Those Happy Times When Heads Explode: Terrorizing audiences by sonifying the intangible psychic force within science fiction cinema

The following is the final paper and project for EDPX 5000: Sonic Science Fiction at the University of Denver in spring 2013.

“I want you to think of something specific, something that will not breach the security of your organization, and that you’ll not object to having disclosed to this group. Something personal, perhaps,” says the bald man in the suit and glasses.

“Yes, I have something,” responds the volunteer. “Do I need to close my eyes?”

“Doesn’t matter,” responds the man in the suit.

And it begins. The music builds slowly, emerging from silence. The volunteer closes his eyes and cocks his neck, looking as if he is attempting to escape a nightmare. The bald man franticly glances between the spectators in the room and the volunteer to his right. He breathes loudly, as if performing a spectacular physical feat. The spectators in the room grow concerned by the intensity exhibited by the two men. The bald man begins to shake, and his face contracts. The frequency of the tones continues to rise, screeching and screaming, until suddenly the music stops. Immediately, the bald man’s head explodes, spraying blood across the room. His face folds in upon itself and falls forward into his lap.

Scanners: Exploding head

This scene — approximately 10 minutes into the 1981 David Cronenberg film Scanners — marks one of the most frightening moments in science fiction cinema. The film, which explores extra sensory perception and telekinesis, makes heavy use of audio to make tangible the forces that cannot be seen or perhaps heard within the diegetic constraints of cinema. To date, it serves as a pinnacle work that utilizes audio to frighten audiences.

Telepathic and telekinetic power has long been a topic of interest in popular film, as the notion that one may have the ability to read minds and remotely move objects is fascinating. When these powers are used for the betterment of humanity, the result is enchanting. When these powers have a sinister purpose — as they seem to in the vast majority of applicable films — the result is unadulterated terror. As with Scanners, psychic abilities in film are typically accompanied by audio, often abstracted or distorted, that emphasizes the significance of the action displayed on screen. But exactly how much do these psychic scenes rely on audio, and what exactly does the audio provide? Likewise, what are similarities between the psychic sonic elements of science fiction and those of other genres, especially horror? This paper and its accompanying remix explore the answers to these questions, suggesting several hypotheses as well as opportunities for further research. As this paper will demonstrate, frightening audiences by sonifying psychic powers relies on a loud soundtrack with often rising tonalities, sonic abstraction, and awareness of how an audience member is likely to anticipate the events of the film.

Let us begin with a further discussion of the film Scanners, given its heavy sonification of psychic forces to a frightening end. Within the film, the process of “scanning” — the term used to describe the telekinesis and telepathy in the film — is generally slow and methodical, and scanners must concentrate intensely on their tasks. The film features numerous scanning scenes, and each features a tense, building soundtrack, much like that which accompanies the head-explosion sequence.

How should the viewer interpret these sonic constructions? If the sounds are diegetic, are they representative of the sounds emitted by the scanning process, detectable by passive observers (such as the audience members during the head-explosion sequence)? Conversely, could it be that only those who are scanning or being scanned can hear the sounds depicted? Consider the second sequence, in which protagonist Cameron Vale is asked to raise his mental sparring partner’s heart rate. In addition to the rising music, the pitch of the heart beat rises. The tones slowly subside following the conclusion of the scan, falling back to their initial, restful levels. In the third sequence, distorted, telepathic voices overlay the soundtrack, suggesting that what is being heard is in fact diegetic. The scanning also speeds up remarkably near the end of this sequence, substituting a burst for its slow build, demonstrating that scanning can possess great force when performed quickly. The final sequence — the film’s finale — brings back all the sonic elements of scanning, with the slow build, screaming tones, bursts, electronic growls, and orchestral music, providing the greatest evidence that only the orchestral music may be non-diegetic.

Audio is particularly crucial in this sequence in that the sequence is intended to be frightening. As Peter Hutchings writes in The Horror Film, “for all its antecedents in silent cinema, horror is primarily a sound-based medium” (Hutchings, 128). He adds that sound can create, “a particular mood or atmosphere, with the distant howling of wolves, the sinister creaking of doors, and the eerie wind passing through some desolate landscape,” also providing violence in a film without visual stimulus (128). Within this sequence from Scanners, the audio seemingly represents internal violence building up to the explosion, perhaps shredding brain tissue and blood vessels. Sonically, this sequence may be similar to the sequence in The Haunting in which an unseen entity pounds on the walls of the haunted Hill House during the night. Hutchings writes that this sound has no distinct source, and it is possibly emanating from protagonist Eleanor’s mind. He writes,

The Haunting uses a particular type of sound to signify the presence of a dimension that reaches into the space through which the characters move but which at the same time is not whole reducible to or defined by that space. Whether this dimension is of supernatural or psychological nature (or a combination thereof) is provocatively left open for the viewer’s consideration” (131).

The same may be said for this sequence from Scanners, as its sonic source remains shrouded in mystery. Likewise, consider electronic growls in the sequence, as this functions as a mismatch of audio and visual cues. This, Hutchings writes, is a staple of horror films, as he states that such a mismatch,

“clearly offers film-makers opportunities not only to denote the beyondness [sic] or otherness of its monsters but also to dramatise [sic] extreme emotional states — especially that of terror — in ways not bounded by the limitations of any particular performance” (134).

Just as visually keeping a monster out of view leaves its terrifying physical qualities to imagination, these strange sounds suggest a horror invisible to us. The abstract qualities of the audio may render its invisible source more terrifying, as it is no longer limited to that which can be depicted visually. The terror becomes that which cannot be seen.

Next, let us consider Star Wars: A New Hope and “the force,” which represents the telepathic and telekinetic abilities held by the Jedi in the Star Wars universe. The force is seldom intended to frighten audiences, and its frightening sequences occur when antagonist Darth Vader uses his powers to telekinetically choke his insolent subordinates (consider the first segment in the following montage). When the force is intended to provide comfort or awe, the sonic qualities are substantially different.

When Vader uses the force to choke subordinates to death, the accompanying audio subtly climbs, rumbling, almost as if resembling a heartbeat. Could this be the pulsating sound of the force? At other times, no sound or obviously non-diegetic sound accompanies the use of the force. When the force transports voices, the voices are reverberated and disembodied.

The final science fiction film that utilizes audio to frighten audiences that this paper will consider is the 1983 film The Twilight Zone: The Movie, which features updated adaptations of four classic Twilight Zone television episodes, as interpreted by major motion picture directors. The films third tale, “It’s a Good Life,” tells the story of a young boy who has psychic abilities but struggles to control his powers. The boy, Anthony, lures people to his home and keeps them as his eternal company. Whenever his guests misbehave, he uses his powers to a destructive end. In this story, he allows a woman to back into him with a car in a parking lot and receives a ride home in return. He invites the woman for dinner under the guise that it is his birthday.

Given Anthony’s affinity for cartoons, this segment makes heavy use of cartoon sound effects, with the plate overturning with a cosmic zap, the magic sequence barrowing almost exclusively from a retro cartoon soundtrack, and Ethel’s disappearance being highlighted with a plop. The foggy, final sequence is also punctuated with reverberated voices and video, suggesting a dream-like state. The entire segment makes heavy use of juxtaposition to frighten audiences.

To establish these sequences within a larger context, we will compare these films to frightening telepathic and telekinetic sequences from outside science fiction and telepathic and telekinetic sequences that are not intended to be frightening.

First, let us consider the 1980 film The Shining, in which protagonist Jack Torrance works as a hotel caretaker during the wintertime and becomes homicidal toward his confined wife and son. His son, Danny, has telepathic powers, and the film considers the act of using these powers “shining.” The Internet Movie Database classifies The Shining as horror rather than science fiction, likely as the psychic elements only function as a subplot to the larger, murderous plot. Nonetheless, the sonic elements that accompany shining function in a way remarkably similar to Scanners.

The music in the shining scenes grows from near-silence, raising and screeching, almost resembling feedback. The communication moves at a considerably slow pace (especially during the final sequence in the montage), and the audience is only once privy to the telepathic dialogue between Dick Hallorann and young Danny, when Dick asks if he would like some ice cream. All other similar communication is implied within the larger context of the film, including Danny’s ability to detect Dick’s fear of room 237. He may have learned of this information during his conversation with Dick over ice cream, or he may have silently discovered it in a moment not depicted in the film. The dialogue associated with “shining” scenes is also subject to reverberation and distortion, and in the final sequence, the hotel seems to speak itself, with satanic chanting.

Let us also consider Carrie, in which a high school girl with telekinesis becomes violent. Her bursts of power are accompanied by sonic shrieks, almost reminiscent of the audio sequence from the Psycho shower murder scene. In the prom scene, the audio builds in much the same way as Scanners, rising in pitch to build the tension of the scene.

What is interesting to note is that there is not substantial difference in sound design between films that fall into the genre of science fiction and those that tend to fall into the category of general horror. A next step in this investigation may be to compare the psychic sequences in these films to films outside the science fiction and horror genres. (These may include films such as The Gift or Chronicle.)

So what is it that makes certain psychic film sequences — in science fiction or horror, for that matter — more frightening than others? Let us begin by remixing the soundtracks from several of these films to establish a contrast upon which we can base our investigation. Ideally, this will further draw distinctions between the soundtracks of traditional science fiction films and horror film. For the purposes of this exercise, allow us to remix the head explosion sequence from Scanners.

In this series of remixed audio, the head explosion sequence is placed in numerous different contexts, providing implications not only for the context of psychic audio, but for the larger agents of juxtaposition and scene structuring. First, consider the rendition of the head explosion sequence that is entirely absent of sound. This serves as a fundamental piece of evidence suggesting the power of audio within these psychic sequences. The original sequence features very little explicitly diegetic sound (such as the bald man’s gasps and trembling hands striking the table), and by removing the scene’s audio cues, the events depicted on screen become far less frightening. The audio in this sequence arguably provides the film with “added value,” as described by author Michel Chion. Chion defines “added value” in this context as,

“a sensory, informational, semantic, narrative, structural, or expressive value that a sound heard in a scene leads us to project onto the image, so as to create the impression that we see in the image what in reality we are audio-viewing” (Chion, 468).

Chion writes that audio can add value to visuals and that visuals can add value to audio. Just as the absence of audio prevents added value of audio to the visual, the visuals are unable to provide added value to the audio. The visceral contortions and squirming manage to supplement the audio, seemingly creating a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The importance of complementary audio and visual elements becomes especially clear when listening to the original sequence without visuals.

Assigning the Star Wars audio to the head explosion sequence presents difficulty, given the iconic breathing of Darth Vader. Nonetheless, this remix brings up a unique set of questions. How is the scene’s tempo and aesthetic effect different without a sonic payoff with the head explosion? Is the scene as terrifying, or does the juxtaposition of the sound make the sequence more unsettling? The answer to this question is purely subjective and arguably circumstantial, as Star Wars presents its own connotations. Likewise, this questions the differences between the high and low frequencies used within the scene. The audio from Star Wars boasts very deep, rumbling tones. Again, this may be subjective, yet the high tones are perceptively louder, which cause a more violent reaction among spectators. Once sounds reach a certain volume, there emerges a noticeable change in human physiology, as Steve Goodman writes in Sonic Warfare. He writes,

“as soon as volume exceeds 80db, blood pressure rises. The stomach and intestine operate more slowly, the pupils become larger, and the skin gets paler—no matter whether the noise is found pleasant or disruptive, or is not even consciously perceived. . . . Unconsciously we always react to noise like Stone Age beings. At that time a loud noise almost always signified danger” (Goodman, 65).

Additionally, he writes,

“even as adults, the effects of noise, strange tones, and powerful amplitudes in intensifying terror are facts taken for granted. Take the siren, for example. Invented by Seeback in the nineteenth century, ‘The siren broadcasts distress. It is a centrifugal sound designed to scatter people in its path’ by pulsing waves of nonlinguistic command to disperse a population. A siren obviously signifies alarm, but more interestingly here, its very modulation of frequency produces a state of alert that can undermine and override cognition” (66).

Although the human ear may find a tone of a higher frequency to be more offensive, once a tone reaches the threshold of perceptible danger, the frequency of that tone may become less significant. Nonetheless, a rising tonality will almost always build tension.

Next, let us consider the soundtrack to The Twilight Zone: The Movie within this remix. This audio sits surprisingly well, yet its tone makes for a playful, comedic juxtaposition rather than one of fright. Essentially, this remix juxtaposes a juxtaposition (the combination of traditionally innocuous cartoons and horror in the original film). Without the accompaniment of the original visuals, the added value feedback loop cannot take effect, crippling the audio from achieving its original intention. This also leads to questions of audience expectations and priming. What should the viewer expect in watching this sequence? The remixed audio perhaps alerts the viewer to the fact that the combination is not native to the film and that such a change altered the genre of the film. Whether a viewer is primed for a horror film and whether a viewer is familiar with typical horror conventions makes a substantial difference. As Hutchings writes, “the people in the audience most likely to be familiar with the conventions of the startle, and consequently least likely to be affected by it, are the horror fans” (139).

Interestingly, the audio from The Shining bears the closest resemblance to that of the original sequence from Scanners, functioning as a genuinely frightening soundtrack. The beginning of the sequence seemingly resembles the unwinding of the bald man’s mind through the initial application of the scan, while the conclusion of the sequence seemingly resembles the internal scream before the eruption of the head. This reassignment of meaning is natural, writes Chion in Film: A Sound Art. He writes, “the random superimposition of sound and image is familiar to use in real life. What we see and what we hear are neither antagonistic nor blended” (Chion, 230). The Carrie sequence is perhaps the least diegetic of the remixes, with the audio — taken from the film’s prom scene — featuring a combination of human screams, electric zaps, and building frequencies. Like with The Shining, the screams seem present within the man’s mind.

Within this collection of films, there seems to be little difference between the soundtracks of the science fiction and horror films. In fact, many of the science fiction soundtracks become difficult to identify as emanating from the science fiction genre (such as the Twilight Zone portion of the remix, which merely sounds as if it has been taken from a cartoon). The only soundtrack that provides a clear distinction is Carrie, as its soundtrack features substantially more screaming than its counterparts. The electric sounds of this sequence may also be considered to be more within the diegetic constraints of the film. For example, the audio of the final moment of the Carrie portion of the remix comes from the sound of a man being electrocuted during the film’s iconic prom scene. Considering a wider array of films may yield more distinct answers to the differences between how these genres approach psychic powers within films.

There are numerous implications to this remix as well as its aesthetic effects. Most notably, it further illuminates the way in which one perceives the relationship between audio and video. Although some of the remixed soundtracks appear more fitting than others, one can draw various degrees of meaning from the visuals they accompany. One may also be able to hypothesize, based on Chion’s theory of added value, that an audio-visual pairing may be more effective at frightening audiences than audio or visuals alone. (Addressing this hypothesis requires much more research and discussion, which this paper’s scope is unable to address. Audio-only presentations would also require additional consideration of context, as listening requires less direct attention of its audience than viewing. Consider the large-scale negative reaction to War of the Worlds, for example.) Just as the unseen monster can be more frightening than the visible one due to its reliance on imagination, audio can function in much the same way, with audio suggesting extreme emotional states — including those related to extra sensory perception — which are unseen. By this logic, the increased abstraction may also lend itself to increased terror. To be terrifying sonically, the soundtrack must first possess audio that addresses the unseen force. Without such audio, the soundtrack may be rendered innocuous. (Consider Obi-Wan Kenobi’s silent hand-wave signifying his Jedi mind trick, as seen in the Star Wars montage. With audio reflecting his force, the scene may have been frightening.) Furthermore, a soundtrack must be loud, and a rising tonality will increase the tension of a given scene. Also, a viewer’s expectation of a film’s content or the conventions of horror films may make that viewer more or less susceptible to the film’s content. Finally, let us say a few words regarding the use of speech within these scenes. None of the intentionally frightening scenes in the prior remixes incorporated spoken words, limiting human interjection to gasps, moans, screams, and other guttural noises. While this paper is hardly a comprehensive study on this topic, another hypothesis for further research may involve and investigation into whether any degree of coherent speech is incorporated within this type of frightening scene. This paper is by no means a holistic analysis to the topic of frightening psychic sound in science fiction cinema, but rather an introductory survey outlining a broader course of investigation into the topic.

Works cited:

1. Chion , Michel. Film: A Sound Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

2. Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2010. Print.

3. Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2004. Print.

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