Historical Background and Impact of Scary Sound Effects
Here are a few classic examples of scary sound effects that left their mark on film history and may give you some ideas for how to approach sound design for your own projects.
Psycho, Jaws: Using musical instruments for sound effects
The screeching violin from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho (1960) is a prime example of this. As the killer moves in to stab his victim in the shower, we hear the shrill tones piercing through the speakers like a knife. This effect is so iconic that people who never saw the movie still recognize the sound.
Stringed instruments were also used for dramatic effect in the shark theme of Jaws (1975). The simplicity of this repetitive two-note melody make it useful as both a sound effect and a short musical motif. It symbolizes the imminent approach of death, just like Psycho’s violin, but the film’s composer John Williams expands on the motif to makes it part of a full orchestral arrangement.
Williams actually used the screeching violin technique from Psycho in one scene where a dead character is discovered underwater. Moments later, the Jaws motif follows and the score unfolds, indicating that the deadly shark is lurking nearby.
Horror movies often use music boxes to symbolize a loss of innocence. In fact, these songs have become such a common trope that the 1989 horror film “Music Box” built their entire plot around it, as shown in the clip below:
Alien (1979): Heartbeats as danger approaches
Heartbeats are another staple of horror sound effects. That’s probably because our heart rate is closely linked to biological fear responses like an adrenaline spike. When the audience hears the heartbeat, it impacts their own biorhythms.
In Alien (1979), heartbeat SFX serve multiple purposes. You hear them when Brett and Dallas are approaching and encountering the alien. As symbols of warmth and life, there’s a particularly chilling effect when heartbeats play while a character is hiding or walking in the darkness. It’s as if the film is letting you know that the stalker or predator will find their way toward the character because of these involuntary sounds.
It’s also common for film scores to use percussion instruments, like kettle drums or a timpani, to symbolize the heart sound effect. Composers tend to weave these drum patterns into a full composition. This practice is similar to the example above with Jaws, where a simple two-note motif became part of the score.
Sound design: Creating your own heartbeats with an LFO
Capturing real-life heartbeats as foley is more challenging than ordinary sounds. They’re also not too difficult to synthesize manually in a DAW. Check out this tutorial for a lesson on how sound designers build them from scratch using LFOs:
Heartbeats usually fall within the frequency range of 20 to 120 Hz. This is where the “thump” of a beating heart resides. The duration of a heartbeat sound also varies, lasting 0.8 to 1.0 seconds to mimic a healthy resting heart rate.
Medical studies have proven that our heartbeats and breathing tend to sync up with others when we’re watching movies and listening to stories. Loud and heavy breathing is another common biological sound effect found in horror movies.
Star Wars and Halloween: The breathing of victims and predators
The scene below comes from the movie Old (2021). As the protagonists crouch in the dark, they encounter a terrifying figure. Films often cut the scary music entirely so that only their labored breath can be heard. In contrast, anxiety inducing music and sound design tend to play a prominent part in chase scenes, where victims are breathing heavily as they run from danger.
Sometime a film will focus on the predator’s breathing instead of the victim’s. For example, a monster’s breath could amplified to show its proximity to its victim. This creates a feeling of extreme tension as the audience waits to see what the creature will do next, knowing that the victim could die at any moment.
Darth Vader’s iconic breathing sound effect spans across every movie and is a core part of his character, representing the human hiding behind the mask. The mechanical tone of his breathing reminds us that the human side has been transformed into something else entirely.
The scene above shows Vader emerging from the darkness, first breathing and then activating his light saber, letting the audience know that he’s an imminent threat.
Vocalization sounds can be added to breathing sound effects to deepen the psychological response. In the classic horror series Halloween, the masked killer Michael Myers has an almost deranged vocal tone that pushes through with his unsteady breathing.
Breath is sometimes called “non-talking foley” and can be captured in an ordinary vocal booth. Similar non-talking effects might also include the moaning of ghosts, the ghastly growls of monsters, and the braindead groan of zombies.
Use of foley in horror sound effects
The subtlest sound effects can send shivers up your spine when prepared correctly. If a character is hiding and the music volumes drop, a creaking door or slow footsteps are all it takes to build tension. They are often punctuated by a peak moment of conflict, when chaos breaks out with a thundering crash and a return to the musical score.
Blair Witch: Footsteps, slamming doors and pounding sounds
The scene above from the Blair Witch (2016) offers a collection of dark foley with lots of important sound effects. As the main character discovers her friend has been killed, she makes a run for it. A booming sound is followed by chaotic visuals, the sound of racing footsteps, the slamming of a door, and the evil creature pounding to be let in.
But not every scary sound effect comes down to monsters pursuing victims. Sound design can tap into even deeper layers of psychological terror through archetypal symbolism, as we’ll explore next.
Stranger Things: Clocks as a symbol of death
In the Netflix series Stranger Things (shown above), a recurring grandfather clock motif evokes horror in the audience by playing on several unconscious associations. The slow ticking sound has a hypnotic effect, like a swinging pendulum, while its chiming sound harkens back to the funeral bell in For Whom the Bell Tolls. In fact, the very expression chronological time comes from the ancient Greek god Cronos, or “grandfather time”, and is closely associated with the grim reaper who takes our life at a fated moment.
No Country for Old Men: Coins as a symbol of chance
Coins also taken on an archetypal role in movies, symbolizing dark games of chance. Perhaps this comes from the saying that money is the root of all evil, with connections to gambling and risk. Coins make a variety of subtle sounds, from their delicate flutter through the air to the rattling sound as the hit the table. A character might pound their open palm onto the coin, to stop the rattling and determine the fateful outcome.
One examples can be found in the scene below from the film No Country for Old Men (2007). The antagonist uses coin flips to decide whether a victim will live or die. We hear the coin’s rattling sound paired with tense dialogue to create an air of horror without any need for ghosts or strange creatures.
Evil Dead: Branches breaking in a scary forest
Dream analyst Carl Jung claimed that forest dreams were a symbol of his patient’s subconscious mind. In contrast to open fields, where everything is visible and in plain sight, the woods are a place where the unknown can hide. Sound design for a scary forest includes the sound of branches whipping by and snapping. Breaking branches might foreshadow the breaking of bones or some kind of injury, as in the scene below from Evil Dead.
This concludes our overview of scary sound effects used in horror films.
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