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Sound Advice for Watching (and Making) Horror Films...


Comfort food. Everyone's got it. It's that one thing that you can eat that takes you right back to all the warm fuzzy places where it's fun to retreat whenever the world decides to use you for a port-a-potty.

But comfort food isn't always food. For some people it's grandma's old quilt, or that favorite spot on the couch, a TV show, a video game... And for some, like me (and I bet you too), it's a favorite old movie. And if you're reading this and you even know who I am, then it's also very likely that your comfort food is a favorite old horror movie.  Annnnnnnnnnd furthermore... I bet you've told this fact to someone, who's NOT a horror fan, at some point in your life only to find them looking back at you as if you just said you like to skin and eat babies to get your mind off the pressures of life.


Well it's happened to me. That's for sure.  Cuz, you see... my comfort film is Kubrik's The Shining. I discovered it's also the horror fan's equivalent of It's a Wonderful Life, come Christmas time. All that snow and holiday drear is just the thing for me on a cold winter night, all snuggled up with some hot cocoa, the quilt mom gave me years ago and Jack Nicholson wielding an axe, trying to kill his wife and child.  Mmmmmm Happy Place....

And here's a funny thing. My wife goes to sleep earlier than I do. (I'm a night owl - imagine that). And our "GOOD TV" is the one in the bedroom. So what I do is watch movies at night to get to sleep. Ya know, comfort food. So, more often than not it's The Shining. But out of consideration for my wife I watch it on mute, with the subtitles on, and she just passes out.

Now here's the thing about The Shining: more than 50% of that film's success is based on its sound design.  So with just the visuals, I'm essentially getting half a movie.  But that's fine. Fuck it. I just wanna get to sleep anyway.

Well one night last week, my wife was traveling and I was home alone so I decided to pull out all the stops and actually watch the film before bed with the sound ON. (I know, I live wild. Don't hold me back.)


I should have known better. Not only do I KNOW the film is terrifying with the sound on, but I MAKE these films. I've USED these sound tricks to scare you guys! WTF was I thinking? So let me paint this picture for you. A grown man, alone in the house, sitting watching The Shining and frightened by the "sounds of horror". Normally I might be too proud to addmit that, but what I know (and most good horror filmmakers know too) is that there are sounds- dischordant, out-of-tune, high register stuff that gets you on a psychological level. Sounds that all mammals react to - dogs, cats, chimps, us - probably whales too if you could get them into a movie theatre, all react similarly to what scientists call "distress sounds". Sounds that signal to us on a primal, beastial, instinctive level.

And the sounds don't need to be prevalent either. You can layer those suckers deep in the soundtrack, and even if you miss them consciously, you hear them subconsiously. For instance, in my film Bedfellows, I layered in things like bees buzzing, a dog whining in a high pitch, a baby bear cub crying, a car turning over but NOT starting, a baby human crying it's ass off, etc... all things that irritate or frighten you on a primal subconscious level. I'm sure the scary creature in the film is frightening visually too, but what you don't see IS scaring you. But when the filmmaker does it right, you don't realize it. You just know that what your experiencing is really REALLY disturbing.

Watch Psycho and listen to those violin strings in the shower scene. The Exorcist had ALL KINDS of evil shit in that sound track - people mumbling in latin, animals wailing, snarling and growling...  Oh, and just imagine Halloween without that weird 5/4 time in Carpenter's score. Good horror starts with character and ends with sound design, in my humble opinion.

What's this all mean?  It means that more than any other genre, horror needs sound. It also means that when you design the sound for your horror films, don't worry about logic (i.e. what sounds WOULD be in that environment?) Instead go for emotion first. DOES THAT SOUND CREEP ME OUT OR MAKE ME UPSET? That's the most important question you can ask. And if the answer is yes, toss it in there. See how it works.

Oh and it also means that if you watch The Shining with the sound on for the first time in 10 years and you're home alone, you WILL have nightmares and your wife WILL call you a scared little bitch as she laughs about it when you tell her after she comes home.

Just sayin'.

Gaudium Per Atrox.