This Halloween, LBB’s Nisna Mahtani and Ben Conway speak to sound designers from the UK and North America who share the spooky sounds that keep them up at night
When it comes to the horror and thriller genres, sound effects play a main character’s role. Imminent silences, sudden sounds and a rising crescendo are all part of the fun that comes with this spooky holiday.
To see which sounds continue to inspire sound designers, LBB’s Nisna Mahtani and Ben Conway posed a question:
Halloween - it’s the time of year where being scared is all part of the fun. Whether it be screams, dripping blood or bumps in the night, sound is a huge part of what gives us the heebie-jeebies around this time of year. So, we want to know: What is the most iconic, terrifying or intriguing use of scary sounds in cinema history? What sound kept you up for hours after watching a horror film? And also, have you been involved in a spooky project that required some scary sounds?
Ready for the eerie answers?
Surachai Sutthisasanakul, senior sound designer and mixer at Squeak E. Clean
Colin Stetson’s soundtrack for Hereditary is burnt into my mind as something that took the movie’s avoidance of horror clichés and put it into sonic form. The music acted as a character that the movie hints at and exposes itself at the end. He wrote an alien score, where sounds were replaced with things you’d never guess, never giving the listener familiarity, grounding, or a sense of comfort.
“Something that sounds like synths is probably a contrabass clarinet or some number of them. Something that sounds like a swarm of bats, that probably is strings.” In his words, “It was to avoid any semblance of sentimentality or nostalgia”, and overall he wanted it to “'feel evil”'.
But also, the short answer is the mouth click in the movie.
Alistair Bolt, sound engineer, SNK Studios
There's nothing more terrifying than peeking through your sweaty hands, thinking you're about to escape the impending horror, only to realise you haven't got enough fingers to plug your ears as well. As both a sound engineer and horror nut I'm always amazed at how vital a role sound plays in amplifying the most terrifying, dread-filled moments in film, for me a great subtle example of this is in the final moments of Hideo Nakata's Ringu.
The scene begins in what seems to be silence before easing into the build of ominous drones and TV static all heralding the dreaded, sickening sound of nailless fingers scratching along the floor. Horrifying stuff. You can't talk horror and sound without mentioning the 'jump scare', and for that, the (criminally underrated) Exorcist 3 takes the cake. A shocking and brilliant use of sound, just watch it and tell me it didn't make you jump!
And last but not least, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre always needs a mention. For me there's nothing more chilling than the unrelenting sound of the eponymous chainsaw, simple, iconic and oh so effective.
Casey Smith, composer at New Math Music
I’d cast my ballot for the infamous “flashbulb stingers” in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre which, rumour has it, were conjured by scraping a tuning fork on some piano wire? They’re used very effectively throughout the whole movie but shine the most, I think, in that nauseating pre-credit sequence, during the brief glimpses of The Hitchhikers ‘grisly work of art’.
I did some work for a Reeses Halloween campaign a few years back featuring string work by my buddy Jake Falby. Always a treat to catch these running during my favourite shocktober reruns!
Lawrence Kendrick, creative director, String and Tins
Horror at its core is about our fear of the unknown. Suspense. Subverting expectations. I’m a huge horror fan and it’s one of the few genres I can still enjoy for what it is, rather than instantly dissecting the construction of its sound and music.
Sustained notes or chords that seem like they could end in an hour or in two seconds, builds tension. Something’s coming... but when? Composers will often use specially chosen chords that feel like they want to resolve to their root (augmented or 7th chords perhaps), but actively avoid doing so, again avoiding that predictability and building intense tension, making us, the viewer, more and more uncomfortable. These sustained chords are often played tremolo (a trembling effect) or in pulsating rhythms, reminding us of our heartbeat, a ticking clock and artificially building the drama and tension even further.
Tubular Bells, the theme from The Exorcist instead plays with a constantly changing time signature, often landing on an unusual 7/8. Or the theme from Halloween uses an unfamiliar 5/4, steering clear of comforting familiarity.
While sound is a critical element in any classic horror film, I think it is part of a ‘collaboration’ between other aspects of film - namely editing, music, and timing— that really makes it successful. In fact, I think the way ‘scary’ succeeds in a horror film is 99% editing, 1% sound. Music, within the horror context, is the thing that stays with you.
In 2020, I did the sound design for an HBO documentary called ‘Crazy, Not Insane’ about the early formation of theories surrounding the pathology of serial killers. There were a number of recreations that involved the interviewing of serial killers as they described their ‘process’. I had to create soundscapes that mirrored their internal dialogue. I ended up using combinations of feedback, distortions of binaural field recordings, and skewed environmental sounds. If it’s understated, yet powerful and effective in the moment, then I’ve done my job, and believe that to be true of most of the horror sound design that I have enjoyed over the years.
Benjamin McAvoy, owner and director, WMP Studio
For me, it’s got to hark back to when I was a teenager really. There were two scenes and sets of sounds that I thought were, and still think are absolutely brilliant and terrifying in equal measure. The first was the processed voice sound of the possessed Kayako in Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge. I think what I love about it is that there's still something human about it yet it’s also deeply unsettling. To create this sound almost 20 years ago too! Awesome work.
The second is a scene from the 2002 film Signs directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Not the most critically acclaimed thriller and not actually the creation of a sound, more the combination of soundtrack and atmospheres/sound design. What I love about this scene is the combination of cinematography, music, voices and direction to create a sense of anticipation and tension.
Back in 2014, we worked with a director client of ours on a fantastic set of short teaser trailers for giffgaff (who actually at one point got really good at releasing Halloween shorts!).
Gus Koven, sound designer at Barking Owl
I love those moments in film when you’re getting more information from your hearing than you are from your eyes. The camera is focused on something mundane or probing around in the darkness, and there's some kind of mysterious or menacing or out of place sound that tweaks your senses. A few scenes that come to mind are most of Alien, the opening scene in Blue Velvet, and this one from No Country for Old Men:
Will Ward, sound designer, composer and co-founder, 19 Sound
There are so many iconic and groundbreaking sounds in the scary film category… the ‘stabs’ in Psycho, the John Williams score for Jaws, the ‘voice’ in The Exorcist!
The film that has stuck with me more recently, however, and really intrigued me was A Quiet Place. The sound design is so understated in a world of cinematic, sonic bombast. Its careful and precisely judged lack of sound (due to a narrative plot point) adds tension and fear to the film. The premise is that 'you make a sound, you die'. The sound design in these instances is a powerful tool that creates an excruciating level of tension and ultimately helps guide the narrative.
The film that's given me genuine PTSD is The Wicker Man (1973). Not entirely sure if that’s because of the sound or more to do with the animal head costumes, and Christopher Lee smiling and singing as the protagonist burns to a cinder.
We had real fun in 2019, creating a fully immersive sound installation for Annabel’s member’s club in Mayfair. They were holding their members Halloween party and wanted the entire building rigged with spooky sounds. The corridors immersed the attendees in a medieval battle with gore to the max, whilst the spiral staircase was alive with the sounds of crows and screams in the wind. They even had a room with monsters seemingly lurking behind pillars and in the shadows. Much fun was had on that one!
Andrew Manning, Producer at JSM Music
There are a lot of classic horror films with iconic sound design that have stuck with me, Alien being a big one. When I read this question, however, the first thing that immediately came into my mind was 2014’s The Babadook. Its use of sound is fairly subtle and unassuming until the voice of the monster is revealed about halfway into the movie. As the camera stays with a woman hiding under the covers, we hear the monster’s voice, mixed so loudly that it sounds as if it’s screaming directly into your ears. It manages to sound human and otherworldly at the same time, almost as if the monster is inhaling as it speaks. The subtle sound of insects are layered in as well, adding to what makes this truly one of the creepiest and most unsettling uses of sound design I’ve ever heard. I’d be lying if I said this one didn’t keep me up at night.
Marcin Pawlik, sound engineer, 750mph
There are many great sounds that will make you jump and scare you when you least expect it, but this one is quite iconic for creating a spooky mood. The sound of a waterphone instrument has been heard in many horror movies (e.g. Poltergeist, Let the Right One In, Dark Water, X- files, Aliens) and when it appears it usually indicates that terrifying or unholy things are about to happen. The sound has a resonating metal-like tone and it’s a very effective timbre that paints eerier, ghostly, dark and mysterious landscapes.
Screams of fear, terror and pain is the language of many horror movies. A human sound that our brains instantly respond to with a wide pallet of associations and has an instant effect on the way we feel. The most interesting one I can think of comes from a quirky psychological thriller - ‘Barbarian Sound Studio’. The film pays homage to classic Italian horror films and is full of great sound design moments. There are many creative details thrown into making this scream and when it reaches the end it turns into a sound resembling the howling of the wolves which is a very nice touch.
Chris Afzal, senior sound designer and mixer at Wave Studios
Because horror films absolutely terrify me, I haven’t seen as many as I should have. So the ones that had the biggest impact on me were those I saw as a child. The one film that did leave a strong impression on me was ‘The Birds’ by Alfred Hitchcock. There was something absolutely terrifying about the bird screeches (created on a trautonium). The absence of a score with just those sounds was unsettling.
Ironically, I love designing for scary projects. One of the creepiest projects I worked on was a trailer for the MTV show Teen Wolf. The film had no audio and I was given carte blanche to sound design as I wanted. So using a combination of foley and layered sounds from our libraries, I created a soundscape that still freaks me out sometimes.
Jack Hallett, sound designer, Factory
Growing up I really liked watching scary films, and often the sounds used to create the tension and scary moments are an important part of the storytelling. Whether it’s the rising strings, the sudden impacts or even that squeaky door opening that leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat, the sound design will always have a strong part to play in a horror film.
A lot of the time it’s the gory sound design that sticks with me. The blood, guts and bone-crunching sounds all too real when paired with a gruesome visual. The Alien films come to mind, especially the chest-bursting scenes, the arm wrestling scene in ‘The Fly’ or in fact any of the Saw franchise - Just horrible.
I recently had the opportunity to work on some great films by Adam & Eve for ’Temptations’ Halloween. The campaign, ‘Tasty Humans’ was about treating your cat to these tasty ‘human’ treats before they treat themselves to you. It was supposed to be funny and surreal but the general horror vibe was very fun to create.
Alex Bingham, senior sound designer at Machine Sound
For me, an iconic, haunting use of sound in horror cinema was A Nightmare On Elm Street. Freddy Kruger had a glove with knives attached to the fingers that he killed children with. As he approached he would scrape them along brick and metal so you could anticipate him approaching but not see him. It must be the same part of the brain that feels unsettled if you can hear someone jingling keys behind you, it taps into a primal warning system we all have from cavemen days. On top of that, layer in a creepy nursery rhyme, scrapy strings, some screams and you have a stone-cold Halloween classic! One...two... Freddie’s coming for you… gulp!
For last year’s Fanta Halloween Spots, I got scrapey, draggy and screamy by layering these sound elements into the score in a more playful way than Freddy - but a sneaky homage possibly?
Markus ffitch, creative sound designer, Grand Central Recording Studios
Okay, I know I’m deliberately going against the grain here and it isn’t strictly speaking silence. BUT sound in horror is all about contrast and I think my favourite moment that exemplifies this is in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not often described as a horror film but I think it surpasses most films of the genre.
The contrast between the suffocating sound of Dr David Bowman's breath on the inside of his helmet (heard from the inside perspective) and the hiss of the capsule he occupies - as played against the dead and complete silence of Dr Frank Poole flailing to try and recover his oxygen supply in the vacuum of space - is the most terrifying scene I’ve ever watched.
It’s a perfect representation of that cold dead place we were never meant to inhabit - outer space - and just how fragile we are. And the lack of any sound whatsoever draws you into the total desperation you would feel in his shoes (or space suit). The shots then cutting between him and the glowing eye of HAL (still in silence) is another reminder that the AI is entirely lacking in any empathy.
The sound of Bowman’s breath then pervades all the way through the long walk into HALs brain where yet another one of the greatest sounds can be heard. HAL sang ‘daisy daisy’ to his own demise. Dry, omniscient and just strange enough to give you that uncanny feeling.
Eric Hoffman, sound designer at Bronx Audio
I was a child of the 80s and distinctly remember watching Killer Klowns from Outerspace for the first time and remember thinking ‘this movie is messed up’. Not in a typical horror-film, jump-scare way. But, in a... whoever made this movie must be super messed up in the head kinda way. The acting was terrible, but the costumes and sound design were top-notch. The score blended the usual 80s synths and electric guitars, with freaky Circus music. Most notably the Calliope, the classic train-whistle organ instrument they used to pull behind horses. The Klowns’ voices were this weird synthesized mix of mumbling, moans and screams. They sounded like a harmonized demon voice, that was both unsettling and uncomfortably loud in the mix. Thank you Chuck Cirino for sound designing my childhood nightmares.
Andy Humphreys, sound designer, Bark Soho
One of the most lasting and disturbing film scenes I have watched was the prison scene in Requiem For a Dream, where two of the films’ protagonists are going through cold-turkey in a cell, having been arrested. It gives a real glimpse of the suffering involved. But what really drives the emotional response is the accompanying sound design (which is fantastic throughout the whole film) by Brian Emrich.
The scene is one of pure fear as the whole frame violently shakes accompanied by really brutal sounds and although this is a pretty short sequence it’s seared itself into my memory.
Probably my best contribution to the genre is one of the many short films I’ve designed/mixed for the wonderfully irreverent Chris Shepherd. Choosing was difficult but in the end, I’ve plumped for Dad’s Dad, an unsettling tale from 70s Liverpool.
Jeff Dittenber, director of sound design at Yessian Music and Sound
There is no other genre in film that gives sound such a visceral impact as horror/thriller.
You can literally take someone’s breath away and make their heart pound without even seeing a single frame of the picture. I could go on and on about my favourite specific horror sounds, but instead, I’d like to highlight one of the most effective and well-crafted uses of sound in modern film-making. That film is ‘A Quiet Place’.There are two main reasons why this film is so effective:
Their strategic use of silence to create incredible tension and anticipation
The vocalization design of the creature has ingredients that reach into our heads and activate our survival instincts
It’s scary as hell. Silence is an underrated tool in storytelling. The fear of what you don’t see, can many times be far more horrifying than what you can.