Horror movies have existed since the advent of cinema, and as much as horror thrived during the silent film era with films that paved the way for the genre like Nosferatu (1922), Häxan (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and many others, it’s hard to imagine a horror film being made today without sound. Contemporary silent horror does exist, mostly thanks to experimental directors like Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002)), but it is the rarest of rare beasts these days.
For most of us, sound is integral to the contemporary horror experience. Think about any horror movie from the last decade or two. How would it change if it were silent? Would A Quiet Place (2018) be as effective if you couldn’t hear any of the characters’ accidental noises? Would the pub fight from Shaun of the Dead (2004) be as memorable if you couldn’t hear Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Know” playing on the jukebox? We build tension with atmospheric music, jump scares are amplified by stings, and gore becomes that much gorier when we can hear bits squishing, dripping, and squelching.
Syncing Into Sound
The first feature-length movie of any genre to present itself to audiences as a “talking picture” was The Jazz Singer in 1927. Today, we’d consider this movie a “partial talkie”, because the film included synchronized singing and speech in sequences only.
Two main technologies competed to bring sound to the big screen: sound-on-disc, which recorded sound to a separate phonograph record that could be played at the same time as the film, and sound-on-film, which recorded the soundtrack directly onto photographic film (usually the same film strip upon which the moving picture had been recorded. Sound-on-disc produced better-quality audio than sound-on-film, but it was also more expensive to make and distribute to theatres, the disc could be damaged or lost, and it could be challenging to synchronize. Sound-on-film processes like Movietone guaranteed synchronization and soon emerged the clear winner.
“For most of us, sound is integral to the contemporary horror experience […] gore becomes that much gorier when we can hear bits squishing, dripping, and squelching.”
It took years for theatres to transition from silent to sound and most production houses created both silent and talkie versions of their films so that they could still distribute to theatres that weren’t yet equipped for sound. Benjamin Christensen’s Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) was probably the last silent horror film. By 1931, theatres without sound technology were in the minority in America. By 1935, talkies ruled completely.
Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) is usually cited as the first major all-talking horror film (although, yes, theatres that weren’t wired for sound did receive a silent version with intertitles (also known as title cards). It was the first of non-silent Universal classic monster cycle, and it was a box-office sensation. Fritz Lang’s serial killer thriller M (1931) came later that same year, and is today often acknowledged as the first sound film masterpiece of any genre.
These weren’t the first horror films to come with synchronized sound. The Terror (1928), a movie about an identified killer at a converted inn, was Warner Bros.’s second-ever sound film and probably the first talking horror film in America, a solid three years before Dracula and M. Across the pond, Marshall Neillan’s Black Waters (1929), a murder thriller set on a yacht and Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature, Blackmail (1929) became the first British horror talkies. The Terror and Black Waters, like many movies of their era, are considered to be lost films.
Recording with sound wasn’t easy, especially for actors and directors used to the flexibility of silent film. Noise on set didn’t matter before, but suddenly soundproofing cases had to be built to muffle noisy cameras and technique had to change because the sound of moving cameras around to capture particular shots would be picked up by mics. Arc lights were too noisy, too, and had to be traded in for quieter incandescent lights (which were also dimmer and so required more sensitive — and more expensive — film stock). Boom microphones were born as a way to help actors move freely, as stationary microphones forced actors to have to restrict their movements so they wouldn’t walk out of mic range. Clara Bow, one of the more famous actors to make the silent-to-sound transitions, most vocally hated talkies because they introduced this stiffness when she craved the freedom of movement and action.
Adding in sound also meant that the film industry had to establish a standard recording and playback speeds for cameras and projectors. You know how the charades signal for movies is pretending that you have an old-fashioned hand-crank camera? Well, even though there was a loose standard of 16 frames per second, many camera operators would under- or over-crank the cameras to produce dramatic effects. Obviously, randomly speeding up and slowing down the recording would make the audio impossible to listen to. Projectors, which used to get away with running silent films too fast (so cinemas could squeeze more shows into one day) had to stick to a new standard, 24 frames per second.
“With the audience held captive by both sight and sound, filmmakers could now use audio and visuals to convey intention, meaning, and feeling.”
But what did sound mean for horror audiences?
In short: it made a huge difference. The soundtrack for a film wasn’t a hired pianist at the theatre playing whatever music they wanted. Audiences had to focus and pay attention to the sound to hear what characters were saying instead of reading title cards. With the audience held captive by both sight and sound, filmmakers could now use audio and visuals to convey intention, meaning, and feeling. Sound cues became familiar and audiences began to become complicit in building up their own scares.
Today, sound is a horror filmmaker’s playground. We as the audience can recognize (consciously or not) when something is about to happen when the music builds or tapers off suddenly and we prepare ourselves for the inevitable shock and horror pay-off. When we watch movies to that focus on diegetic sound (in-world sound that both the audience and the characters on-screen can hear), like The Blair Witch Project (1999), we are pulled in because our experience has narrowed and there isn’t a soundtrack to tell us how to feel. Then there are human sound cues: we hear someone scream and it stirs something primal in our brains that in turn arouses fear and vigilance. We hear someone retching and we feel like we want to barf. And then, at the most extreme, there are filmmakers like Gaspar Noé, who play with infrasound and near-infrasound, molding their work around frequencies just below the threshold of human hearing to layer a sense of discomfort and unease under their visual work.
Can you think of a horror movie moment where sound made all the difference? Have you ever tried watching a horror film on mute? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!