This episode was written & produced by James Introcaso.
Halloween is a time for fright delights! Every television channel, streaming service, and movie theater is showing films that terrify audiences, and sound plays a huge role in every scare. In this episode, we uncover how Hollywood crafts those sound terrors and the evolutionary part of our being that those noises tap into to create fear. Featuring Formosa Group Senior Sound Editor/Sound Designer Trevor Gates and Dan Blumstein, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA.
Music used in this episode
Umbrellas - Steven Gutheinz
Day by Day - Watermark High
Unraveled - Luke Atencio
Unrequited - Steven Gutheinz
Nomad - Steven Gutheinz
Younger - Steven Gutheinz
Sense of an End - Steven Gutheinz
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View Transcript ▶︎
[effecting on Dallas' voice to make it spooky]
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. I’m Dallas Taylor.
When I saw we had an episode coming out around Halloween, I took to Facebook and Twitter and asked you what the world’s scariest sounds are. Some were expected, like a knife sharpening [knife SFX].
Or an unsettling laugh [creepy laugh SFX].
Other sounds you suggested were more esoteric, like the electronic musical instrument called a theremin [thermin clip].
Others were flat out surprises. I had no idea a screaming rabbit, that isn’t being harmed in any way, sounds like this [screaming rabbit clip].
Many of you called out specific sounds in horror movies. Like the chainsaw in Texas Chainsaw Massacre… [chain saw clip].
The television static in The Ring… [TV static clip].
And of course… [Halloween theme].
The theme from John Carpenter's Halloween…
It got me thinking… it would be a lot of fun to deconstruct how the sounds in Hollywood’s scariest movies are made and find out who is responsible for these effects that make our skin crawl?
Trevor: My name is Trevor Gates. I'm a supervising sound editor and sound designer, and I primarily work on feature films, currently employed by Formosa Group.
Just what makes Trevor a master of scary soundscapes?
Trevor: I did Get Out, which was an amazing, fun process. I did Ouija: Origin of Evil, and The Belko Experiment. I've also worked on the Evil Dead reboot a couple of years ago. I worked on Don't Breathe, one called Happy Death Day, and one called Polaroid.
If you’re a fan of scary movies, odds are Trevor already terrified you with some sounds he’s created. Just how does Trevor craft a horror soundscape?
Trevor: It's our job, as sound designers, to be imaginative, and so sometimes there are things that inherently don't work because they don't have sounds, and there are some things that already work, they just need to be enhanced. It's really interesting when you get a turnover of a new picture that does not have final sound. Every film is different, but when I watch something, I'm hearing the composition of what I need to do as I'm watching it. It's my job to realize what I'm hearing in my head, for the audience.
Making scary sounds is all about context and juxtaposition. It’s about making choices of where you want the audience to focus while you’re setting up the turn. It’s kinda like sleight of hand magic trick.
Trevor: When you're watching a movie, what's really scary is when something is very quiet, and the audience is drawn into the scary movie, and then all of a sudden there's a big bang, and we do a jump scare [audience scream SFX], and it puts people back in their seats. What's important is the juxtaposition of the quiet to the loudness.
You're giving the audience something to focus on and creating a base of that quietness, and then once you've settled in and allowed them to connect with that foundation of the quietness, you can hit them over the head with a jump scare.
A jump scare is a common, but very effective horror trope. Perhaps the most common occurs in slasher films when a killer suddenly jumps out of nowhere to attack a hapless victim. Like this scene from the shark movie Deep Blue Sea where Samuel L Jackson is giving a rousing speech, only for a shark to jump out of a tank and eat him.
[Deep Blue Sea Clip]
But not every jump scare involves a killer monster. Just listen to Trevor’s favorite from Get Out. Also I’ll give you a quick heads up - it includes a very minor spoiler from the film.
Trevor: Jump scares... can be effective by creating a juxtaposition of silence before loudness, another way that you can create a jump scare... is something that just seems normal, and something that seems constant, and isn't out of any ordinary context…
The jump scare that's in Get Out that is pretty effective is early in the movie… it’s when Chris and Rose are headed to her parents' house, and they're driving in a car...
They're having a conversation and laughing…
Then all of a sudden a deer hits the front of the car [Get Out driving scene], and you never saw it coming. I've seen producers on playbacks jump out of their seat and curse from watching this jump scare.
Sound is used to draw us in and focus our attention right before something terrifying happens. Jump scares are misdirects and the moment we realize we’ve been duped is the moment of terror. But horror movies aren’t all jumpscares. Some scenes are prolonged scares that make us squirm in our seats. How are those crafted?
Trevor: Sustained, scary sounds… are as equally important as the jump scares... everything can't be the same all the time.
On Ouija: Origin of Evil, directed by Mike Flanagan, most of the film happens in a house, in a front room. When I was building a soundscape for Mike, I sat him down and said, "Hey, Mike. I never see a clock in this room, but I built a clock for you, and I want you to listen to it, and I want you to see how it makes you feel."
[clock scene clip]
There was something special about this clock. I recorded a clock, and then manipulated it to be just ever slightly slower than one second a tick, so it... makes you lean into the ticks, into the sound of the clock. The clock was always prominent in this room, so I played the scene, and Mike Flanagan looked at me... and says, "Well, I guess I have to shoot an insert of a clock."
In the middle of the movie, there is a scene where a little girl gets possessed by a demon. There's a six-minute stretch of basically all that you're hearing are the clock [clock SFX], footsteps [footsteps SFX], and breaths of the little girl [breathing SFX]. She's downstairs and kind of walking around. She's thinking something is weird and wrong. She's just played with a Ouija board, and this clock creates an unsettling pace for about five or six minutes… It was so effective.
Mike Flanagan originally wanted to have music or score over this scene, and I built the scene sonically to work without music. When we were mixing the film, we played it with the music, and Mike said “Great, that was scary. Let me hear it without music.” Then we played it without music, only with the clock, with the footsteps, with the breaths of the little girl and after the scene was done playing he said, "...That's the way it's going to be. No music."
There’s one other sound technique designers use to make us squirm in the theater. That’s gore-y body horror effects like stabs [stabbing SFX], breaking bones [bones breaking SFX], and, of course, blood splatters [blood splatter SFX].
Trevor: One of the key components of a slasher film is actually the visceralness of the sounds that you use. In The Belko Experiment, the characters have a small charge explosive unknowingly deposited in their neck, and the antagonist at any point in time can flip a switch and blow up their head. What does this sound like? The main components of this sound… a ball bearing ricochet off of a hard wall [exmaple], the loud pop, and an apple bite [example]. Also ripping paper [exmaple].
The end result sounded like this.
Horror movies are meant to entertain us through shocks and thrills, but the disturbing sounds Trevor designs would never work without the right visuals and context.
Trevor: These sounds are not scary by themselves. I do movies that are not horror movies, and I use the exact same sounds that are not in horror movies, and they're not scary, because contextually it's different. There was a basement creak that we used in Evil Dead [creak SFX] that I've used in a biopic… of an admiral in the 1800s in the Netherlands, for a ship creak [creak SFX] as it's going over big waves. The exact same sound that was scary in Evil Dead was not scary at all in this movie.
The perfect marriage of visuals and sounds beget the best audience reactions.
Trevor: As a supervising sound editor we get invited to the preview. It is so gratifying to have people jump out of their seats on jump scares, or creepy moments to hear people audibly having reactions in the theater. It feels great, because you know it's working. It's very rewarding, and I feel honored to be part of that process.
Screaming audience members are the greatest reward a horror sound designer gets, but why do we react with fear to sound waves to begin with? What is it about screams, creaky floors, wind, and other scary sounds that makes them more terrifying than other sounds? We know it’s a movie. We know it’s not real, and yet our brains still react in fear. Why is that? The answer after the break.
We heard how scary sounds are created for horror movies. What I want to know now is why do we react to certain sounds with fear? What’s going on in our brain?
Dan: My research really tries to look for generalizations, by identifying generalizations on how we respond or how animals respond to certain sounds, we can gain insights into why we respond the way we do.
That’s Dan Blumstein, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. Among other things, he studies how and why humans and other animals react to sounds with fear, and it all started when he got a scare himself… while working with marmots.
Dan: I spent years studying marmot alarm communication. I now run a long-term study in Colorado that began in 1962 when my friend and colleague, Ken Armitage, who's now an Emeritus Professor at University of Kansas began the study. We follow individually marked marmots and we trap them and mark them and follow them throughout their lives and we’ve learned a lot from this. One day I was out there trapping baby marmots when they come out of their burrow.
I'm holding one and it screamed in my hands.
[marmot scream SFX]
I almost dropped it. I wondered why am I having an emotional response to this little rodent screaming in my hands? I don't have emotional responses when they emit normal alarm calls. This was something different. This was something that led to a visceral feeling, and a visceral response in me.
I started studying the screams. The screams it turns out are calls that are emitted when animals are in dire straits, they're emitted from highly aroused animals. The screams when you start listening to them across different species sound remarkably similar. They have elements that go rapidly up and down in frequency or pitch. They have noisy type components. They sound different.
When I refer to noise, I'm referring to broadband sound, staticky sound. Specifically when vocal production systems are overblown... Noise sounds raspy. Noise sounds rough.
You know when your dog is barking. It may sound different when it's happy [happy bark] versus when it's sad [sad bark], when it's bossy [bossy bark], when it's terrified [scared bark].
When animals are scared they make noise that varies in pitch, which is then also scary to us. Turns out that pitch variation triggers fear… and it’s all over horror films as Dan found out in another study.
Dan: We got lists of the best films, the best horror, the best adventure, the best sad dramatic films. We made voice prints of these films which are called audio spectrograms.
What we found was statistically that particularly noise was overrepresented in horror films.
What Dan found makes perfect sense, since we now know many horror movie jump scares play with volume and pitch to make us jump. Especially in one of the genre’s most iconic sequences… The shower scene from the original Psycho.
Dan: If you listen to Janet Leigh's first scream in Psycho.
[Psycho's shower scream]
It's really noisy. If you listen to her subsequent screams, they're more dramatic tonal screams.
The rumors going around, I can't evaluate these that Alfred Hitchcock turned off the hot water to get that first scream... You know, Internet, trust what you want to trust.
But at the end of the day, that first scream that she gave in the Psycho shower scene was a real scream, was a chock full of nonlinearities, was noisy.
And when we add that iconic music to Psycho’s shower scene...
We get a very noisy, very scary classic.
[Pyscho's shower scene with music]
Noisy screams - the marmot, Janet Leigh, or otherwise, terrify us… and the reason for that has to do with survival.
Dan: Why I think noise is so evocative is that it's an honest signal that someone else out there is terrified, and if you hear an honest signal that someone else out there is terrified, you should probably look around and figure out what's going on and maybe you should heighten your threat level if you will and realize that there may be something bad around.
It’s not just screams. Any loud, dissonant noise can alert us to danger and activate fear in our brains. That’s why jump scares are often paired with a jarring sound - like the car screeching to a halt as it hits a deer in Get Out or the whistle we hear when Arthur Dallas stumbles upon the title monster in Alien.
I know. We have the same name. The big difference is that I’m alive and the guy from Alien isn’t Ripley, so you know how he ended up.
Responding to loud, dissonant noise with fear is built into our dna. Our ancestors who didn’t respond to another animal’s terror with caution, likely got eaten up by predators.
Of course there’s subtler noises used in films that are creepy. Remember that creaky floor?
[creaky floor SFX]
Well there’s a reason that iconic horror sound produces fear, and that too, has to do with survival.
Dan: Animals are really sensitive to other sounds in their environment... The sound of a broken stick [breaking stick SFX] means that something is walking towards you. A creaking floor is like a broken stick. It's a cue that someone else is out there, and if someone else is out there, you're going to look around and pay attention to that.
Subtle sounds, like a raptor jiggling a door handle in Jurassic Park [door handle jiggle SFX], trigger something primal in our brains that give us a jolt of fear so we take action and become aware of our surroundings.
Because hearing those subtle sounds is part of our survival, a sustained, loud sound that drowns them out, like howling wind, is also creepy...and it’s not just humans.
Dan: What's really interesting is lots of species get nervous and shut down when it gets windy…. it's harder to hear those broken sticks.
There’s one other aspect of sound that generates fear for our survival. Sounds with lower frequencies tend to be scarier to all animals, humans included. There’s good reason for that.
Dan: The biggest animals can produce the lowest frequencies and if you're really small, the lowest frequency you can produce is much higher than if you're really big, and this goes across species and this is also within species. We also know that body size is both within species and across species highly associated with dominance. Your likelihood of getting beaten up, or threatened, or killed by something.
If you're small, you have a greater risk by bigger things. So I think animals are likely very sensitive to these cues of body size and that when you begin listening to horror films or films where they're trying to create tension, often there's this low frequency that's brought in, this low baseline, these low frequencies that begin creating a sense of unease. I think that too is tapping into our biological roots.
Low frequencies are all over scary movies. Think about the alien tripods from War of the Worlds.
[Alien tripods SFX]
And the distinctive sound of the monster from Predator.
And, of course, the theme from Jaws.
All of these terrifying film sounds and many more use lower frequencies.
There’s another low frequency technique film sound designers use to direct our emotions. Infrasound is playing a frequency less than 20 hertz, so low it can’t be heard by the human ear. Though we can’t hear infrasound, one study in the UK showed it can induce anxiety, sorrow, heart palpitations, and shivering in some people. The 2007 box office smash Paranormal Activity reportedly used this technique to terrify audiences.
We’ve actually been playing a 19 hertz tone for the past 30 seconds or so… Earbuds and headphones can’t produce this frequency, so you probably haven’t noticed a difference, but if you’re listening on larger speakers, you can probably see your speakers vibrating a little more aggressively than normal. And you might be feeling a little uneasy.
Horror movies use sound to manipulate our instincts. They trigger the same fear that helps us survive. On a conscious level, we understand that we’re sitting on a couch or in a theater watching a film, but the sounds and sights of that movie activate an unconscious survival instinct that makes us feel fear. It’s why you hear people who love horror movies sometimes say that it is fun to be scared. They get all the thrills and adrenaline rush of a life-threatening situation without the actual threat to life.
Dan: Successful organisms have been able to respond appropriately to fearful situations, to assess the risk of predation. The risk of predation is one of these ubiquitous things that all species at some point in their lives must deal with an encounter. Even predators have to worry about predators when they're small for example.
All species have to respond to predators and to respond to predators, you want to be able to assess the risk of predation and animals are using all sorts of cues to do so.
Trevor used all of Dan’s survival sound cues to create one of Get Out’s scariest sequences. Here he is again.
Trevor: There was one very specific moment of Get Out that required some very surreal and subjective design, and that was when Chris was hypnotized for the first time, and he fell into his mind, this thing that they called the sunken place. Jordan Peele and I sat down and I said, "Jordan, what do you want this place to sound like?" He kind of turned his head to the side and said, "What does it sound like when your head is underwater in the bathtub?"
The specific sound composition... was a combination of underwater sounds [underwater SFX], some weird water bugs that created some movement on the high frequency spectrum [water bug SFX]. It was a low pulse that was built from a low frequency tone [low pulse ton SFX], and modulated through a tool that I use. Then Chris' screams, and we recorded screams for him, and then I processed them to make them feel like they were distant, and that you could barely hear them. When we played it all together, Jordan said he was terrified, and that was a win at that point.
[Get Out clip]
The sound in that scene plays on all our survival instincts. Dissonance, screams, low frequencies, surprising sounds - even simulated drowning. That’s what makes it so creepy to listen to.
Sounds are a big part of what make horror movies scary. By playing on our instincts and using proper context, a great soundscape tells a story that chills us to the core. Our fearful reactions to sound are tied to something so primal, that even when we know why a certain noise scares us, we still have a hard time stopping it from doing so… which is part of the fun.
[The Shinning, "here's Johnny" clip]
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team that supports ad agencies, filmmakers, and video game developers. Checkout recent work at defacto sound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by James Introcaso… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.
Thanks to our guest Trevor Gates for sharing his amazing stories. He designs audio magic with Formosa Group, a talent-based company that does pretty amazing stuff. They've worked on Blade Runner 2049, Molly's Game, and Game of Thrones and are staffed with Oscar-winning talent. You can find out more about their work across the film industry at FormosaGroup.com.
Thanks also to Dan Blumstein. Dan is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA where he also co-directs the Evolutionary Medicine Program. You can find out more about his amazing work with animals on the Blumstein Lab’s website, which can be found at blumstein lab dot E E B dot UCLA dot EDU.
All of the music in this episode is provided by our friends at Musicbed. You can listen to these tracks, including this one Sense of an End by Steven Gutheinz on our exclusive playlist which you can find at music dot 20k dot org.
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