As Halloween approaches, we’re going to take a look at some of the best horror films with spine-chilling sound design that you can enjoy during this witching season.
Hiding behind your sofa isn’t going to help you with this selection of horror films. From terrifying atmospherics to creepy footsteps, we think you’ll be looking over your shoulder for the entire time.
1. Alien (1979)
Isolated in the depths of space with a vicious killer on board, Ridley Scott’s Alien was genre-defining and is still to this day, one of the best sci-fi films of all time. Expertly filling his film with frightening suspense, the film follows the ill-fated crew of the Nostromos spaceship as they take a detour to investigate a distress call leading to a truly terrifying creature entering their ship by breaking through one of the crew’s chest cavity.
Most people will know this film by it’s brilliant art design and terrifying storyline but it wouldn’t be nowhere near as atmospheric if it wasn’t for the anxiety-inducing and cleverly designed sound. Silence plays a key role in creating suspense for each scene but also helps to emphasise the stillness of being so remote in space (and where no one can hear you scream!).
Of course, viewers know that the creature is lurking in the shadows somewhere on the ship but every metallic footstep helps to induce anxiety that it could jump out at any given moment.
Ridley Scott also plays with tons of other sonic and metallic sounds. Most notably, the electronic heartbeat sounds that are used within the diegetic soundscape to simulate fear. And, even though this film is over 40 years old, the sound design still continues to terrify viewers even all these years later.
2. The Shining (1980)
Hailed as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining continues to petrify audiences even all these years later. The cinematic masterpiece is set within the lavish Overlook Hotel during the winter season and follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family move into the hotel when Jack takes up a new caretaker role.
From incorporating impossible to navigate hallways and windows in the set design, gently moving props during scenes and even terrorising certain characters to get the most out of their performance, Stanley Kubrick did everything possible to make the Overlook Hotel as terrifying as possible. Likewise, his creative direction and implementation of sound design was just as crucial to achieve the ultimate “scare factor”.
The most prominent sound design aesthetic is how the use of diegetic sounds and non-diegetic music acts as a cue for the audience and what they should focus on during any given scene. Perhaps, the best example of diegetic sound being used during the film is the sound of Danny (Danny Lloyd) riding his tricycle through the hotel’s creepy hallways.
The camera follows him in one clever continuous shot and during this scene, no non-diegetic sounds are included in the design; only the diegetic sound of the tricycle wheels on the alternating floors and carpets. Designing the sound in such a way creates a spine-chilling ambience and reflects the isolation of the family.
3. A Quiet Place (2018)
A Quiet Place was an unexpected hit when it was released in 2018 but for all for good reason. With a horror premise and storyline where making any sounds will ultimately lead to death by attack, the film had to be as silently sound designed as it could be.
The characters use American Sign Language to avoid being detected. But the eerie footsteps, monster sounds and even the young boy’s toy all add to the layering of sound in this film and subsequent suspense. When an audience watches it, they are almost compelled to stay silent and experience the sound design which in turn, makes them feel placed within the scenes.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Whilst other horror films tend to feature sonic textures sparingly, for the spine-chilling impact alongside melody, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s sound design is relentlessly atonal. There are some expected cues, for example, extreme shock is often signalled by painful, high-end electronic sounds.
However, in other places, the composition is far subtler. A great example of this composition is during the grotesque dinner scene where Leatherface and his family have a “back and forth” argument as they terrorise a victim.
The scene is designed in such a way that could be considered as “slapshot” and awkward. But, what makes it so iconic in terms of sound design is the white noise, layered with an echoing percussion. This creates a slow, but terrifying aspect that is close to stomach-churning.
5. Jurassic Park (1993)
Okay, so not entirely a horror as such (unless you’re scared of dinosaurs!). But, Jurassic Park was groundbreaking in more ways than just one. With the never seen before use of giant animatronics and CGI, this film set the gold standard for special effects and sound design.
Gary Rydstrom’s work on Jurassic Park could be considered his most well known as he created the iconic dinosaur roars and sounds using a mix of animal vocalisations to create terrifying, yet real-life sound effects, which even sound designers and filmmakers strive to achieve even all these years later.
Fun Fact: Only one person’s voice was actually used to create all of the different dinosaur sounds. Instead, Gary Rydstrom used a variety of animals including horses, crowned canes and even tortoises.
6. Halloween (1978)
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without including one of the most iconic horror movies of all time; Halloween. The sound design and music for Halloween was revolutionary, not because the director (John Carpenter) composed the entire score but because he experimented with synth pads and stabs which was never previously done before.
This in turn, helped him to create one of the most unnerving and damn right terrifying film soundtracks of all time. The 1970’s was a focal point in the development of electronic sound effects and music but was only historically used in sci-fi films.
But what John Carpenter discovered is that these sounds were perfect for horror too! What makes the sound design and music for Halloween interesting is that the film only had a total budget of $300,000 which in terms of money wouldn’t get you very far these days. But, Carpenter’s use of minimist synths created a propulsive, dreamlike sense of dread which still continues to terrify audiences today.
Well, there you have it, a list of the top 6 horror films that absolutely nailed it on sound design. While there’s plenty of films that could have made this list, those included not only boast incredible sound, but use it to move the stories along terrifyingly. Watch them this Halloween if you dare…