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Creating The Perfect “Bump In The Night” – How Scary Movies Use Sound Design To Create Fear

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How Scary Movies Use Sound Design To Create Fear
How Scary Movies Use Sound Design To Create Fear

By now, you know what to expect when you are watching a scary movie. If you’re bold enough, the lights are dim, or completely off. You’re sitting there watching the brightly lit screen, seeing someone walking along the street. Then you hear the music – a hum or rhythm of some sort, giving you that overwhelming sense of fear and suspense. You feel the slow burn of the instruments building up to a scene containing a climax or attack. You know something terrifying is about to happen.

You feel anxiety, fear, and a plethora of other intense emotions. While you think it is because of the movie itself, it isn’t because of what is happening on the screen. The person in the film is only just walking, maybe a little bit faster, but the source of your discomfort is actually because of the sound design – the music and musical elements that you hear. These audible queues have an intensified effect that creates the reactions sought after by paranormal directors and producers.

Filmmakers seem to know just the right notes and noises that evoke your senses.
But, just how do they create those creepy sounds and music? There are multiple ways to develop those eminent feelings, using instruments in different ways and innovative sounds.

Non-Linear Sounds

Sounds of distress or unpredictability in supernatural or paranormal films are known as non-linear, and filmmakers love to use these sounds to create a change in frequency and alarm viewers. Films that are based on true ghost stories tend to portray a higher level of these sounds for added realism. The music that contains these types of sounds within films evokes a higher level of emotion and stimulation than a more neutral score.

Sound designers can use a multitude of avenues, depending on the type of film, for these types of sounds. Some examples of non-linear sounds in movies include wild animal noises, a baby crying, or the unnatural plucking or screeching of a violin. Any irregular noise that may not seemingly belong within a scene, such as when ghost hunters are hearing things over their EVP’s, where it can grab your attention quickly or in a jarring way, is what filmmakers like to use in moments where the intent is to shock.


Another method of foreshadowing in paranormal films used by sound designers is known as infrasounds, which are low-frequency sounds. These sounds are made by things like earthquakes, tidal waves, or thunderstorms – natural disasters or severe weather conditions. Though on the surface this does not seem alarming, our brains actually are conditioned to associate these types of sounds with impending danger.

Composers like to use infrasounds throughout musical scores because it gives listeners the feeling of uneasiness. While it’s common to have infrasounds and non-linear sound design in supernatural films, this often calls for the creation of custom music using these sound types, often through the help of a music licensing agency that creates original scores for films. Every genre has its trends, but to differentiate a new film in the paranormal genre, filmmakers often need new sounds or scores to make the tracks more authentic to their individual movie’s plot.

Musical Instruments

There are some unusual musical instruments used within scary films to create the sounds of fear, in addition to common string, woodwind, or horned instruments. Some use synthesizers and pedals to create distortion, but there are a few uncommon ones heard frequently in movies:

Pipe Organ – A church instrument that creates some elegant, harmonious tones. This instrument may not be as uncommon as the other two – but it produces very effective sounds to put you on edge.

Waterphone – This instrument is an inharmonic acoustic percussion instrument. It consists of a stainless steel resonator with a cylindrical ‘neck’ and bronze rods of different lengths around its bowl, that uses a bow to be played.

Theremin – This is an electronic instrument used to make sounds without you actually playing anything – which is part of its creepy charm. The sounds are created by a person’s movement with their hands in the air, equating to that haunting “ghost-like” sound you hear at the beginning of The Twilight Zone.

Adding In Some Percussion

Sound designers also amplify silence or abruptly remove music to create a sense of dread, and this is where percussion comes in. Sometimes these are used in a loud form to create a typical jump scare, meant to initiate our integral fight or flight response, as a non-linear sound.

But percussion is even more shocking in cases when it seems to come out of nowhere. For example, think of any movie where, all of a sudden, everything is quiet before you hear that distinct, low, compelling boom. Sometimes the absence of knowing what is to come can be much more frightening to us than the thing itself – percussion by itself first requires silence before hearing the drum, the echoes, or the thumps. The initial quietness or silence aids in the sound design to give this terrifying effect, putting you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what is going to happen.

Sounds of Inanimate Objects

Lastly, a final non-linear type of sound used by filmmakers in the paranormal genre is that of simple everyday objects, which can sound creepy in the right context. Objects that make non-linear sounds can include a bell tolling, a tea kettle screaming, or a heartbeat. Sometimes, sound designers can create these types of sounds with instruments, such as using a bass clarinet for a heart beating, but other films use the actual objects themselves to have the same effect.

When we watch suspenseful or paranormal films, it is easy to get immersed in the story, especially when filmmakers make great use of the sound design to truly capture the audience in those terrifying moments. When watching a scary movie, audience emotions are often intense and reactive, opening us up to the fear of what might happen. The tools that sound designers use to induce this fear is not easy; many take years to perfect this form of producing terror. It is an art in itself, and the brilliance of music and sounds within these films adds so much more to the story.

Wole Oduwole

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