Music and sound design are often described as the sort of “emotional glue” of a movie, but I like to think of them more as emotional paintbrushes. Horror may have an extremely developed visual language, but often we need sound to telegraph how we should feel about what would otherwise be an ambiguous image. Think of a standard cutaway to a seemingly innocuous object, like a framed photo on a table, or a tree in a yard: directing your attention to the object tells you that it’s relevant, either to contextualize you in the scene or setting, or to point you to some narrative foreshadowing. The low thrumming sound that’s building under the image? That’s a signal to you that you should be wary of this object if and when it comes back to the fore.
“Horror may have an extremely developed visual language, but often we need sound to telegraph how we should feel about what would otherwise be an ambiguous image.”
This cueing is part of a familiar dialogue between horror movie audiences and the movies themselves. The score builds and we reply by tensing ourselves for a scare; sound drops away and we anticipate that a horrific reveal is moments away, and that it’s probably going to be coupled with a loud and jarring musical sting; the tone of certain themes or motifs reveal how we should perceive certain characters; playful moments might even bring in familiar mainstream music to help us let our guard down. The best scores keep these conversations fresh by subverting these expected patterns as often as they play into them.
The nifty thing about sound in horror is that whether it exists in the world of the film or only for the audience lands totally differently depending on the horror sub-genre.
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Did you hear that?
Of course, unless you’re in a super-meta film like The Final Girls (2015), where Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends can hear when Billy the killer (Daniel Norris) is coming by the sound of his signature slasher-movie scoring, the characters in most horror movies are not privy to the same sonic insights as the audience. They keep walking down that creepy alleyway despite us yelling for them not to because they aren’t having their threat-o-meters tipped off as aggressively as we are.
The flip-side to these scoring elements are diegetic sounds, or sounds that exist fully in the world of the film. The teens fleeing Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) can’t hear the ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma of her approach (which was what was clearly being spoofed in The Final Girls), but they would be able to hear the footsteps and twig snaps of her approach. This might be a bad example, though, because it’s been implied that Mrs. Voorhees is hearing those sounds in her head as warped commands from her son.
In 2018, A Quiet Place was praised for centering itself around diegetic sound and stripping away non-diegetic scoring. While it was certainly very effective, largely thanks to any sound feeling dangerous, it’s funny to think of the diegetic-only approach to sound in A Quiet Place as especially groundbreaking when the humble found-footage film has been doing the same for a long time.
“[…] the characters in most horror movies are not privy to the same sonic insights as the audience.”
Found footage is most compelling when it can convince us that what we’re seeing is real and raw. This is usually achieved by narrowing what we see and hear to what the characters on-screen can see and hear (with the bonus caveat that what we see and hear is also being filtered and limited through camera lenses and microphones). These limitations contribute to the realism of the footage — the musical shorthand of violin strings, stings, and crescendos have no business here.
A quick comparison between Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch (2016) reveal very different approaches to sound. Given its gruelling method filmmaking approach, it’s no surprise that the footage and audio feel very real, amateurish and unedited, except for the title cards that are presented by the footage “archivists”. Interestingly, Sánchez’s follow-up Bigfoot found footage Exists (2014) suffers somewhat from mixing in noticeable tension-building music and sound design. Similarly, Wingard’s Blair Witch, despite providing good reasons for its approach to footage using multiple camera sources, strangely emphasizes would-be diegetic sounds and is a bit obvious in its sound design. Exists and Blair Witch are still entertaining, but as found footage, they’re not as effective or immersive as The Blair Witch Project because it feels like we’re getting a peak behind a curtain that ostensibly shouldn’t exist.
This isn’t to say that a non-diegetic score can completely spoil a movie. [REC] (2007) is a stellar found footage piece that makes use of a quietly thumping score in a number of its scenes, but that score tends to pass under our awareness with the verisimilitude of Pablo‘s filmwork and might only be a bother if you’re a found footage purist.
What are your feelings on sound design in horror? Does the use of non-diegetic sound in found footage spoil the experience, or does it not bother you at all? Share your thoughts over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!