatened by new environments or places they haven’t yet adapted to, according to the Aztec Animal Clinic. Humans are the same way: frightened of the unknown. Therefore, when we are watching something scary and a song with foreign or unintelligible lyrics comes up, it’s eerie. Our lack of familiarity creates unknown territory and evokes a primal sense of fear.
Just look at the 2009 claymation movie “Coraline” directed by Henry Selick. Despite being aimed at a younger audience, it has many dark themes, and the music is no walk in the park. The “End Credits” song, performed by a children’s choir, consists of a chantlike singing style with piercing violins and a heart-racing tempo. Don’t try to translate the lyrics, though: They are confirmed gibberish for the most part.
The next time you turn on a horror movie, pay extra attention to the soundtrack. What is it about a jump scare that makes people so jumpy? How can you anticipate what’s to come when there are no visual warning signs?
Before you can face the creature that goes ‘bump in the night’, you’ve got to face the music first.
Follow Lauren Johns on Twitter, @lje2017
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