The oooooorigins of horror’s spooky sounds


Long before radio became mainstream entertainment, Edgar Allen Poe was already writing for the airwaves. Throughout the last decade of his life, his poetry and prose bristled with words and phrasing so colorful they could practically be heard. Sounds permeated his gothic storytelling — filled with black cats screaming and hearts beating — and preyed upon readers with their detailed and chilling force.

Look to Poe’s 1839 short story The Fall of the House of Usher, in which he describes an entombed woman’s reanimation within a cavernous castle by citing the “distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation” and “the grating of the iron hinges of her prison.” More than 50 years later, Bram Stoker found inspiration in Poe’s auditory descriptors, embedding them into his 1897 novel Dracula. As Stoker illustrates a feasting vampire’s scarlet lips and bloody mouth, he engages the other senses. “I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck,” he writes.

“The churning teeth and tongue — that’s really creepy. You hear that,” says Richard Hand, author of Terror on the Air!: Horror Radio in America and professor of media practice at the University of East Anglia. “Reading novels from the 19th century, there might be clanking suits of armor and cobwebs, but [writers] were invested a lot in describing the sound of a distant wolf, or the scream of someone, or the heartbeat in the ears, or the whisper — those kinds of things are really central.”

Over the ensuing decades, those corporeal, visceral noises — the foundation of gothic stories — migrated from the page to theatrical and radio productions, where sound designers amplified their text-based terror. With hushed tones and artificial clatters, backed by organ and orchestral crescendos and crackling narration, radio broadcasts quickly established a vocabulary of spooky sounds and tropes (from creaky doors to high-pitched shrieks) that would come to define horror and inspire listeners’ imaginations.

By the 1950s and ‘60s, as visual mediums became the primary storytelling devices for audiences, scary television series and movies utilized inventive technologies and abstract instrumentation to complement the screen, further evolving the sonic hallmarks of the genre. To this day, those mid-century synthesized and impressionistic soundscapes remain crucial foundations for modern horror movies, further accentuating their timeless appeal and universal effects. “There’s something quite arcane, something primal and effective about them,” Hand says of horror audio tropes. “It’s like good music. There are certain chords that still work.”

Finding the bump that goes bump in the night

Orson Welles Rehearsing Radio Broadcast
Orson Welles rehearsing The War of the Worlds
Photo: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The first spooky sounds came inside the theater. In order to accurately interpret a play’s auditory descriptions, stagehands often got creative, introducing cracks of thunder by wobbling large sheets of aluminum, or rubbing canvases to produce a harrowing gale. When theatrical productions began being broadcast over the radio in the 1920s, early foley artists expanded their sound-making tactics, relying on their new blind medium to find materials that could feign more macabre noises.

In his book The Great Radio Heroes, author Jim Harmon notes that, in the 1941 horror series Inner Sanctum Mystery, “to get the proper sound of a head being bashed, [producer] Himan Brown devised a special bludgeon with which he would strike a small melon. The juicy, hollow, squishiness was much truer than the sound from the standard piece of foam rubber used on many shows.” Even more mundane sounds, like ice cubes being tossed into a glass, sometimes needed punch-ups — sound designers often substituted them with metal bolts — which collected a crisper, cleaner noise. “There was an ingenuity to that,” Hand says, “but it was still importing some things from the stage, those off-stage sound effects that could be so evocative.”

As the Golden Age of radio took off in the 1930s, building more intimate and immersive soundscapes for listeners became a greater priority. Using what Hand calls a “hierarchy of sound,” horror productions could intimate a spectral or creeping presence with slight progressions of volume, oscillating between a distant howl and the loud thud of footsteps to indicate the lumbering presence of, say, Frankenstein’s monster. “A lot of those sounds were done live,” says Erik Lobo, the host of horror television series Cinema Insomnia. “Whether those sounds were realistic or not, people understood what they were supposed to be. It became a language.”

Those narrating these tales became just as crucial to setting the creepy mood. In The Witch’s Tale, an influential program that ran from 1931 to 1938, a Salem witch cackles and invites listeners to turn out the lights and stare into the fire, before introducing a scary story. It’s an atmospheric curation that Orson Welles would use on episodes of The Shadow, portraying an ominous character that could cloud minds and cause illusions. Welles’s dynamic voice grew infamous after his live performance of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, an extraterrestrial fiction many thought was really occurring — its horror magnified by field transmissions and unsettling moments of quiet. “There’s this awful silence that drags and drags until someone says ‘We apologize we’re having technical difficulties,’” Hand says. “That silence can be as powerful as the heartbeat rising from silence.”

Around the same time period, midnight ghost shows had begun borrowing from radio’s early jump scares and haunting narrations to captivate and frighten their own audiences. Often held on the stages of American movie theaters, the shows acted as the second half to silent film double bills, building towards “blackout” sequences to close the shows that often featured seances and ghostly apparitions. Inspired by the spiritualism movement in the United States in the mid-19th century, sparked by the ghostly rapping noises heard by two young girls in Hydesville, N.Y., magicians and performers took advantage of similar jumpy sounds.

Sometimes that meant planting a crewmember in the audience to give an ear-splitting scream, or using the theater’s projector to induce a startling thunder clap. The sharp, abrupt noises likely found their origins in the word “boo,” a universal ghost word traced back to Greek that meant “to cry aloud, roar, or shout.” According to an investigation on Slate, “the combination of the voiced, plosive b- and the roaring -oo sounds makes boo a particularly startling word.”

Suggesting a lingering paranormal presence, however, required a different, more ethereal kind of sound. So, ghost show emcees often wound music boxes — with untuned spare children’s music — and attached them to their microphones, providing hands-free background songs so they could run up and down the aisles unencumbered. “That tinkly sound. I think there’s something about the mechanics of that,” says Beth Kattelman, an associate professor at Ohio State University. “It can run without a human presence, but you need a human to set it off … and there’s a slight distortion in the tone of music boxes, too.”

As Kattelman writes in the essay “Magic, Monsters, and Movies: America’s Midnight Ghost Shows,” “enterprising ghostmasters came up with clever ways to fill the theater with otherworldly sounds,” which often meant stringy, “minor tonalities and diminished chords,” she says, and irregular time signatures, keeping audiences uneasy and braced for something malevolent. “Even an untuned piano — there’s a haunting quality because there’s more than one tone coming out of there,” Kattelman says. “It makes you wonder what else is there.”

Conjuring sounds from the ether

Leo Theremin Playing Instrument
Leon Theremin playing the theremin
Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

When Leon Theremin patented his own musical device in 1929 and began showing its capabilities, some concertgoers began to faint. They thought the theremin — an electronic box with antennas, vacuum tubes and wired circuitry that produced a sharp, high-pitched noise — had somehow tapped into the ether and conjured spirits. Because a thereminist never touched the instrument to produce a sound (only hand movements between the electromagnetic waves initiated the wobbly frequency), it appeared as though some other presence was responsible. “If you see someone play theremin, it looks like magic,” says Rick Reid, a thereminst and electronic music composer. “You can glide between frequencies, you can play any pitch possible and it’s not limited to the notes of the western scale — it’s both familiar and alien at the same time.”

In effect, the theremin took the high-octave notes of the Hammond organ — a radio background staple — and turned up the spookiness, cutting through cellos and flutes with its own distinct vibrato. As Lydia Kavina, a longtime therminist for Hollywood productions, says, “for a ghostly image or haunting feeling, composers usually used music techniques such as tremolo, trills and glissando.” But, she adds, the “theremin can produce this all in such a huge spectrum like no other instrument … from a microtonal interval to 6-7 octaves.”

Originally a commercial flop in the 1930s, the theremin eventually became a favored instrument of composers working on science-fiction and horror movies in the late 1940s and ‘50s. After showing up in director Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1948, the theremin — as played by Samuel J. Hoffman — had its most influential break in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which composer Bernard Herman established it as the go-to sound for movies about the supernatural and extraterrestrial. It became a sort of connective tissue between audio and visual mediums, the latter of which could lean more on an expressionist sound design to enhance and distort the suspenseful imagery it was supporting. “All of those older movies have a hyper-real quality where they’re not really descriptive of real life,” Lobo says. “I think that there’s something powerful about that because it feels more like a dream.”

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Indeed, throughout most of the post-World War II creature features — from It Came From Outer Space to The Spider to series like My Favorite Martian — the theremin and its synthesizer descendants developed a new auditory shorthand for fear and paranoia. “There’s something that makes the sound of the theremin quite psychedelic,” Kavina says. “Its thin timbre pierces the ear, and also its instability of pitch doesn’t let you relax and ignores the melody.” The eventual saturation of electronic sounds in pop culture also reflected the Cold War climate in which they were made — air raids sirens and man-made alarms became just as startling as the shrieks and screams of past radio dramas. “I remember as a kid, if the TV glitched, that was really scary,” Kattelman says. “Or when they would go off the air overnight, all of a sudden there was no human presence in that box, and now it was something totally foreign.”

Unlike radio, which needed to produce more descriptive sounds to inspire imagery, horror movies and television embraced their changing, abstract soundscapes. In 1963’s The Birds, Hitchcock stripped his movie of a score, instead using the Trautonium, another microtonal instrument, to distort the various bird calls and create a palpable sense of terror. The same kind of piercing sounds can also be found in 1953’s The Creature From the Black Lagoon, in which bright brassy noises jolt together upon seeing the infamous swamp monster. “Having those really disconcerting, odd screeching sounds,” Lobo says, “it definitely clued you in that what was happening was wrong, that it was supernatural.”

Of course, movie writers and directors still often relied on primal noises to fill out their sound effects, often pulling bottled noises from earlier thrillers. Longtime Hollywood sound designer and wrangler Steve Lee remembers many filmmakers implementing the Fay Wray scream from 1933’s King Kong some three decades after it was released. “She was one of the great screamers of that era, and those screams were in the RKO library and were archived there, used over and over,” he says. “Various screams, not just of people but of animals, have always invoked a very emotional response.

“It all comes down to what makes the story work.”

Primal sounds

Claude Rains as the Invisible Man
The Invisible Man
Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

At the beginning of 1933’s The Invisible Man, the eponymous character wades through dense snow and whistling wind to find shelter at a nearby inn. Upon his opening the front door, the piercing cold rushes inside and quickly stifles the lively bar of drunk patrons. The movie terrified Lee as a child, but the sound of the opening scene left an indelible memory. “I will never forget the wind’s presence,” he says. “It was such a wonderful sound and it was scary because you knew the storm was outside. The music and laughter just stops and you get this screaming wind that’s suddenly like, ‘Uh oh, what’s going down?’”

The scene is a reminder of horror’s unbreakable relationship to sound, and why we keep getting scared by the same distinct noises. As Kattelman suggests, primal sounds penetrate the autonomic nervous system and re-engage our survival instincts, accounting for the goosebumps and chills. “A lot of those instincts are connected directly to our physiology,” she says. “Because we can’t see 360 degrees, we have to be very attuned to sound to keep alert for something threatening.”

The recurrence of these tropes throughout the middle of the century — ranging over the classic Universal horrors to televisions shows such as Scooby-Doo and Star-Trek — has also taken out some of their implicit scares, and, for the genre die-hards, become almost a comforting reassurance. “At a certain point, we end up romancing all the cliches and the tropes,” Lobo says. “It’s not about the artform evolving or giving us anything new, but enjoying the tradition of it all.”

Like the early gothic texts, the first haunting sounds that emerged over the airwaves and into screens remain vital to the genre — and for those still working, like Lee, they continue to inspire. “They fill our imagination and give us the aspirations to be as creative [as possible] when coming up with our own stories,” he says. “I’m always thinking about those [movie] moments and going back and trying to figure out what sounds were used.”