Sound and fear: silent film in the digital era

picture copyright Universal Studios
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With new developments in digital film, it's easier than ever to create visual horror scenes that play on viewers’ emotions, rather than relying on sound to paint the picture, writes  Alana Doyle.

By Alana Doyle

We’re all aware of how sound scares us.

Make a loud noise in a crowded room, and at least one person will jump. Scream unexpectedly and you can expect someone to stand up, or spill a drink, or even lash out in surprise. We’re conditioned to react to an unexpected threat, and this fact has been a key component of the success of the modern horror picture. From the screams and dull knife-thuds in Psycho (Hitchcock, 1965) to the terrifying crescendo of Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) as the shark closes in – a good auditory accompaniment can be used to turn any seemingly mundane scene into a horrifying spectacle, leaving audiences shaking in their seats.

But this wasn’t always the case; “talking pictures” began to be introduced in the 1910s and -20s, with twenty years of film before them – including a good deal of Gothic Horror, inspired by the successful book genre before it. So sound can’t be a prerequisite for scary if audiences were being scared on-screen well before the introduction of sound – so how did they do it? Why is sound the key component of fear response in modern film? And, given our newfound ability to watch media in public with the sound on mute – does this affect our understanding and enjoyment of a film intended to make noise? Gothic Horror as a film genre has existed for almost as long as the motion picture has. In the late 1890s, short films such as The Haunted Castle (Méliès, 1896) were testing the capabilities of the silent picture and playing with the concept of “scary”, setting the stage for the horror genre we know today. But in silent film, you can’t indicate fear by using a dramatic musical crescendo unless it’s played manually during a showing, which was commonplace, but clearly a separate experience to the film itself. You can’t have your protagonists scream – the audience won’t even hear it (you can show an actor screaming, but without sound as context, you may as well be portraying a terrifying yawn). So what can you do? How do you scare people without making them listen for it?

There are a multitude of ways to help trigger a fear response visually, and early film succeeded in beginning to propel horror into the public consciousness. You can exaggerate facial gestures and actors’ movement. You can use scary props – costumes, weapons, scenery, and use lighting and camera angles to emphasise them. You can exploit the audience’s imagination; feed them a little scare factor visually and their minds will fill in the rest for you. By using visual spectacles like shadows and creepy sets, early filmmakers were able to conjure curiosity and fear in their audiences’ minds and leave them gasping for more. These purely visual arts became less prominent with the widespread adoption of the talking motion picture. Screaming became the new normal fear projector for horror films. “Scream queens” like 1930s actress Fay Wray popped up almost immediately – helpless damsels known for being victimised by whichever horrifying creature popped out of the producers’ minds. This trope has remained much the same ever since; you want to scare someone, you scream, the audience screams with you. This aggressive audience response was even encouraged as a participatory element in some films; 1950s film The Tingler (Castle, 1959), in its poster slogan, encouraged audiences watching the film to “scream if you value your life”.

Following on from the introduction of sound (and screaming), in contrast to the beginnings of gothic horror, films can now almost completely rely on auditory response to titillate their audiences. Rebecca Coyle, in Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema, writes about the ideological opposite to the silent film: the full intertwining of sound and visual effect into film narrative in reference to The Blair Witch Project (Sánchez and Myrick, 1999). The film relies largely on its use of pseudorealistic sound to convey its story; footsteps, banging noises, terrified voices all contribute to, and carry, the audience along with the film’s protagonists (and eventual victims) despite a lack of clear visuals for the majority of the film. Despite the mono-sensory focus of The Blair Witch Project, sound and vision aren’t the only ways to set an audience on edge. The Tingler used vibration in the form of tiny devices stashed inside movie theatre chairs to replicate the sensation of its monster (an evil killer centipede of sorts) attacking, bringing the monster experience off-screen and into the room to connect viewers with the film’s victim in a tactile sense.

One other controversial tactic is debatable in its widespread use and, at the very least, notable for one or two great horror films: infrasound. Technically, infrasound is a blast of sound at a frequency humans aren’t physically able to hear through our ears: 20 Hertz or lower, a very low frequency. This sound frequency, while it can’t be heard, causes an intense physical reaction in those exposed to it; shaking, sweating and typical fear-like symptoms. It is argued that films like Psycho have used infrasound to augment audience reactions; very few admit to the tactic. Modern horror film Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2007) used infrasound to heighten the physical reaction of its audiences while keeping a “natural” feel to the found-footage genre, giving a physical note to the art of fear. Horror has the notable honour of being a fairly consistent genre across the history of film despite changes in trends; the generation of fear always draws audiences, whether it be through scream, shadow or tactile feedback. At this point in time, however, filmmakers face an entirely new challenge: the need to make a film “work” across a multitude of devices. As well as the traditional cinema screen, movies are watched on televisions, computers, tablets and smartphones. A key hook element – tactile sensation or a killer musical score – may not display well or at all to its viewer, who now has the choice of when and how to consume content. Viewers now hold the key to consumption and directors must consider their new, mobile-oriented target market.

According to a report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, in December 2014, twelve per cent of Australians did not use a landline phone or a fixed internet connection, being completely mobile. 21% in total did not have a fixed internet connection. The pool of “mobile only” users has increased dramatically over the previous few years, meaning that media is now consumed anywhere, on smaller, portable screens. A film can’t rely on its ambiance from being played in a shadowy theatre on a big screen; the director can’t guarantee users will see fine screen details or even bother to use volume when watching a film in a public place. In 2003, director Guy Maddin experimented with a silent remake of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (originally brought to film in 1931 by Ted Browning and Karl Freund) to great critical success, with the end result being lauded by Variety’s Deborah Young for its “reinvention of silent film conventions”. The film shows that silence still tells a story, even in the modern horror era of torture porn and horror-comedies, and shows that at least critically, the lost medium can still be adopted for a newer, “always on” audience.

Film with sound is just about one hundred years old at present, and film without is only barely past a century itself. With new developments in digital film, it’s easier than ever to create visual horror scenes that play on viewers’ emotions, rather than relying on sound to paint the picture. And with new viewing practices in play for much of the current generation, content needs to stand up on not just the big screen, but the small, small screen, with sound and without.

Where the horror film genre travels from here in terms of its generation of an emotional response is debatable with the new influx of mobile technology. Are we going to see the return of the silent, evocative actor, exaggerating their faces to sell their emotions? Are subtitles really that offensive to viewers in the commuting age, and will they go on to become visual features again, as they were in silent film? Does anyone really want to see a remake of The Tingler, or should we just borrow the vibration-as-ambiance tactic for a new wave of “tactile horror”? The potential for innovation and reinvention of the genre is huge. Let’s embrace the possibility of being scared in different ways and involve our whole bodies in the art of fear – small screen, big screen, or even no screen at all.