There exists virtually no form of human fear or anxiety that hasn’t at some point been employed in thrillers or horror movies. From the fear of heights to paranoia and on to people’s various and sundry misgivings about sharks, aliens, and spiders, the film industry has exploited practically every imaginable variant of human fear, packaging it as entertainment. It would seem to be quite the paradox that even though fear is defined as a feeling of horror or of being unable to escape, people will still subject themselves to it voluntarily. Film critic Georg Seeßlen describes this as the search for a “kick”, for a pleasurable stimulus that offers an escape from everyday life—and the route to this kick is frequently via fear. One identifies oneself with the characters on the screen and wants to experience the entire spectrum of unusual situations as well as the feelings, in part quite “wild” ones, that result therefrom. Viewers are afraid even though they’re not themselves affected. And what’s more, there also exists a special type of anxiety that grips not the film heroes and heroines themselves, but rather the viewers. Theorists refer to this as “tension”, which they group into three related levels: surprise, suspense, and mystery.
No matter what variety of fear or anxiety it is, music is an important parameter of its “production”. Such music can either directly support the images and/or the plot, or the reverse could be true, with music being used as a contrast and counterpoint to what’s happening onscreen. This depends on the dramaturgical context that’s in play.
The commercial horror movie genre is quite clearly structured, with a profile all its own: it has its own stars, narrative styles, character types, special effects tradition, production companies, magazines, fans, and distributors … as well as its own musical clichés, which make music for horror movies every bit as unmistakable and easy-to-recognise as the movies themselves.
One interesting aspect here is how films frequently “import” the languages of current musical styles. This was ascertained as early as 1947 by Eisler and Adorno: certain orchestral effects and ways of playing that had been the exclusive reserve of “serious art music” went on to become film music’s “stock in trade”. And as such, they were consciously or subliminally understood and accepted by a very broad audience of people wouldn’t have ever actually set foot in an orchestral concert.
More recently, in a discussion on film music, this point was underlined by composer Howard Shore: “When I think of a horror movie, I think of avant-garde music, because its tools allow one to go as far as it’s at all possible to go.” Film music theorist K. J. Donnelly holds that the experimental and extreme aspects of contemporary classical music are used in popular, commercial genres as a signifier of abnormality, in contrast to how things are in the conventional cinematic world. Furthermore, types of music regarded as “high” art tend to stand for “high” emotional intensity, and indeed, this is true of the extreme emotions on which popular cinema feeds, which—particularly when it comes to fear and terror—it certainly does find in contemporary music.
There are also a number of horror movies that are “embellished” with their very own contemporary musical works. This doesn’t, however make Ligeti or Penderecki horror movie composers—for when one takes a closer look at just how the contemporary classical vocabulary is employed in commercial films, one can recognise two categories above all: shock effects and ambience.
Shock effects include so-called “stings”, which consist in musical “explosions”, accents, clusters, noise-like effects, harsh dissonances, etc. The dosage of such harshness is an important dramaturgical point to ponder, for there are also ways in which dissonances can be softened—such as via their instrumentation.
In connection with such shock effects, one also needs to mention a theory by D. Blumstein: with reference to the shower scene in the Hitchcock thriller Psycho, he writes that music can give rise to fear by mimicking the warning calls and screams of animals in distress: “In situations where they experience fear, animals often make abrupt, distorted sounds. Throughout human beings’ developmental history, such sounds functioned as important alarm signals, and they’ve evidently retained their original effect to this day.” But by the same token, silence can also be employed as a very strong effect.
Ambient music, for its part, attempts to create an atmosphere—ideally an unmistakable one. Such music includes all types of suspenseful ostinatos, sound surfaces, loops, and drones, as well as material that works with linguistic codes and associations: the “mystical”, for example, is often portrayed using musical material associated with rituals and ranging from (pseudo-)ethnic styles to church music.
A relatively new trend, on the other hand, is the attempt to dissolve the boundaries between music and sound design: by employing electronic sounds or expanded compositional techniques, music can be made to seem very much akin to ambient sound. This occasions a subtle shift in a film’s reality, which simultaneously engenders its own strong emotional effect.
What other ways are there for composers to generate fear and anxiety in the context of a film?
There exist quite a few alternative means of doing so that one seldom finds in commercial movies, strategies that demand a good bit of courage and skill not just from the composers, but also from the directors and producers. Among these are dramaturgical decisions to use the music as a contrast and counterpoint to the moving images—creating an additional element of tension between the visual and acoustic levels. In such cases, it’s important to control and shape the tension that results as well as to gauge the interplay between the music and the film’s overall dramaturgy.
A further special way of giving rise to tension—but also shock or even (self-)irony—in film is to use the music as a vehicle that temporarily extracts viewers from the film narrative, affording a look at the filmic medium itself from “the outside” or offering them associations with entirely different things before subsequently returning them to the plot. Films in which such strategies can be found include works by Mara Mattuschka and Jean-Luc Godard.