Sonic science fiction project proposal — Those Happy Times When Heads Explode: Terrorizing audiences by sonifying the intangible force within science fiction cinema

In many science fiction films, sound is added to suggest a force unseen. In Star Wars, Darth Vader’s distant death grip using the force is accompanied by ominous, low tones. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, sequences featuring the monolith are accompanied by screaming, tense music. And of course, building feedback leads to an exploding head in Scanners. This project, Those Happy Times When Heads Explode, will explore the practice of frightening audiences by sonifying intangible inner states within science fiction cinema.

The project’s primary objective is to outline a framework and theory regarding how this sonification functions and how it can be used to maximum cinematic effect to frighten audiences. This also involves examining the boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, as this sonification often affects fright and terror through its deliberate blurring of this boundary.

Those Happy Times When Heads Explode will split its efforts between written work and cinema mashup, focusing on several highlighted films and integral literature surround cinema, science fiction, and horror studies. The written work will serve as the primary text and the cinema mashups will function as a supplemental text, providing examples and an avenue for creative exploration. The written work will take a critical approach to the pertinent literature, and the cinema mashup portion of the project will primarily deal with sonic remixing to explore the value this added sound brings. Specifically, the mashup will reassign these sonifications to yield an analysis that would not otherwise be possible

The primary films the project will highlight include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), Scanners (1981), The Thing (1982), Creepshow (1982), and Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988). Each of these films incorporate audio to frighten audiences with a force that is otherwise undetectable. As previously noted, 2001 and Star Wars use audio to suggest unseen power. The Thing uses its audio to complement the fact that the creature at hand can disguise itself in any way it wishes. Creepshow and Killer Klowns use audio motifs in association with select objects to frighten audiences in a campy manner. Of course, Scanners represents the most dramatic use of audio to suggest unseen forces, as the film concerns telekinesis that can turn violent. Audio is frequently used throughout the film to build tension that is alleviated with visual effects. Most of these films fall into the subgenre of science fiction horror, yet 2001 and Star Wars do not. Thus, what will be an interesting topic of discussion within these films is whether a film’s general classification as science fiction horror primes a viewer to being increasingly frightened or less frightened by such audio sequences.

The primary films will also be compared to a variety of secondary films, including the following: science fiction films that utilize horror to suggest an unseen force, but not for the purposes of frightening audiences; traditional horror films that utilize audio to suggest a frightening, unseen force, such as Carrie (1976); and films that could concern an unseen force, but render the force visual rather an aural, such as The Green Mile (1999). Comparing these primary and secondary film will ideally yield insight into what makes certain sequences frightening, but not others, and how the presence of lack of accompanying visuals alter the sonic effect.

The literature this project will rely on will be as follows: Film: A Sound Art (which lays a framework for sonic effects), The Sound of Tomorrow (which provides a historical foundation for the investigation), The Science Fiction Handbook by Keith Booker (which surveys various science fiction subgenres), Science Fiction by Roger Luckhurst (which examines science fiction by decade), and The Horror Film by Peter Hutchings (which will serve as a foundation by which to compare science fiction horror to traditional horror).

As previously stated, the project will explore how sonifying unseen forces is used within science fiction films to frighten audiences. The project will ideally establish a framework and theory as to what constitutes a “frightening” audio sequence in this respect, and what affect a presence or absence of accompanying video may have on the sequences at hand. To situate this research thread within a larger context, this will also involve examining other films within the science fiction and horror genres that utilize sound in similar ways. For the purposes of this course, this project will be hosted on a website, which will allow for multimedia presentation, alternating between the written portion of the work and the supplemental cinema mashups. It is entirely possible that the project may become a topic of more intensive research in the future, in which case the project may need to be adapted into a strictly written work for the purposes of publication. Possible publications through which to publish the work include The New York Review of Science Fiction, Extrapolation, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Studies.

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