Haunting music scares its way into movies


“Jaws,” “The Exorcist,” “Halloween,” “The Shining” and “Pyscho” have more in common than an intense plot line. Their musical scores are iconic for instilling a sense of frozen fear.

With Halloween right around the corner, it’s the season for scary movies. Part of what makes a thriller so enthralling  is the musical tension created through dissonant chords, menacing beats and screeching strings.

James Pacheco, from Herndon, Va., watched “The Monster Walks,” an old black and white movie, to celebrate the season of spookiness.

“The limited music was such a stark contrast to thriller movies now,” Pacheco said. “Music in these type of films creates suspense and emotional tension that leads to fear and anticipation. You know something is going to happen and you’re kept on your toes, and it’s due wholly to the music.”

“Take ‘Jaws,’ for instance,” Rockwood said. “If you were to watch it without headphones, you wouldn’t be scared at all. The graphics are lame. But when the music is added in, that’s when it gets scary.”

Rockwood feels Halloween is an especially opportune time for social activities. Whether it’s the music at  haunted forests, circuses, houses or in scary movies, enjoying the scare with a mixed group of guys and girls makes the event more fun.

“The scary music that is played this time of year sets the mood,” Rockwood said. “It gets you ready for whatever is coming up ahead. As guys, this is our chance to take on the role of protector and lead the way. Not doing so would be degrading.”

To Rockwood, there is some psychology behind why scary music in movies is so effective.

“The music usually gets me thinking,” Rockwood said. “The more realistic the movie is, the scarier it is to me. When I think of the music, those associated fears with what I was experiencing at the time come back to me. So then it’s natural to attribute the scared feeling to the music, and it becomes even scarier.”

Professor Daniel Blumstein from UCLA did a study on the characteristics of musical scores in scary movies. He found that horror films had a “higher than expected number of abrupt shifts up and down in pitch (which) imitates the screams of frightened animals.”

David Munk from Waupaca, Wis., believes it is this dissonance in the music that makes people uncomfortable.

“You know how some chords just sound good together and offer relief?” Munk asked. “The music in these types of films specifically (doesn’t) go well together to make people want that relief. It makes them nervous and tense.”

While music may be a key contributor to scary movies, Munk feels it is not always necessary.

“A director could get really creative with the lighting, setting and other stuff,” Munk said. “But always having that musical theme, that loud noise leading to the climax, is part of the experience.”

Munk has a self-proclaimed love-hate relationship with scary movies. He loves and hates feeling scared at the same time.

“I think it’s the adrenaline rush that comes from watching those type of movies,” Munk said. “Halloween has become a spooky, scary time, and people just love engaging those fear-enhancing activities.”

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