Horror sound design

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Today we’re lucky enough to have an article by Cecilia Keirstead, our very own producer, sound mixer, and boom operator. She’s taken her sound design expertise and has written about horror sound design. Let’s get into it!

One weekend when I was in college, I had my whole apartment to myself. My roommates were all out of town, my friends were busy, and by Saturday night, I was so bored that I holed up in my room with my laptop and my good headphones to watch movies.

Eventually, I came out to make dinner for myself, and that was when I heard it. It was the smallest vibration, the tiniest thump, something I couldn’t quite identify. I froze and listened, holding my breath. The sound came again. This time, I was sure that it was coming from inside of the apartment. 

I texted my roommates. Had any of them come back early? No response. I turned to the carving block and pulled out the largest knife. You know the one – the chef’s knife the size of a person’s forearm. Clutching the knife, I followed the sound to my roommate’s closed bedroom door and listened again. There was something – or someone – inside.

My hand was shaking, but I had the knife in my grip, ready to defend myself against whatever lurked inside the room. I took a deep breath and threw open the door…

… And there was my roommate, home early, as surprised as I was. This is why you should answer your texts! I hid the knife behind my back and apologized, then slinked off to finish my cooking.

Friends, I know I’m not the only one with a story like this. You’re alone in the house, or maybe outside in the dark, or making your way through an unfamiliar building. You hear something strange and your body tenses, because your brain can tell that something is wrong, but you can’t see what it is. This is what makes sound design so important to horror.

This may not be a surprise, but I am a bit of a chicken when it comes to scary movies. I started listening for musical cues so that I would seem less scared when I watched them with my friends. When I heard the music grow tense, I knew a jump scare was probably coming up. I would take several deep breaths. I could be chill. I was the chill, brave friend. Nothing could shake me. There would be a beat of silence, and then, bam! There it was. Half the time, I would get startled anyway, but I told myself it was just a reflex.

This is why, when people think of horror sound design, music is usually the first thing that comes to mind. The right score will really set the mood for a piece, and can make scary moments more impactful. The music can inform the audience of how to feel, or completely juxtapose the content of the scene to be more dramatic or unsettling. There are even certain musical tones that cause a physical reaction – a high, dissonant screech that makes audiences cringe, or a low, almost imperceptible rumble that can cause nausea or dizziness.

Silence is a fascinating tool, too. When things are too quiet, it can be very unnerving. During a recent viewing of Midsommar, Raven and I started talking about the wind. There are certain shots where we could see the wind blowing through the trees or grass, but couldn’t hear the rustle at all. The world was quieter than it should have been. That’s not unusual in and of itself for a film, because keeping the background noise low makes the dialogue easier to hear. However, when that quiet is combined with wide shots of large groups of people making no noise, it gets unsettling. Shouldn’t we hear them? Why are they so quiet? What are they hiding?

Sound cues can also be important to the plot. In the Quiet Place movies, which feature blind monsters that attack victims based on hearing, sound cues signify life and death. A toy rocket making a blastoff noise isn’t scary on its own. But in the context of the story, it’s a death knell. On the other hand, think of how many scary movie monsters have a specific noise that they make, or a musical cue that accompanies their arrival. When you hear the sound, you know they’re coming. Cue the fear.

Filmmakers might also set up a regular pattern of sounds, like the way an old floor creaks when friends and family members walk across it. The sound designer is teaching you as a viewer: this is what safety sounds like. Then, maybe the bad guy sneaks in on tiptoe, and you only hear a single floorboard creak, when he’s right behind his victim. As a viewer, when you hear the variation of the pattern, you can pick up on the fact that this is not what safety sounds like, even if you don’t see the danger yet.

But what about the things you can see? Sound design can enhance visuals as well. Think of gory scenes – a blade slicing through flesh and blood dripping from a wound. Maybe I’ve spent too much time playing with chef’s knives, but I’ve definitely nicked a finger or two in the kitchen. I’ll let you in on a secret: it doesn’t sound like much of anything at all.

In movies, injuries do have sounds. Bones crunch, first-degree burns sizzle, and there are plenty of sounds that can make an impact seem more visceral. A movie can’t actually hurt you, but it will try to make audiences feel the pain their characters are experiencing by appealing to as many of the other senses as possible. Sight will only get you so far. Sound will carry you farther.

Finally, throughout our lives, we subconsciously learn what sounds signify danger. When we watch a movie that uses that sound, our brains automatically go on alert. Some people may be more attuned to certain sounds than others. Ever been stung by a wasp? I have, and the buzz of insect wings has scared me ever since. How scary these sound effects are depends on both the context of the scene and the viewer’s personal history. A gas stove igniting, a tornado drill blaring, and a car backfiring can all be innocuous or terrifying. Deep breathing behind you is normal if you’re playing tag with your friend, but absolutely not normal if you’re alone in the dark.

So, next time you’re watching a scary movie, really sit back and listen. What moments affect you the most? Maybe you’re picturing the disturbing visual that lingers in your mind, but if you close your eyes, you might find that the sound design was what really gave you goosebumps.

Major thanks to Cecilia for writing us this piece about horror sound design. Do you want to hear more about horror sound design, or sound design in general? Get in touch and let us know!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi


Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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