Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"What's That Sound?" Sonic Suspense and Mystery in the Horror Film

Discussions of the horror film often focus most of their attention on what is seen on the image track. In a genre populated by ghouls, monsters, and madmen, it naturally follows that strange and disturbing sights will be the most salient aspects of the apparatus. But such images of the grotesque and horrific are usually only the end result of a much more complicated and subtle process-- that of suspense. Ultimately, most horror films are about the lead-up to the frightening images, not the images themselves. Nearly all of the “trademark” stylistic aspects of horror films refer to the creation of suspense, of setting the mood. Rain, pitch-black darkness, heavy shadows, howling wind, creaking floorboards, heartbeats, loud breathing, and otherworldly music are some of the most noticeable and recurring themes in these films, and all relate more to the set-up of the horrific rather than the follow-through.

But what also becomes apparent from such a list is that, more often than not, the stylistic elements that make up suspense are auditory phenomena. As K.J. Donnelly says in The Spectre of Sound, in horror film it is the sound that most often “encompasses the strangest phenomena (38).” It has long been acknowledged that the sound track of the horror film is much richer than more conventional genres, but when it is considered in-depth, sound emerges as both the most ubiquitous and effective formal element of the scary movie. As a result of its heavy reliance on offscreen sounds and voices, what Chion has termed acousmatic sound, the horror film reveals itself as an aurally constructed genre where sound operates as the major source of suspense and atmospheric dread. Whether through manipulating sounds, creating false connections between sound and source, or the extensive use of music, these films employ acoustics as a subtle means of hinting at the sinister while still maintaining the central mystery of the plot.

Acousmatic Sound and Suspense

An old cliche about the genre says that if you watch a horror film with the sound muted it isn’t scary. While there is some truth to such a statement, it must not be forgotten that sound is a key element in every genre, and that the same loss of value would occur in any kind of film. Without sound, comedies aren’t funny, action films aren’t exciting, and dramas aren’t affecting. The reason this notion has become so tied in with horror is because scary movies trigger more of a visceral, automatic, bodily reaction than other genres. The viewer is less in control of where the film takes them, and the sudden liberation from this grasp when the sound is excised is thus much more notable than it would be otherwise. But such an assertion is certainly telling about the ways in which horror constructs its mood of suspense and dread. In horror, the images ultimately serve as a means of revealing what the soundtrack suggests through dialogue, sound effects and music.

The difference between the auditory realm of suspense-- the mood, tension, and dread-- and the visual realm of terror-- the violence, action, and gore-- is a key one. In horror, there seems to be a constant shifting between dominance of one sense over the other. In moments of suspense, the main purveyor of mood in horror films, the audience is often deprived of its sight and forced to listen to the ominous sounds that echo throughout the frame. As Dennis Giles says in his essay “Conditions of Pleasure in Horror Cinema”: “sound plays a crucial role in the horror film by filling in the relatively empty visuals with suggestions of menace (49).” In horror and mystery films, we often have scenes where a lone character feverishly tries to hide from the “menace” that is stalking them. In such a scene, the image track is noticeably sparse, often filled with blackness except for the faint outline of the protagonist’s face. As they hide and wait, it is the sounds of the space that become the center of our attention, sounds that echo from unnamed, offscreen sources.

Michel Chion uses the term acousmatic to describe such sounds that “one hears without seeing their originating cause (71).” According to Chion, active acousmatic sound forces the viewer to ask “What is this? What is happening? (85)” Such sounds are odd enough or noticeable enough that they force the viewer to consider them independent of the image track and ponder their possible source. They take on a especially supernatural quality in the context of the horror film because of the shroud of mystery that surrounds them. The character hiding in the darkened room as well as the audience begin to imagine ghastly causes of the sounds, which are doubly mystifying because they often seem to be coming from everywhere at once. Such sounds become de-acousmatized when their onscreen source-- the monster, slasher, creature-- is revealed onscreen. When the helpless victim is finally attacked by the villain, the different sounds become attributed, and the image track becomes prominent for the action scene that follows.

These uses of film sound are all on display in director Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria, about a coven of witches operating out of a European dance school. Throughout the film, sound is the primary source of mystery that leads the protagonist, Suzy Bannion, to uncover the sinister plot of the coven. One such sound is the shallow, groaning sound of the “Directress” of the school, a character that is never seen until the film’s final moments. In an early scene, the strange, staggered sound of a woman snoring is linked to the Directress, and it becomes a sort of leitmotif for her character throughout the story. The sound is ambiguous enough that the viewer begins to imagine its possible implications. Is it merely the sound of old woman that is ill, or is it the growl of some evil creature? In the film’s final moments, the snoring sound is de-acousmatized when the heroine confronts the Directress in her bedroom, and the weird sound is finally linked to the terrifying image of the leader of the pack of witches.

In all of the scenes that we hear this off-putting sound, the image track is deliberately made subordinate to the soundtrack in order to force the viewer to concentrate on the foreboding quality of the sound. In one of the early occurrences the characters are preparing to go to sleep, and the screen is dominated by harsh shadow with only a dull red-colored light seeping into the frame. When two of the characters wake suddenly and begin to discuss the sound, its volume is slowly increased, almost as if in response to their noticing it. In the final scene, when the heroine finds herself in the Directress’s bedroom, we see only the sheer sheet covering the bed and a dim shadow behind it. As the girl nervously approaches the bed, the sound again increases in volume, becoming the dominating aspect of the scene. In both cases, there is very little to look at on the screen, and the sound is deliberately manipulated to make the viewer absolutely aware of the snoring of what is eventually revealed to be the villain of the story.

Acousmatic sounds are perhaps the main way that horror constructs feelings of anxiety and suspense. Because an acousmatic sound is unattributed, it takes on a kind of power, a life of its own in the viewer’s mind. The viewer will often project their own most personal fears onto the sound, imagining a host of ominous possibilities. More than one theorist of film sound has used the classic suspense film Kiss Me Deadly as an example of the the power of acousmatic sound and the acousmetre-- that is, a character identified only through sound (Chion 129). In the film, the villain of the story is not shown on camera, save for his legs and shoes, until the film’s final scene. This technique works wonderfully, as the very nature of the story relies on the both the main character and the audience being deprived of information. It works so well, in fact, that when the man’s face is finally shown, there is an inevitable letdown for the viewer, simply because the villain looks so normal. This is because the audience has been pondering his identity since early on in the film, and to see him appear onscreen so suddenly almost seems to deprive him of his power. Indeed, Chion mentions in Audio-Vision that Pascal Bonitzer “has noted that the de-acousmatization of a character generally goes hand in hand with his descent into a human, ordinary, and vulnerable fate (131).” It is a testament to the god-like power of acousmatic sound and the acousmetre that to finally show these characters is in a way to doom them. The acousmatic thrives on mystery, on making the audience doubt what they see. As soon as this veil of uncertainty is lifted, both the character and the sound become de-mystified.

Common Suspense Sounds: Footsteps, the Heartbeat, Breathing

In order to more fully explore how the horror film constructs its suspense through sound, it is necessary to explore some of the more recurring sounds of mystery and anxiety. While acousmatic sounds gain significance through their lack of a visual source, a number of sound effects have their own inherent meaning and significance. These are sounds that are implicitly tied in with particular emotions or states of physical arousal, and they can be understood as some of the major causes of the intense, physical reactions that the viewer experiences when watching a horror film.

Footsteps are a recurring, perhaps even overused form of sonic suspense. They not only reinforce the character and audience’s feeling of being pursued, but they are often used as a means of deception and as a way of establishing the power of a certain type of villain (Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street films is a good example) to seemingly be everywhere at once. In the inevitable chase scene that was discussed earlier, the character hiding in a darkened room waits with only sounds to determine if the “menace” is coming after them. What often follows is the sound, slow at first, of heavy footsteps, probably from just on the other side of the door. Footsteps in the dark are always a harbinger of danger in the horror film. They seem to represent the unceasing nature of the “other.” The villain will not stop chasing them until they are caught, and the steady, even cadence of footsteps is an auditory signal of this inevitability.

Another common suspense sound is that of recreating the sound of a human heartbeat, either through an internalized sound effect, or sometimes through the film music (Chion 76). The heartbeat sound effect has a multiform meaning: it demonstrates both the physical strain and stress being undergone by the character, as well as engendering a similar response in the audience. The low, bass sound of the thumping heart also reminds us of the very “real” implications of what is happening on screen, that this character is very much alive for the moment but perhaps won’t be for long. In addition, the heartbeat also conjures up notions of the basic animal response to the situation at hand, reminding the audience that this character is running for their life. It is a physical cue, like the scream or the growl, designed to evoke feelings of excitement, and to remind us that the characters, and perhaps the audience as well, have become the equivalent of lab rats caught in a maze.

Another common sound of horror, most notable in moments of rest, is the sound of human breathing. Breathing can have different meanings depending on the context, but it is important to note that it is only heard in times of intense silence and stillness, when the sound of breathing would truly be audible. One common way that it is used is to trigger feelings of isolation or helplessness. In this context, the character’s breathing can be heard because they are totally alone, far away from any possible sources of help. One more extreme example can be found in 1988’s The Vanishing, the final scene of which shows a character waking up from being drugged to find that he has been buried alive. When we first go to his point of view inside the coffin, the screen is completely black and the soundtrack silent, except for the sound of his ragged breathing as he gasps for air. The overwhelming sense of helplessness expressed by the character’s breathing is quite intense, as we can quickly understand that the sound is dull and unformed from sounding in such an enclosed space.

Another common use of breathing is employed when we are shown the point of view of the villain or killer. In this case, the breathing is usually even, steady, and unlabored. This robotic kind of breathing is designed to make the villain seem wholly other. That they can do such terrifying things in such a cool, collected manner is a sign of both their evil and their power. In John Carpenter’s Halloween, the point of view of the killer Michael Myers is always accompanied by the sound of completely steady breathing. It makes the viewer feel that Myers is not human, that he is not even completely invested in what is happening. Not only will he murder, but when he does it doesn’t seem to have any physical effect on him. Like the heartbeat, the sound of breathing is finally a way of emphasizing the animal nature of both the pursuer and the pursued. The victim cannot reason with a character like Michael Myers, who is so unaffected by what is happening. They cannot plead or beg, they can only run like an animal being chased by a predator.

One noticeable trait about these common sounds of suspense is that they are all completely familiar, everyday noises. In their usual context, they would not evoke anxiety or dread in the least, it is only the particular situation of the horror film that makes them take on such dark overtones. This is a common thread in suspense: to give the ordinary and mundane new depth and ominous mystery. In horror films, these usually unnoticed sounds gain terrible significance, becoming symbols of both the character’s own mortality and isolation and the villain’s detached (in the case of Halloween) but unrelenting pursuit. It is also worth noting that these are all human, personal sounds. More than anything else, they signify a presence in the diegesis, both of the struggling protagonist and the mysterious “other.”

Sound Effect Manipulation and Auditory Subterfuge

One of the most common ways in which sound in the horror film is used as foreshadowing and forewarning is through deliberate manipulation of the soundtrack elements, most often through creating false connections between a sound and a source. While acousmatic sounds take on a directly mysterious nature by having no discernible source, falsely-synched sounds work more subtly, often placing auditory suggestions in the viewer’s mind that will only take on meaning later in the story. Michel Chion has called synchresis the condition wherein an “irresistible weld (is) produced between a particular auditory phenomenon and a visual phenomenon when they occur at the same time (Chion 63).” Because of this “irresistible weld,” the filmmaker is free to insert almost any sound they wish over top of the action of the story. As long as the movement and the sound are properly synched, they will be read as concurrent by the viewer.

In horror, this phenomenon can be used in a number of ways, but is most often employed as a means of foreshadowing the fate of a particular character. In Suspiria, Argento uses synchresis in the opening sequence to immediately suggest the dangers awaiting Suzy Bannion at the dance school. As she walks out of an airport into a thunderstorm to find a taxi, the sound of the automatic door shutting is deliberately altered. Instead of the smooth swishing sound commonly associated with such a door, we hear the sharp sound of metal slicing against metal, conjuring up images of the guillotine and other devices of torture. The sound is quick and could easily be missed by the viewer, but it triggers a particular mood and expectation of menace. That a storm is raging outside only increases this feeling of anxiety. The sound seems to suggest that the airport has been Suzy’s last safe haven, and once she walks through it she has been cut off from everything that is familiar and comforting.

Auditory subterfuge stands as a microcosm of the nature of sonic suspense in the horror film. It both subtly builds the mood of dread and anxiety, and works as foreshadowing for the more horrific events that follow it. Later on in Suspiria, during some startling scenes where the unnamed killer stabs his victims, the sound of the knife is nearly the same as the automatic door in the opening scene, so that the use of the sound effect early on in the film comes full circle. What the audio track has been preparing the viewer for through sound effects is finally revealed on the image track and linked inextricably to a particular scene. That these later startling moments are so effective is a testament to the atmosphere of horror built through sonic suspense. As Robert Baird says in his article “The Startle Effect,” about the moments in horror that make the audience jump or gasp, a “less-than-horrific mood largely mitigates the possibility of viewer startle.” In other words, if the film has created a proper mood of dread, anxiety, and suspense, then when the true “scares” come they are all the more frightening for the audience. While not as obvious and direct as acousmatic sounds or the personal sounds of pursuer and pursued, the sounds of false-synchresis build their own mood of suspense by placing cues in the viewer’s mind that are later manifested onscreen in gory detail.

The Ghost of Horror Film Music and “Sonic Architecture”

While sound effects and ambient sounds are a major source of diegetic tension and suspense, it is also important to consider the awesome power of the non-diegetic music track to set the dark mood of the horror film. Music is the most overt and perhaps the most oft-discussed of all of horror film sound, and with good reason. Unlike the music of other genres, the score of a horror film has a style and usage that is all its own. As K.J. Donnelly says in The Spectre of Sound, “horror film music is particularly apparent in its techniques and functions (88).” Unlike other genres, where music is usually a
background, secondary aspect of how the film is perceived, music in the horror film is very much a foreground phenomena, highlighting the action of the story to such a degree that it often bleeds over into the realm of sound effects (Donnelly 93-4). Because of its often direct intervention and involvement in the action of the story, the music of the horror film guides the way in which the film is understood, adding tension to otherwise normal scenes and often helping to provide the physical shocks and responses to the more terrifying parts.

Donnelly terms “sonic architecture” the way in which a horror film “can manifest a distinctive and enveloping...ambience (93). Starting with the opening titles, the music of the horror film is the most overt way in which the particular mood of horror exhibits itself. The music tends to have more of a physical presence in the film both through its close relationship to sound effects and its ability to evoke a physical response. Suspiria, with its menacing score by Goblin, once again presents itself as a good example. The strange electronic score created for the film, with its creaky music box sounds and disembodied voices and moans, is so distracting and so prominent (Argento allows it to be played almost painfully loud) that it becomes, from the start of the film, the dominating way in which the spaces shown onscreen are understood. The ornate interior of the dance school, already gothic in appearance with its spiral staircases and vaulted ceilings, takes on an especially unsettling character through its relationship to the music. Often, the music is used in scenes that otherwise have no narrative suspense or tension, hinting at a baleful presence beneath seemingly benign surfaces.

Indeed, music in the horror film is often a presence that seems to “haunt” the narrative of the story (Donnelly 39-40). Because of its ability to seemingly be “elsewhere” and within the events that occur onscreen, it functions as a kind of ghost in the film that is “not quite of its world nor of its logic (Donnelly 41).” This means that the music in horror, like the acousmetre, is seemingly everywhere and nowhere in the film. While it often follows the events of the story, it also obeys its own set of rules, as Goblin’s score for Suspiria does by invading seemingly unimportant scenes. This “presence” or “spectre” of music can also be effectively utilized by its particular timing in the narrative. For example, in the previously discussed opening of Suspiria, just before the automatic door sequence, we watch Suzy walk through the airport toward the door. As she walks, Argento alternates between a medium shot of her walking through the crowd and a handheld shot of the door that represents her point of view. Whenever we see this POV shot, the Goblin musical score is suddenly played very loud for a brief moment before returning to the ambient sounds of the airport when the camera cuts back to the medium shot. This technique of quickly fading the creepy score in an out effectively ties the music to the character of Suzy, hinting that it is she that will be the one to experience whatever peril the score suggests. It also serves as an example of the way horror music often assets itself as a definite presence in the narrative, not merely a background motif to be ignored.

The previously-mentioned tendency of the score to overlap with sound effects is another way in which horror music constructs a “sonic architecture” of suspense. Through overlapping the music with the sound effects and creating acoustic similarities between the two, the sound track can take on the quality of an acousmatic sound, as the viewer is forced to question the cause and even the existence of particular sounds. In Suspiria, the scene directly prior to the characters hearing the odd breathing of the Directress is scored with a cacophony of moans and whispers that are only slowly revealed to be non-diegetic. While setting the proper mood for the chilling scene to follow these sounds also serve as a forewarning of the odd sound that will trigger the search for the Directress. During the more shocking murder scenes of the film, especially one scene in particular where Suzy’s roommate is pursued through the bowels of the dance school, Argento seems to employ this blurring of sound effect and music as a means of narrative confusion for the viewer, as we are never quite sure if the sounds we hear are a part of the Goblin musical score or of the story itself.

In all of these instances, music in the horror film seems to dominate the soundtrack and provide the major means of narrative suspense and tension. It is the ghost that is able to move about the film, manifesting itself both in non-diegetic music and sound effects. It can also often be found in the diegesis itself, as the preponderance in ghost stories of onscreen music from piano’s and ancient record players suggests. In these instances, the music often plays without warning, as if the machines themselves were haunted by some kind of poltergeist. In all of these forms, the music, through its inherently otherworldly nature as well as its particular characteristics. serves as a primary means of expressing mood and anxiety. It works as an intangible force of the story that, seemingly against the will of the benign images shown onscreen, brings dark and troubling things to the surface.


The most difficult aesthetic challenge for any horror or suspense film is to build a feeling of anxiety and tension early in the story while still maintaining the central mystery of the plot. This requires that the film find ways to render the normal and familiar aspects of the world odd and disturbing. Sound and music are the perfect tool for such a challenge. As John Belton said in his essay “Technology and Aesthetics of Film Sound,” because of its intangibility and its untenable relationship to the image, “the soundtrack does not undergo the same tests of verisimilitude to which the images are subjected (389).” Because sound is such an amorphous, protean force in the horror film, it is able to be employed in a number of fashions to subtly suggest foreboding elements while still keeping the viewer in uncertainties. When considering sound’s multiform use in the horror film, it becomes tempting to extend Donnelly’s notion of film music as a “spectre” or “presence” to the whole of film sound. In horror especially, the sound is something of a ghost, with its ability to manifest at will, to remain invisible to the naked eye, and yet to still be able to affect the physical world of both the film and the viewer.

Works Cited

Baird, John. “The Startle Effect: Implications for Spectator Cognition and Media Theory.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 53 no. 3. Spring 2000. 12-24.

Belton, John. “Technology and Aesthetics of Film Sound.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. 386-394.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994.

Donnelly, K.J. The Spectre of Sound: Music in FIlm and Television. London: British Film Insti- tute Publishing, 2005.

Giles, Dennis. “Conditions of Pleasure in Horror Cinema.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Hor- ror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. London: The Scarecrow Press, 1984. 38-49.


Altman, Rick. Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema: the Articulation of Body and Space.” Yale French Studies. Number 60, Cinema/Sound. 1980. 33-50.

Metz, Christian. “Aural Objects.” Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. 366-369.

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