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The Halloween Hearing Special: Why Scary Sounds Scare Us


After a month of meticulous costume-planning, (we hear Miley Cyrus is going to be a popular choice), Halloween has finally arrived. But what if going out to haunted houses or trick-or-treating out in the cold (yes, grown-ups still do it) isn’t your slice of cake? For that, we have scary movies.

We have a challenge for you, though. Naturally, you can enjoy silent films without the hearing aids. You can enjoy any other movie without aids, too, so long as you have captions. What about modern scary movies? Creaking stairs, blood-curdling screams, and, of course, the creepy soundtracks in minor chords make your adrenaline pump, so what happens when you take them away?

Over a year ago, UCLA evolutionary biologist Daniel Blumstein conducted research on the music in scary movies. The results: Hearing those harsh, dissonant sounds of soundtracks in scary movies appeals to our instinctual responses to fear.

In the animal world—particularly in the mammal world, though also in avians—young creatures use what Blumstein calls “nonlinear sounds” to signal their distress to their parents. When conducting the experiment, Blumstein and his partners, Richard Davitian and Peter Kaye, had subjects listen to soundtracks from adventure, dramatic, war, and horror movies. Soundtracks with nonlinear sounds—typically horror movies—correlated with subjects feeling the strongest and most negative emotional reactions. Among all these genres, the researchers also found the use of non-human sounds, which also increased the emotional response.

So, horror movie soundtracks are hugely correlated to the cries of young animals in danger, which is a sound we’re instinctually attuned to hearing. When we watch scary movies and tremble, it’s all in the sound—the music that lingers eerily hours after you’ve finished watching elicits a gut reaction.

Now that we’ve had our science lesson, we’ve included a few clips of soundtracks from 5 scary movies for you. Listen to the soundtrack (one of them is an actual scene!) Once you’re done, try watching the actual movies without the sound and see if Blumstein’s conclusion holds water (Good news: They’re all available on Netflix). Are they scarier? Or are they simply laughable without the sounds and the music? Let us know in the comments.  Have a happy Halloween!

by Andrea Garcia Vargas

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