The Sounds Of Suspiria: A study on the use of sounds in Horror
Dedicated to William Peter Blatty. Thank you, sir , for giving us one of the most frightening novels and films of the last century
Horror. Ah! the joy of having the hormone adrenaline pumping through your veins, be it with suspense, be it with thrill or be it with scare. We all crave the things that pushes us out of our comfort zone, be it in any form. It wasn’t long before producers realized this very phenomenon and started exploiting it for profits. Horror, as a genre, is as polarizing as the left liberal. On one side, you have those who hate it vehemently, like Horror is that mentally unwell brother who murdered their entire family and claim to be possessed (10 points if that reminds you of a film plot). Their hate is not unfounded. Horror, in recent times, have become run of the mill bore fests. The touch, the suspense and the most important one, the scares, have been largely missing in the films post the found footage era. But there also lies a side, who despite being disappointed by these films, will pay or switch on their home theater every Saturday night to watch one of these films. Their idea is that, if there are 9 horrible horror films out there, the 10th one may turn out to be a gem.
The Effectiveness of horror largely depends on how the film manages to weave tension and witty scare tactics to have the audience jump out of their seats. But sadly, all of the recent films have relied on jump scares, which might have you shouting in the moment, but have no recall value.
Another key aspect is sound. We may not pay much heed to how sound plays a part in everyday lives, but sure as hell, it has its way. Think of yourself, walking through a road in the outskirts at night. You have been through there a hundred times, accustomed to the frog groans and chirping crickets all around. But imagine, all of a sudden, both of these familiar noises fade away. Silence fills the space around you. You will be unsettled, with a feeling of dread creeping up your spine like a snake slithering up your back, ready to bite you at any movement you make. The howls of a wolf added to the situation could have you running for your life, faster than Usain Bolt on steroids. That, to me, is the power of sound.
A fine example of sound is the film, Suspiria, directed by the hit-and-miss (not Salman Khan, jeez) Italian cult director, Dario Argento. The film is riddled with colorful imagery and jump scares, but what made it into a cult film amongst critics and audiences alike, is how it manipulates sonic frequencies into scaring you.
Suspiria relies on an audible version of jump scares. The infamous opening track by the legendary band, Goblin, starts off with a chime, that has a mystical property to it with an exotic instrument plays the most identifiable notes of the entire track. The combination of this provides us with a strangely eerie and mystical aura, with the ‘La La La’ hummed by a whispering demonic voice, enforces the idea. The track then continues with a strange percussion line, that is set in a very odd time signature. That oddness, not in line with the time signature of the song itself and definitely not with the common time signatures, strikes us. The oddness is a key to understanding the plot, as it involves out of place things affecting our protagonist Suzy (played by Jessica Harper) and eventually setting the plot in motion. The entire track has a cult-ish feel to it and that is very much relevant to the film. The second half with synths and something reminiscent of a death metal band with a 70s-disco sound, is a violent change of pace in the track, which just adds to the oddness. As a whole, the track sets the tone of the film and its storyline that is dependent on witchcraft and black magic.
The film is also buoyed by its use of loud and unsettling sounds, which sets up each death and scare in a manner quite contrary to how our second film, and most of the newer ones, sets up its scares.
Jaws is one of the most renowned horror (Technically thriller, but also considered a horror) films of all times, right up there with The Exorcist (more on that later) and The Shining. It was the first of what would be a franchise filled with sequels not even worthy of being viewed, and also the first of the set of the films which involves nature’s loved beasts attacking and eating our guts out, quite literally. Jaws is famous for its theme. The theme is most renowned for its bassline, a bassline that would become the mother of all bass based basic horror film scores to come. It has been scientifically proven that the lower frequencies incite dread and uneasiness amongst us humans, and it was first displayed in Jaws. Whenever the music played, we knew that the shark was approaching us. It has become a subconscious thing, to the point that the very two notes reminds us of those very scenes. Given its effectiveness, modern horror films now use an extremely low frequency that is inaudible to us (but our brain picks it up, don’t worry), but is audible enough to make you uneasy without even you knowing. The first phenomenon of this was experienced in The Blair Witch Project (thank you for making found footage horror a thing, you shit) and Paranormal Activity. You may not realize, but if you have a capable home theater system and a 5.1 surround print of this film, you could amp your subwoofer to high and have it rumble throughout the film. This low frequency is what made them so effective. This trend continues, and with conjunction with suspiria like jump scare audio, has become the staple. If only there were good enough scenes to accompany it.
The Exorcist’s ‘Tubular Bells theme’, with it’s minimalistic usage of instruments, has become a symbol of horror. The entire film relies mostly on the sounds of the action occurring, choosing to be minimalistic with very few musical setpieces to accompany the film scenes itself. The very musical piece has inspired the infamous tune, ‘L’s Theme’ in the anime, Death Note. The Exorcist might forever be known for its rather gory and unabashed depiction of a demonic possession, but that music itself is etched onto our memory like writings in stone, Just like the violin shrieks of Psycho. Psycho is considered legendary and even those who haven’t seen the film, know of its infamous shower scene. The music accompanying that scene has become a trademark for depicting something horrific happening to someone, albeit in comic settings. Psycho’s much lesser known achievements remain the fact that it challenged censorship norms back then, and won. It also paved the way for the genre known as Slasher films.
Horror, like it or hate it, but you cannot ignore it. And we cannot deny the incredible rich heritage and technical advancement that this genre has given us. From the infamous legendary films like those mentioned above, or the modern world cinema like Ringu(Japanese), Ju-On(Japanese), El Orfanato(Spanish), A Serbian Film (Yup, you guessed it, Serbia) Or the acclaimed Train to Busan(Korea), To the brilliant elite examples back home here in Gumnaam (not a horror film, okay), Madhumati, Bees Saal Baad, Raat or Raaz, to the current lot in 1920, Horror Story, 13B or Ragini MMS (part 1).
Horror is not going anywhere, and if judging by the trend, has an ever-growing audience. The quality of the films remains debatable, but with a resurgence in the quality like The Conjuring (both parts), Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Get Out and Hush, it shouldn’t be long before we see horror make a comeback, while hopefully, giving us more insight into how sounds and music affect our psychology.