10 horror tropes in audio that really work
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Written by Eline

Published: May 28, 2024


Last update: July 20, 2024

Tropes in horror movies

The horror genre has some very clear tropes that especially stand out in the movies. Who doesn’t get creeped out by a (ghost) child running across the hall in a classic haunted house movie, so unnaturally fast that you can only catch a glimpse through the door opening? Or the way the superfast zombies in World War Z and the ghouls from Fallout 4 strangely worked better to scare us out of our wits than the traditional slow zombies whining for brains. Fast and jerky movements, when applied to people or creatures, have become one of the most efficient horror tropes in modern horror movies but there are many more.

Who wasn’t fascinated by the dark puddles in Japanese horror movies like Dark Water (2005), or the black lodge in Twin Peaks, (and the black pool in The Beast of the Western Wilds for that matter), because you never know what roams beneath the surface or because it reminds you of a pool of blood. Horror movies also taught us that strands of black hair are more than just any housewife’s nightmare and that killers, in order to be creepy, need to do nothing more than just stand there motionless in the background, like in the 2008 movie, The Strangers. You’ll feel particularly uneasy if the threat is wearing a mask like so many villains from classical horrormovies, such as Michael Myers from Halloween and the murderer from Scream. But every horror movie fan will have to admit that music and sound effects play an important role in scaring the audience. We’ve listed 10 auditive tropes that you will recognize from movies, audio dramas and dramatized audiobooks and that really work.

horror tropes audio - The Strangers

“Not all horror needs to be an onslaught of sound and gore. Luring the viewer into a mystery that turns into a nightmare is the appeal of horror. There is a subtlety and patience that’s required in the storytelling.

~ H.L. Sudler (author of Summerville)

Horror tropes in audio

Before I talk about the audio tropes in horror movies, audio dramas and audiobooks, it’s important to explain two terms our film studies professors often used in their classes, especially during film analysis. Namely, when talking about sound in movies, there are two kinds: diegetic sound and non-diegetic sound. I guess the simplest way to explain the difference is as follows:

  • Diegetic or intra-diegetic sound: sounds you perceive as an audience that the characters hear as well.
  • Non-diegetic or extra-diegetic sound: sounds you perceive as an audience that the characters don’t hear.

An example of the first would be a dripping tap in the room or music being played on the radio. An example of the latter would be the music score or a narrative voice-over. I see no reason why these terms could not apply to dramatized audiobooks and audio dramas as well, since they also apply to narrators in novels.

Sometimes, a director who is very aware of these types of sound, will play with them to misdirect the audience. For example: there could be music in a scene that appears to be supporting the events occuring, but then the camera slowly reveals that the music is, in fact, coming from a speaker in the room.

I’ll come back on these terms later in this article, while I highlight 10 creepy horror tropes in audio.

1) Trickling water

I’ve already mentioned it in some visual horror tropes that have stuck with us from horror movies: dark water. Water remains a mysterious substance. I once went parasailing and I thought the scariest thing about it was actually not the height at all, but slowly getting closer to the black water surface, knowing you would eventually sink into the ocean before swimming to the boat, not knowing what was swimming underneath you. Water has a tendency to get where nothing else can get. That mysterious vibe causes us to, often subconciously, plant it in horror stories, like the sewers and the rain in Stephen King’s IT (2017). Since he’s righteously called the king of horror, I’m certain King’s namedropping is up for at least one sequel in this article.

Trickling water reminds us of so many visual tropes in horror: a dripping or running tap in hauted houses, mysterious sewers, dark puddles that often cast scary reflections, abandoned swimmingpools, silhouettes of murderers in the rain, suicides in the bathtub, lake monsters or scary creatures that wait at the end of the stream, blood, sweat and tears, …

Therefore, the mere sound of trickling water is enough to put us on edge.

dark water - black lodge Twin Peaks

2) Creepy fair or circus music

Since I’ve already mentioned IT, it’s only fair to introduce the creepy fair and circus music at this point, especially when some distortion or doppler effect is added. Turning something innocent and fun associated with childhood into something horrible is a trope that horror writers and directors eagerly embrace. It’s the contrast that makes it so scary.

There are many other examples, besides the adaptations of Stephen King’s IT, where this kind of music makes an important contribution to the atmosphere. There is the 1982 movie The Funhouse, Final Destination 3 (2006) and Willy’s Wonderland (2021).

As an audiovisual trope the fair, or the theme park or carnival, is a popular location for the main character to blend in with the crowd during a chase scene. Therefore, it is also commonly used in action movies or thrillers.

Circus or carnival music also commonly occurs in horror to suggest there is, surprisingly, still some life in a carnival that’s been abandoned for years.

Funhouse movie: fair, carnival, circus trope

3) Children singing

Nothing brings chills to your spine like children singing. Since the dawn of the horror genre, children’s songs have crept into movies and audioplays. Playground songs tend to be most efficient. The Dark Water (2005) trailer featurs the Itsy Bitsy Spider song, which is a very popular choice for horror movies. And you’ll possibly recognize the following countdown rhyme as well, which is often sung:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, 

Catch a tiger by the toe. 

If he hollers, let him go, 

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Children are associated with innocence and honesty and are believed to be closer to the spiritual realm since they tend to be less rational or critical. That’s why children singing about an event that has occured in the past or that will occur in the future, give us the jeepers. The same is true for children’s drawings as a visual trope.

The movie Poltergeist (1982) was able to conjure up the right atmosphere with an eerie opening theme, sung by children.

Perhaps one of the most well-known children’s playground songs is the one from the horror classic A Nightmare on Elmstreet, featuring a teenage Johnny Depp who gets reduced to a fountain of blood in his sleep. That movie and its inferior sequels had me haunted and amused at the same time as a child. Me and one of my childhood best friends used to obsess over it all the time (that and Mario Kart).

We love this audio trope so much that I wrote ‘The Song of the Bogwitch’ for The Beast of the Western Wilds. It’s a song about a creepy legend that children sing in the Western Wilds and that gives the main character, Ludlov, some insight into how to solve the problems of the people of Schnertwald. For our next audiobook, which will be even darker than that one, I wrote another song, this time a traditional playground song that honours Freddy Krueger’s song:

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.

Three, four, Better lock your door.

Five, six, grab your crucifix.

Seven, eight, Gonna stay up late.

Nine, ten, Never sleep again…

Freddy Krueger Playground Song - horror tropes

Another reason why children’s voices are so often used in horror is because they tend to be high-pitched and high-pitched sounds tend to be creepy. Think about the pizzicato sounds that often found their way into the X-Files episodes (especially whenever creepy crawlies were involved) the iconic shower scene music in Psycho (1960), or the unsettling screeching of nails or a blade.

4) Humming man / whistling man

If children’s voices don’t creep you out, then the humming or whistling man will! It was possibly the creepiest element of the recent Five Nights at Freddy’s movie (2023) with Josh Hutcherson. Having an evil murderer sing or hum a recognizable tune, is an efficient way to let your audience know that he’s coming.

The first season of True Detective (2014) worked this trope brilliantly into the detective story starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Murderer Errol Childress makes his presence known by whistling a song that reminds most of ‘Kingdom of Gold’ by Mark Knopfler. Another example is the wolf representing death in the most recent Puss in Boots movie: The Last Wish (2022). He keeps whistling the same tune over and over again, announcing his presence and creating a chilling feeling of anticipation.

In 2022 director Sova Black seems to have created an ode to this trope with his movie The Humming Man. I haven’t watched it and I have no idea what the plot is about, but I’m guessing it involves a humming man.

This concept of the humming man is no more than an example of a noise or sound that forebodes a threat. In this way, it is not different from the ticking noise notifying Captain Hook of the arrival of the crocodile in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953).

Eroll Childress whistling man True Detective horror trope

5) Silence

If noises fail to scare the audience, it’s not hard to jump to the opposite: the complete absence of any sound at all: silence. Stripping a scene or sequence in a movie, a dramatized audiobook or an audio drama of all (background) sound is often a way to build tension. The audience will notice this void in the soundscape and will want to fill it in order to make sense of the events.

A man who truly understood the power of silence, is John Krasinski, the director and co-writer of A Quiet Place (2018). You may know him as the actor who plays the charming Jim Halpert in the American version of The Office (2005-2013) and the title role in the most recent Jack Ryan series (2018-2023) inspired by the novels of Tom Clancy.

Krasinski also directed Part 2 of A Quiet Place, which Domien and I considered a worthy sequel. The story is about a family consisting of a loving father, his pregnant wife, a deaf-mute daughter and two sons, who have to survive an invasion of alien monsters with very sensitive hearing. If you want to learn more about this movie: we talk about it extensively in our latest Podcast about aliens:

[If you want a recap: we can confirm that we think this is one of the best horror movies from the past ten years. This year, A Quiet Place: Day One will come out. It will be an entire movie about the day the invasion started. I’m curious about it, but my expectations aren’t too high, since the story revolves around different characters than the ones we already got to know and love and this sequel will be directed by Michael Sarnoski, although John Krasinski still remains one of the writers.]

The use of silence is especially popular in movies with a postapocalyptic vibe, like World War Z (2013) with Brad Pitt and Bird Box (2018) starring Sandy B (Sandra Bullock).

6) Organic sounds

From the sound of silence we move on to the sounds of the body and other organic sounds, from the classic heavy breathing and increased heartbeat to cracking bones. Who doesn’t remember the sound of the 180° spin of Regan’s head in The Exorcist (1973) or the moment Annie Wilkes breaks Paul Sheldon’s bones in the 1990 movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery starring Kathy Bates. The latter is probably one of his most disturbing novels and to this day, one of my favourite King books.

Organic sounds also occur where intestines are ripped out, when creatures are dissected or, in the case of Alien (1979), when a parasitic extraterrestrial brutally forces itself out of the host’s body. Are you still hungry?

Alien Facehugger - horror sounds

7) Abstract extra-diegetic sounds

Almost all succesful horror productions do this: they add abstract sounds that cannot be heard by the characters. Their only function is to increase the tension or the scare-effect. Of coures, natural sounds are often amplified to reach the same goal, e.g. magnifying the sound of a blazing furnace or naturally creaking door. But with extra-diegetic or non-diegetic sounds, you can make people jump from their seat. A good example is the typical thud to support a jump scare, that often occurs manifold in modern horror trailers, like the trailer of Bloodline Killer (2024), a recent Halloween killer movie that I haven’t watched yet.  

The thud is not caused by anything in the scene; it’s just there to bring about an extra (intense) shock of terror.

8) Mechanical sounds

In contrast to organic sounds, mechanical sounds can be pretty creepy too. Think about the iconic tripod horn in War of the Worlds (2005). Also, in Five Nights at Freddy’s, you can hear the clinging of the cogs and whirring of the gears in the automatons when they walk, warning the audience that they are moving.

Metal and machinery gives us a feeling of unrest, because it often reminds us of complicated mechanisms that we don’t fully understand. Especially when robot-like technology starts displaying human-like behaviour, we get freaked out. As organic beings we also fear the strength of technology. Like scissors beats paper, metal beats flesh in almost every slasher horror. This explains the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) movie, or rather: movies. The buzzing blades of Leatherface’s chainsaw, Freddy Krueger’s knives, the lawnmower in Sinister (2012), the whizzing of the circular saw in the 4th episode of the Amazon Fallout series, … It’s similar to the ominous mechanical sounds that announce the arrival of a synth or dangerous robot in Fallout 4 (2015) and that will find their way in many AI- and robotics-inspired movies and series in the future.

Lucy killed by robot in Fallout series

9) Artificial voices

Artificial voices are creepy as hell, especially if that’s where they come from. Whether it’s Regan from the original Exorcist (1973) movie foul-mouthing the priest or a talking doll like Chucky, Annabelle, or Megan; computer-modified and obvious AI-voices tend to be scary. And I would argue that even the subtle feeling of something a bit unnatural or ‘off’ in a voice can make you anxious, like Ava’s tone in Ex-Machina. It doesn’t matter if the software made the voice higher-pitched or lower-pitched. As soon as we noticed a natural voice has been tempered with, it scares us because it suggests the presence of something inhuman or unnatural.

10) Tempered-with music and sound

Just like we don’t like sound designers to temper with voices, all kinds of distortions in music or sound give us the jitters. Someone singing off key or a record faltering, all things that kind of have an ‘off’ tone are extremely unsettling.

One of the most disturbing examples is the music and chanting in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Stanley Kubrick. Especially the chanting in the mansion scene is bone-chilling. Since obviously some kind of satanic ritual is performed, they recorded chanting in an orthodox church and played this backwards. Nothing radiates creepy like audio played backwards. Then the bare notes played during the mysterious chase scenes, slightly off key, are legendary. This suspenseful masterpiece has inspired many audio and audiovisual projects after its release.

Audio jitters, jeepers and creepers

Thank you for sitting through this article and (re)visiting a number of horror classics. If my blogpost gave you the jitters, then my job is done here. If you’re hungry for more, make sure to listen to the first episode of our fantasy horror story, The Beast of the Western Wilds:

What creeps us out in audio is in fact a good subject for our Storytelling Podcast. We might turn this article into an episode. As soon as we do, we’ll make sure to post it here.

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