When you consider how many different people get giddy over Halloween (the event) and its namesake movie from 1978, you might ask yourself and your friends…”So how would you like to be scared today?” (Can you imagine being asked that question when you amble into a haunted house attraction?)
Fear isn’t a scream. Fear triggers your scream. Do you remember the tagline from the film, Alien, from 1979, (that I still can’t see as horror, but only as science fiction): “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Let’s consider fear expressed as sound. Many of us have discovered that the seductive and counter-intuitive magic that pushes us toward horror is sound, specifically the music or even the silence that precedes it.
Neil Lerner, a musicologist at Davidson College, and author of “Music in the Horror Film,” and, Steve Connor, the science editor for England’s “The Independent,” have identified some of the illusive kinds of music that creep us out, and keep us coming back to test our fight or flight reflexes. Some readers, thinking back to the 1980s, may debate the potency of movie music. The 1980s era was chock full of a compulsion toward shock, satisfying teens’ appetite for gore. There, entrails and brain matter abound like some moist, chunky and sloppy confetti of flesh. While gore does something for you, the music is probably the true engine of that tension.
Consider Halloween’s original theme: Nearly unforgettable.
As an example, from an article by “The Independent’s,” Mr. Connor, “Imagine a horn. You blow it gently and a nice sound comes out… At some point, when you blow it too hard, the sound gets unpredictable, distorted and noisy.” That’ll tweak or trigger your tension.
Do you remember what Albert Einstein, yes the genius physicist, said about imagination versus intelligence? The most potent tool in horror, and in storytelling in general, is imagination. The second most potent tool is probably how music gives us cues about how we should feel at any moment. The individual and personal ways that we take in and respond to that chaotic and distorted music determine whether we’ll be scared enough to pee our pants or scared toward a heart attack.
Now, the remix for the 2000s:
Familiar, modern and creepy.
As with almost every film, the music and sound design set the scene and the mood; but particularly so, with horror, Mr. Connor says in that article, “It was only in horror and drama that the scientists found a significant use of non-linear sound to amplify an iconic scene’s emotional content…”
When he discusses Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, from 1960, based on the novel, from 1959, by Robert Bloch, which was inspired by vague details about Wisconsin’s deranged Ed Gein, Mr. Connor said, “…the discordant musical notes he (Mr. Hitchcock) was adding to the disturbing shower scene were in fact based on the sort of non-harmonic sounds used in the distress calls of wild animals.”
From “the shower scene” (and don’t be like, “what shower scene?”) from Psycho.
Consider Psycho and Halloween – and if you’re an enthusiastic cinéphile, The Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney, which flaunted its organ music – among a bevy of other horror titles. Neil Lerner, a musicologist at Davidson College, in Davidson, NC, and author of “Music in the Horror Film,” refers to “Horror film’s repetitious drones, clashing dissonances, and stingers (those assaultive blasts that coincide with shock or revelation) affect us at a primal level…” which harken back to privative instincts that ignore entirely however much education, breeding or sense of class you have. No matter how smart you are, that film, which ever one, will still scare the pants off of you. Here’s an interview with him, which includes a lengthy excerpt from the Phantom’s organ. But here, in a college article, Prof. Lerner discusses the kind of music that propels horror films and our senseless return to them.
Well, many of us have discovered that horror movie sound, specifically the music, helps those stories to make our hairs stand on end, and ourselves on-edge. I guess that’s part of why we’re crazy enough to flock back…for the love of Fear.