Written by Jen Katherine Birch / Edited by Mark Ricche (Crypticpictures.com)
For generations, film audiences have been hooked on the multi-sensorial, spine-tingling experience we have come to call, the “horror movie.” The plots stimulate our psyches, the actors get us emotionally invested, the visuals make everyone jump up in fear. But what is it that keeps us on the edge of our seat? What takes on the attributes of “threat” that sends shivers down our spine, and causes our hair to stand on end? That would be a film’s aural landscape. You and I call this “sound”, and it is this “musical space” within a film’s soundtrack that makes up the entirety of our auditory experience when we watch movies.
Even before the genesis of the “talkies” in the late 1920s, music has always been a part of the soundscape, designed to help guide audiences through the cinematic experience. In the silent era, movie houses hired organist to play alongside a film as it was projected. Later, as the industry evolved, sound was incorporated into the celluloid itself, and amplified through speakers, giving filmmakers more control over what audience heard, and more importantly, when they heard it. The swell of an orchestration just before an ensuing battle, or the swoon of a lonely violin played over a melodramatic scene told audiences how they should feel at a specific instant. And thus, the birth of sound design became an elemental part of cinematic storytelling. And no genus of the art form has benefited more from this integral component than the horror genre.
In this article, we shall examine of a few of the instruments and devices that have helped shape the signature sound we call horror movie music.
The Subversive Classics
Common string instruments, such as the guitar or violin, can become deceptively menacing when their purpose is altered by skilled musicians. These instruments can providing rather unsettling sinister-like dissonance or an anxious barrage of sound designed to disorient.
The Fender Player Stratocaster is one such example. Known amongst horror film music curators for its crystal clear articulation, Stratocaster’s robust low ends are often stretched to sound more ominous. Whereas an instrument such as the Ibanez Artcore Series AS73, with its hollow body, is often slowly strummed to create a sense of anxiety, as heard in the soundtrack for The House of the Devil (1978).
When composers want to add an extra layer of unease to their sound, many rely on the use of pedals, or what are referred to as wah-wah or distortion pedals. These devices are designed to alter an instruments sound output towards a desired effect, often times used to add a fuzzy or exaggerated quality to an orchestration. Radiohead rocker Thom Yorke, who did the original scoring for Suspiria (2018), is known for his use of Boss brand pedals to help create exotic otherworldly soundscapes with a raw finish, intended to accent a more visceral resonance.
Long, screeching notes denote hysteria. Irreverent pizzicato plucks signal “something is afoot”. All of these sounds can be created by the violin.
Think of the shrill Bernard Hermann score played under the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). To create the sound Hermann actually muted a Eastman Ivan Donov VL 140s to produce the desired tonal effect. And to imagine, Hitchcock never intend that moment to include a score of any kind. Scary!
The Inharmonic Staples
These are the instruments which embody unexpected materials to produce distinct tonal sounds that help to create that “haunting” atmosphere, or other worldly vibration.
The Waterphone (a.k.a the Ocean Harp) invented by Richard Waters, is a stain less steel resonator bowl with a cylindrical neck of bronze rods, which can hold water for an extra eerie auditory bend. The device is played using the hands, a bow, or mallets and creates a long, drawn-out note similar in quality to that of a humpback whale cry. It has been heard in films such as Poltergeist (1982) and Let the Right One In (2008).
Created by Leon Theremin, this unusual-looking instrument provides a chilling, other-worldly resonance. The device is not played through the use of touch, but rather via the waving of hands near two antennas designed to pick up signal interference. A rather magical device with a quivering tone commonly associated with science fiction films of the 50s and 60s. It has been heard in movies such as, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
(For you Star Trek fans, this should "ring a bell" .)
Now here's an instrument that was made for the horror genre...
The Apprehension Engine
Aptly named by its inventors, Mark Korven and Tony Duggan, the Apprehension Engine was designed to sound disturbing. Empowered by bowed metal rulers, rods, springs, and other seemingly random components, the instrument creates spooky, unsettling sounds from prolonged metal screeching to jump-scare-worthy bangs and clatters. Listen closely and you'll hear them in films like The Witch (2015) and Cube (1997).
After all, film composer Philip Glass probably put it best when he said...
Stay tuned as we continue our exploration of all things horrific, in our continued series on the sights, sounds, and scares of the horror film world. *For an extended history on the iconic music of horror, see: