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Horror Writing: Using Sound in Horror

Films and games alike use a multitude of tools at their disposal to terrify you. Sound I feel is one of the most easily overlooked, mostly because when it’s done well a good soundtrack or sound effect can affect the tension levels without even being consciously noticed.

Sound, be it music of effects, can be used to tell the story of what is being shown visually on screen, it denotes tension, emotions and foreshadowing in a way that a visual medium on its own simply can’t. Sound hooks the attention of audiences, it’s a trick the makers of horror have become adept at exploiting.

Sound, like smell has a way of lingering with us. We can watch aa film, or play a game with a certain track, or sound effect then years later hear that sound and experience the same emotional reaction we did years ago.

But why is sound so effective at messing with our emotions?

Simple really, humans evolved to be on alert whenever they hear an abnormal sound. In our most primal state, we had to be alert to usual sounds as they could identify an approaching predator or other threat.

Creators of horror tap into these inherent defence mechanisms and write music or sound effects they know humans find uncomfortable.

One of my favourite things sound masters do is when they use subversion. They take a sound we might normally find pleasant and either force us to associate that sound with a threat, think of creepy kids laughing, it’s a great example of something we should enjoy, who doesn’t like happy kids after all. But horror sound masters can make us associate that sound with something dark and threatening.

The other kid of subversion is more literal, they literally take a pleasant or familiar sound and put it through a grinder, twisting it into a warped parody of itself. This seems to be a favourite of videogames, many a time I’ve been playing a game only for a warped sound effect to get my heart racing.

As I said, sound can go a long way to building a great atmosphere in horror, it can raise and lower tension without any help from what’s physically happening on screen and it stays with us long after it has fallen silent.

Below is a YouTube video by Outside Xbox ( a great channel, I highly recommend) where the group discuss sounds in games and how they still find themselves effected by them.

I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below.

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