Humans have evolved in a way to preserve ourselves, be it through our endurance, intelligence, or our natural instincts. One such instinct is our perception of danger from sound.
Sound is utilized in many mediums to evoke certain emotions: for example, a laugh track in a comedic scene or a sad violin playing when a tragedy occurs in a soap opera.
One of the most fascinating ways that we have used sound is to induce fear into the listeners. Television shows, movies, video games, and even podcasts can produce terrifying and eerie sounds that make the audience shake in their seats.
The key to achieving such an affect is linearity, or lack thereof in this case. Nonlinear sounds put us in a frightened state in that they break the “order,” which causes greater stress when trying to process it.
Consonance is a grouping of sounds that makes the listener feel pleasant and nice. Dissonance, on the other hand, uses sounds that do not mesh well together and generally sound “nasty” to make people feel tense. Many soundtracks use these two ideas to create an atmosphere of never-ending unpleasantness and are usually used to build up the “shock” part of the scene. For example, many sound effects for monsters use a mix of animal roars to inflict a sort of primal terror into the audience.
Both soundtracks and sound effects use digital distortion to make organic sounds inorganic and foreign, which removes us from our comfort zone. However, the ambience is a key component as well. The tone of the scene is critical for the payoff and makes the horror many times more terrifying because of the tension and anxiety that the builds up inside the viewer.
Leaves crackling, wind blowing, and even a character’s harsh breathing can add to the urgent and dire atmosphere. A way that some creators do this is by using infrasound (or frequencies that are below the average human’s sense of hearing). Infrasound, although not audible to us, can still resonate through our bodies and triggers our sense of fear.
All three aspects (soundtrack, sound effect, and ambience) are utilized by directors to either create “jump-scares” (scenes with quick, loud sounds and/or visuals) or the feeling of a looming terror at every corner that the audience cannot escape from. Many games, like Five Night’s at Freddy’s, use jump scares for what many critics argue, “cheap horror.” Other games, like the butchered Silent Hill demo, PT, primarily use the “loom effect” to generate fear into the audience, sometimes leaving players with a continual fear in reality.
Horror movies that tend to do well at the box office use a mix of both to create a memorable tone and iconic scenes that are revered even today (take for instance Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). Arguably, the most difficult medium used to evoke fear is podcasting due to the fact that the creators use sound alone and no visual aids to carry the weight of the story and the responsibility of scaring the audience
The bump in the night is a sound that many people still fear because the source is foreign even though they are in the comfort of their own home. The calm atmosphere (or tense atmosphere, if you are alone with only your thoughts, which is even scarier) is broken by the sudden sound and lets our imaginations go wild.
Sound is all around us and distorts our perception of reality; for example, mundane sounds like a creaky floorboard suggest a stalking murderer. Hopefully, this Halloween, your gut instinct will be wrong and it is just the “house settling”.