“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud.
When it comes to the horror genre, well – there’s a lot of crud. That stands to reason, since horror films can be extra-super-cheap to make (I’ve seen a few that have convinced me that the largest line item on the budget was for Karo syrup and red food coloring), which means they don’t have to do particularly well at the box office to make enough to justify a horde of sequels. Also – to be fair – some of the awful examples from the 1950s and ’60s have a certain charm in their naïveté that elevates them beyond their paltry production values. (Mr. Sardonicus, I’m looking at you. May God bless William Castle.)
One element that is worth discussing in horror movies – the really good ones, anyway – is the use of sound to build the tension and, in some cases, scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of us.
As a kid, I was scared witless by the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Disney’s Fantasia and I bet I wasn’t the only kid. Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s music, coupled with images of demons and hellfire, was enough to make me cover my eyes – but I peeked through my fingers, which is sort of the whole point of horror, isn’t it? To see the terrible from a point of safety. (Disney is rumored to be working on a live-action version, which will no doubt psychologically scar a new generation.)
But let’s say you’re not interested in cribbing the classics. After all, at some point using Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” becomes borderline cliché. Although here’s a good take on why it works so well. What makes original music work in a horror movie?
Obviously, you want the sounds to be unexpected. Smooth, lilting melodies are right out – you want music that is harsh and has a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard quality. (By the way, if you are too young to have experienced an actual chalkboard in your classroom – trust me – this is one of the worst sounds ever!!) Often, the music used to heighten the dread and fear in a horror film has a higher-than-average number of shifts in pitch. Overall, the sounds are discordant and uncomfortable. It’s been theorized that these sounds mimic the sounds made by animals in distress and that some part of our oldest, “lizard” brains is responding to that. Let me give you three examples, although there are many, many more.
Let’s start super-simple. Effective scary music doesn’t have to be complicated. John Williams knew this when he was composing the (now iconic) theme for the very first summer blockbuster, Jaws.
Don’t forget the effect of repetition! I said, don’t forget the effect of repetition! John Carpenter’s Halloween theme has more notes than the Jaws theme, but it still isn’t especially complicated. But when you hear it over and over, you just want it to stop. StopstopSTOPSTOPSTOP!!
And there’s also the shrieking sounds of tortured violins used by Bernard Hermann in Psycho, music that definitely tells you that something wicked is this way coming.
At least in America, it’s common for horror themes to be written in minor keys – we perceive those as melancholy. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s an example of the old movie-trailer trick of taking a “happy” song and playing it in a minor key to make it seem scary and off-putting. (Note – it’s an old trick because it works!) Many, many thanks to the Gregory Brothers for this lovely example!
So cross-reference that with taking a “scary” song and playing it in a major key – the emotional component totally changes!
Although the Psycho theme is still unsettling…
So let’s end with that – and kittens! Seriously – a shot-for-shot remake. Truly, the internet can be a wonderland.
Want more? Check out Den of Geeks’ top 13 (of course it’d be thirteen!) horror themes by clicking here!
Happy scares, everyone!
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.