From terrifying classics like The Exorcist to modern masterpieces like Sinister, these are the sounds that still scare us halfway (maybe a little bit more) to death.
There’s a method to the madness in our selection of the scariest film sounds ever. Some use high amounts of gore whilst others deliver unnerving calm and silence before shattering the senses. Read on if you dare…
1. 180 Degree Head Spin: The Exorcist (1973)
When you think of sound design excellence in horror, The Exorcist is probably going to be one of the last films you think of. But, the film actually won an academy award for sound design in 1973.
Throughout this cinematic masterpiece, the sounds were perfectly crafted and placed to create an atmosphere that left audiences always feeling uncomfortable and on edge.But, even the simplest of sound effects made those watching jump out of their seats.
The 180 degree head spin scene is a prime example. Even more interesting in terms of design is that the sound of the cracking neck was actually created by twisting a leather wallet filled with credit cards.
2. The Tripod Horn: War of The Worlds (2005)
Stephen Speilberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds was a massive success when it was released in 2005 (even if its critical response was muted amongst those in the press).
Many fans of the original film were hoping for another cinematic masterpiece but instead, they got a rather sobering spectacle that was filled with panic and wide-spread destruction.In terms of sound design, the most iconic element of this film is the terrifying tripod horn.
It was cleverly designed by sound designer Micheal Babcock where he used a djembe drum and didgeridoo to create a sound that symbolised impending danger and ultimately death.
3. Paul’s Leg Break: Misery (1990)
When it comes to damn right gore and gross-out scenes, Saw, Hostel and more recently, Squid Game may come out on top for the ultimate “cringe factor”. But, in terms of impact, nothing beats Rob Reiner’s Misery, where barely a drop of blood hits the floor.
We’re literally cringing just thinking about the moment Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) places a block of wood between restrained Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) feet and proceeds to break his ankles with a sledgehammer. The unnatural bend and crunch of the ankle is just a sound you can’t forget.
4. The Opening Scene: Jaws (1975)
Over the years, much has been made of Stephen Spielberg’s use of the unseen and unknown in his incredible portfolio of films. But, nowhere is more apparent of this than the terrifying masterpiece that is Jaws.
During the film’s opening scene, a woman is swimming in the ocean when all of a sudden she is pulled to and fro by something lurking underneath her.
Blood, guts and sheer horror aside, it’s during the opening scene that the world first got to hear the iconic (yet blood-curdling) John Williams score. The low bass, pulsating beat has since become one of the most famous sounds ever associated with fear.
Graham Kirkman from Luminol Audio also agrees that Jaws should be on the list. He even said “I can’t swim in the sea without hearing it!!!”
5. The Lawnmower Scene: Sinister (2021)
Sinister is widely regarded as one of the best horror films in modern times and contains some of the most terrifying sound design ever used in this genre. It perfectly showcases how sound can be used to create tension and panic amongst an audience.
The best example of this is during the nail biting lawnmower scene as it mixes foley and sound design with traditional score. There’s strange rhythmic loops and a demonic low bass that builds tension and an overwhelming sense of anxiety before a jump scare towards the end of the scene. Check it out below.
6. Vocal Clicks: Predator (1987)
One of the greatest hunting machines in the universe was actually inspired by a simple horseshoe crab. Peter Cullen (who also did the original voice of Optimus Prime) actually agreed to work on this film in an uncredited role but gave the hunter its infamous clicks and somewhat disturbing gurgling sounds.
He designed the clicks in such a way to announce the hunter’s potential whereabouts and impending danger within the desolate jungle. But, the innocent inspiration that Peter Cullen drew from just makes the sound even more disturbing.
More recently Audio Director Steve Whetman was faced with something similar when he was tasked with the audio production phase of the Predator: Hunting Grounds video game. Luckily enough, he was able to get hold of the recording session from the original tape! Once added and analysed by Reformer Pro he was able to perform the predator clicks for the game whilst maintaining the authentic original sound.
7. The Shower Scene: Psycho (1960)
Apart from Psycho’s brilliant set design, one of the reasons why the shower scene became so iconic was because of the way the sound could be felt by the audience. During this terrifying scene, you don’t actually see Marion Crane get stabbed by Mrs. Bates but you can hear every single stab wound being inflicted on her body.
Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (film director, producer, and screenwriter) created these gut-wrenching sounds by continuously stabbing various melons until he found one suitable for the scene.
In fact, it’s not even just us that thinks Psycho has terrifying sound design. In a recent survey carried out by Krotos, sound designer and composer, John Harvey (Reel Music) also expressed his respect for this film by saying:
“Psycho was released in 1960 and to this day has one of the most recognisable sounds in the horror genre. When you hear those violins you know that something bad is about to happen.”