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That Sounds Horrific!

The Making of Horror Movie Sound Effects

By Julie Senger

Proceed with caution. This feature may not be suitable for little eyes or the faint of heart.

Have you ever stopped to think about how important music and sound effects are to a film? Even if you can hear actors speaking to one another, how might our reaction to a film be different without the underlying music soundtrack or the sounds of the movements and actions being performed? Would the vision of a woman screaming be as scary without your ability to hear the scream? Would the potential threat of Jaws be as unnerving without the sounds of John Williams orchestra playing the Jaws Theme Song, which gets progressively faster in tempo as the shark is about to attack? According to an episode of Its Okay to Be Smart (PBS), There are two ways that sounds can be scary: by being sudden, or by generating a frightful tone. And humans may be hardwired to be more afraid of what they hear than what they see because, Sound information actually travels faster than the information we receive from sight, which suggests that humans evolved to use sound (as opposed to sight) as a first defense against predators, (V Renee).

While we know how music soundtracks are created, how are the sound effects for other actions that take place in a horror film created? Enter, the Foley artist. MOOOWAHAHAHA! A Foley artist creates audio effects for a film by using physical props during post production. This artistic style was named after Jack Foley, who was the originator of many of the sound techniques that are still used today.

Here are some examples of scenes from classic horror films and how some of the sounds were created:

The 180 Degree Head Turning in The Exorcist (1973)

William Friedkins notorious shocker features the famous scene in which Linda Blairs head turns a full 180 degrees on her possessed neck. The sound that accompanies the movement? Foley man Gonzalo Gavira manipulating an old leather wallet full of credit cards, (Williams).

Godzillas Roar in Godzilla (1954)

While the sound effects team on the original 1954 Japanese film unsuccessfully tried to use various animal noises and roars, the films composer, Akira Ifukube, had the idea to use musical instruments to create the monsters iconic sound instead.

It was actually a double bass, using a leather glove coated in pine tar resin to create friction, sound designer Erik Aadahl told NPR of the original Godzilla. Theyd rub it against the string of the double bass to create that sound, (Obias).

Freddys Glove in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Freddy Kruegers weapon of choice is, of course, that knife-fingered glove. That means you need two sounds in your Freddy Foley kit: leather and blades. For the former, a belt was bent and creaked and generally manipulated. For the sharper end, the effect was emphasized by sliding a surgical steel blade along a machete, (Williams).

Predator Movement in Predator (1987)

The Predators body required several tracks, explains Foley artist Vanessa Ament. One track was a wet chamois. Another was hand lotion on my hands. A third was a wet leather purse. A fourth track was some mouth noises (the voice acting and clicking is credited to Transformers Peter Cullen), (Williams).

The Shower Scene in Psycho (1960)

Although you dont actually see Mrs. Bates slice into Marion Crane, you can hear every stab going into her body. Alfred Hitchcock achieved this by stabbing through countless melons to find the perfect one for the scene. In a recording studio, prop man [Bob] Bone auditioned the melons for Hitchcock, who sat listening with his eyes closed, writes Stephen Rebello in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. When the table was littered with shredded fruit, Hitchcock opened his eyes, and intoned simply, Casaba, (Obias).

Now that youve learned the origins of the sounds from some pretty famous movie scenes, no article about horror movie sound effects would be complete without talking about screaming.

Scream Queens

Some actresses are so good at screaming in scary movies that the mere mention of their name causes people to immediately associate them with the horror film genre, earning them the Scream Queen moniker. So, what makes a good Scream Queen? Well, to put it plainly, she must have a great decibel range, (King). Who are some of the best Scream Queens and what are their decibel ranges?

Fay Wray (King Kong) = 10 decibels
Drew Barrymore (E.T. The Extraterrestrial) = 9.5 decibels
Doris Day (The Man Who Knew Too Much) = 9.5 decibels
Janet Lee (Psycho) = 9.5 decibels
Jamie Lee Curtis (Janet Lees daughter
must be genetic!) (Halloween) = 9 decibels
Naomi Watts (The Ring) = 9 decibels
Neve Campbell (Scream) = 9 decibels
Barbara Stanwyk (Sorry, Wrong Number) = 9 decibels

The Wilhelm Scream

The Wilhelm Scream has been heard in over 300 movies. Though many sound editors use it as sort of a joke in contemporary films like the Star Wars series and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it originated in the 1951 Warner Bros. film, Distant Drums. However, the scream didnt get its name until it was used again in a film called The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which, The scream is heard when a soldier named Pvt. Wilhelm (played by Ralph Brooke) gets shot in the leg by an arrow, (Lee).


King, Susan. What Makes a Good Scream Queen?

Lee, Steve. The Wilhelm Scream.

Obias, Rudie. 10 Iconic Movie Sounds (And How They Were Made).

Williams, Owen. The Secrets Behind 44 Classic Cinema Sound Effects.

V Renee. The Sound of Horror: Why Hearing Stuff is Scarier Than Actually Seeing Stuff.