Listen to the following excerpt from the gothic horror film The Woman in Black. Don’t watch it, just listen and then answer this: which noises in particular are scary?
For me, they’re all scary. When you’re alone and it’s night, noises tend to be scary. You hear them, your chest tightens, you become conscious of your own breathing; it’s quiet again, but you’re still on edge and your ears are pricked, and you hear it again, closer this time. It could be an owl’s hoot, or the heavy tread of boots on your gravel drive, or your garden gate creaking in the wind. This hyper-awareness of sounds is a leftover of our primeval past, when humans were the prey of natural predators and the keenness of your hearing might make the difference between life and death. That’s why of all the senses, except perhaps sight, sound seems to be the one most likely to cause fear (try to think of a scary smell or texture). Horror films and novels exploit the frightening power of sound all the time, so much so that many – the creaking door, for example – have become clichés, though even clichés can be scary.
It’s not all about outright scaring. Some noises are there merely to unsettes, as in this passage from Chris Priestley’s Climb Not:
The grass in the pasture had yet to be cut. It was long and blond, hissing with crickets and spattered with blood red poppies. Towering up above it all was the mighty elm.
Sometimes the noises in a story will not be particularly drawn to our attention. In the passage above, they are one of a few details, a part of a longer description of the pasture where the elm stands. Still, the ‘hissing’ noise helps to build atmosphere. First through onomatopoeia – ‘hissing’ being a word that sounds like the noise it describes. Priestly could have as easily described the crickets as chirping or chirruping, a more usual noise associated with crickets, but that would not be half as creepy. There’s an echo of snakes in the sound – a hint of evil, of sin, especially, which is quite appropriate given the similarities the garden has to the Garden of Eden. Does the reader register these impressions as she reads? Not consciously perhaps – she is following the story of Joseph investigating the tree, but these impressions are registering subconsciously and the reader is forming the impression that this place is dangerous yet somehow compelling.
At other points in a story, the reader’s attention will be focused completely on sound:
Joseph could hear her [his dog] whimpering quietly, as though she were mumbling under her breath… Suddenly she gave a strange strangled yelp that almost sounded like a human scream of panic.
There is a great deal of anthropomorphism in this description – used in part because ‘whimper’, ‘mumble’ and ‘scream’ are more emotive than their animal equivalents. One convention of horror is to hear sounds that are not quite normal, that are uncanny because they are out of place. There is a touch of onomatopoeia in these word too, and alliteration in the phrase ‘strange strangled yelp’ that helps us to imagine the dog’s throat constricting in terror.
Another signature use of sounds in horror is the description of a sound that only becomes sinister in retrospect. There is that sound that starts out as background noise, an innocuous part of background description, until it become more apparent, and the protagonist begins to listen to it and speculate or fear what it could be. There is the sound that a protagonist hears early in a story that takes on a horrible significance just when it’s too late. There are, of course, examples in Uncle Montague, but I won’t spoil them for you. Anyway, I have to stop now and go downstairs to check my boiler. It’s been making this weird rumbling noise (only at night mind you) and today it sounds louder and – somehow – angrier than ever. Strange that. See you tomorrow, I guess…
Describe a walk through an area strange and unfamiliar to you. Include creepy noises.