Horror scores are lauded for their creation of atmosphere and dread, from John Carpenter’s electronic music in Halloween to the iconic fear created through two notes by John Williams in Jaws. However, music is not the only sonic way to build horror; sound design is everything in cultivating a terrifying film. An early example is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which didn’t even have score. Its soundscape was almost entirely digitally-manufactured bird sounds that create its persistent feeling of unnaturalness and unease. Then there are the multitudes of monster sounds created throughout horror history that may haunt you in your dreams, from the rawr of Jurassic Park’s T. rex to the vampire screeches in 30 Days of Night. Not to mention the screams, stabbings, creaking floorboards, whispers, and more that are utilized throughout the genre to build suspense and make your hair stand up. In horror, sound design, sound effects, and score all work together to create a soundscape of dread.
A recent example, and I believe a rather important one, of the power of sound is Ari Aster’s 2018 film, Hereditary. Its use of sound effects and a haunting, droning score by Colin Stetson, paired with camerawork that prioritizes auditory experience rather than a visual one, contributes to the film’s unbelievable tension and dread. While much of the film’s praise is given to its amazing performances, its use of sound truly makes it one of the year’s most terrifying films.
First and foremost, there is the tongue clicking that permeates the film, a sounds that been ruined for anyone who has seen Hereditary. Even the film’s trailer alluded to the power of just one little cluck of the tongue. The tongue clicking is that of Charlie Graham, who does it as some kind of tic. She clicks her tongue as she draws, makes strange toys, whenever, wherever; it is how her family can identify her without even seeing her. Despite it seeming to be an innocuous click, every time she does it, it feels like a jump scare; these clicks shatter the silence like a hammer to glass and put you on edge just in the film’s beginning. So when Charlie dies, it seems that these moments of uneasiness will be over. Not so fast.
Even in death, Charlie’s tongue clicks permeate the Graham household, which creates a haunting atmosphere and a cloud that seems to follow mother, Annie, and brother, Peter. Instead of showing Charlie’s spirit creeping around the house or appearing in mirrors, we hear the click of her tongue; she is somewhere in the shadows even if we can’t see her. There is something so much more frightening about hearing a ghost rather than seeing it because it could be anywhere, hiding, watching. Instead of relying on haunting images of a decaying Charlie, jump scares are delivered with the click of the tongue.
One of Hereditary’s most haunting scenes also involves Charlie, but not the sound of her tongue. It instead involves the horrified screams of Annie as she finds her daughter’s body. However, we are not shown this moment of terror; we only hear it as the camera shows Peter lying in bed, listening to his mother discovering Charlie’s headless body. Instead of showing that horrific moment of discovery, the camera lingers on a closeup of Peter’s blank, still-sort-of-stoned face. This is something Hereditary executes so well: creating scenes of horror and trauma but only letting you hear them rather than see them. There is something so much more gut-wrenching in hearing Annie find Charlie rather than see the body in the backseat of the car, all while watching Peter come to terms with his role in all of this. This combination of camera work and sound design creates one of the most harrowing horror sequences of recent memory.
Yet another case for hearing the horror before seeing it is a sequence at the film’s end involving a piano wire and Annie’s neck. As Peter is trying to take in the horrors he has found in the attic—a dead body, naked strangers—he hears something. It begins quietly at first, and is difficult to place. As the camera stays on Peter’s face, we are also kept from seeing the source of this mysterious sound, letting our imaginations run wild. The scene’s horror grows with there is a lack of visuals paired with an unsettling, unidentifiable sound. This mysterious sound gets louder and louder and finally, the source is revealed: it is the sound of a piano wire sawing through Annie’s neck. It is a repulsive, squelching sound that makes you squirm as blood spurts from the wound. While we have been kept from seeing this horror, the camera now refuses to look away as the wire cuts through bone and eventually severs the last of the flesh.
Supporting these moments of horrific sound design and effects is the score of Colin Stetson. There is no grand orchestral score like that of Jaws. Rather, Stetson creates a pulsing, droning soundtrack, using bass saxophones and special breathing techniques, that creeps into your ears and gets louder and louder until you want to scream. You can feel it building in your chest and as you watch Annie sleepwalk or Peter have a horrifying realization, you can then feel it in your entire body. Then, at times, the music suddenly cuts out with no resolution. The score feels like it’s toying with you, pulling you into moments of anxiety, then vanishing without a trace, leaving you alone and uncomfortable.
The only moment in the score that could be described as melodic is at the film’s end as we reach as resolution of sorts. In a horrific moment populated by dead bodies and a strange deity topped with a decaying head, triumphant horns seem to proclaim that we have arrived to our joyful resolution; the horrors are over and Paimon is here. But there is something slightly unsettling at the horns screech just a little too loud and the overlapping instruments almost create a cacophony and deep bass voices reverberate in your chest.
From score to screams, there is no doubting of the power of sound design and effects in the sensational experience of horror. Yes, gore is frightening but the way to really get into someone’s head is pairing the visual horror with a equally terrifying soundscape. Hereditary is a prime example of the dread created with just a few sounds and an unconventional score. This is a film that denies its audience the pleasure of matching sound to image; you must first imagine the horrors, go into the deepest parts of your subconscious to construct what could be happening before it is confirmed on screen. Plus, tongue clicking will truly never be the same.