Neil Lerner, ed. Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on November 18, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Lerner, Neil, ed. Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear. New York & London: Routledge, 2010.

Reviewed by Aspasia Stephanou, University of Stirling

This collection of twelve essays from scholars of music and film studies is concerned with music in the horror film and its ability to create or intensify fear. The films that are discussed are the usual horror films such as The Exorcist, The Shining, Psycho, The Sixth Sense, The Fog, etc. as well as some classic cult horror such as The Carnival of Souls and The Last House on the Left.

In the first essay “Carnival of Souls and the Organs of Horror” (1-20), Julie Brown discusses the 1962 film Carnival of Souls in relation to its preoccupation with the organ music. The organ, she writes, is “one of the spectral presences in Carnival of Souls, summoning up, or being summoned up by, the various allusions in the film to cinema’s past” (3). The gothic associations to the organ are due to its image as a symbol of religious ponderings, death, the occult, and its location in churches, cathedrals or crypts (5).  Brown then moves on to trace the presence of organ music (and especially the repetition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) in classic gothic horror such as The Phantom of the Opera (1929) , Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and the Hammer film Gorgon (8). Used as genital or phallic symbol, the organ “visualizes and renders audible phallic power” (10). In Carnival of Souls, Mary’s phallic organ playing generates the fear of the castrating female (11). Later in the film, the intrusions of carnival organ music function as ghostly calls that create fear and blur reality and fantasy (14). The character Mary is herself haunted by organ music. The spectralization of the organ music is associated to the idea that the organ itself might be possessed. The carnival organ points to the idea of the uncanny as “an instrument seeming to play itself” (16). The fact that “mechanical organs are themselves also a thing of the past, essentially culturally dead”, is exemplified in the end of the film where the carnival organ music is heard in the deserted pavilion and the zombies dance to the music of death (16). As Brown concludes, ‘[l]ike the Freudian uncanny, the on-screen pipe organ in a horror film looms up as a phantom of the most terrifying and “present” sonic aspect of the spectral form that was silent horror film and the beginnings of horror as a sound film genre’ (17).

The second essay, “Mischief Afoot: Supernatural Horror-comedies and the Diabolus in Musica” written by Janet K. Halfyard, discusses the role of music in the “transformation from the horrifying to the comic” (21). Strategies that are followed in comic horror fims to musically render both fear and humor include the conjuring up of the figure of the devil and the supernatural through the use of organ music and the violin (the idea of the devil as a violinist), as well as the use of the tritone, a higly dissonant interval within the musical system (22-3). Halfyard then proceeds to talk about the devil and the tritone in supernatural horror-comedy by referring to the musical techniques of the master/composer of comic horror scores Danny Elfman (24).

In “The Monster and the Music Box: Children and the Soundtrack of Horror”, Stan Link looks at children and sound as the “very site of the transformation from innocence to obscenity” (38). Children’s voices and songs, lullabies, high musical modernism in a full orchestra, all these manage to convey in film the horrors of innocent children in danger or innocent children as danger (40).  For Link,  ‘the counterpoint of music, child, and horror asks innocent but challenging questions: “How do we hear children?” “What do we hear through them?” ‘ (40). Link looks at films such as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Kubrick’s The Shining (1980),Poltergeist (1982), Jaws (1975), The Omen (1976), The Birds (1963), The Bad Seed (1956) and The Sixth Sense (1999) in order to unveil the horror arising from the use of musical strategies, monstrous children and their presence through music.

Neil Lerner’s “The Strange Case of Rouben Mamoulian’s Sound Stew: The Uncanny Soundtrack in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)” looks at the soundtrack and music in the film as producers of “dread and revulsion” (55) which posit the audience “eye to eye (and ear to heart, as will become clear) with their own mortality” (56). Although it is not clear who made the musical choices in the film, Lerner discusses in depth these choices through the whole film, from Bach, Schumann, Arditi and others, as well as the sound effects and shows how they create an “encounter with the uncanny through its hauntingly familiar sounds” and how they have “opened up the possibilities of the soundtrack for creating fear and dread in the horror film” (73).

In Ross J. Fenimore’s “Voices that Lie Within: The Heard and Unheard in Psycho“, horror is invoked by the phantom voices that haunt the film. Fenimore explains that “the confusion between real and the unreal in film is intimately related to what is heard and unheard” (80). And in Psycho, what creates the illusion of fear “hinges on a fundamental disconnect: who is Mrs. Bates and when will she enter the foreground?” (81). The sound design and score of the film are discussed in the ways they shape the development of events and reveal the fractured subjectivities within it (81).

Joe Tompkins’ “Pop Goes the Horror Score: Left Alone in The Last House on the Left” examines Wes Craven’s film as “one of the first modern horror films to rely extensively on contemporary pop music idioms as part of an original, purposefully composed score” (99). Last House’s mash-up of folk rock and country bluegrass is characteristic of Craven’s novelistic approach to horror film and is a recognisable trademark within American horror film. What is specifically important about his use of these songs is their “audibility” throughout the film which functions as a moral authority, as if speaking from a position of superior knowledge (99). What’s more, the “barefaced audibility of the Last House cues – especially prominent during some of the film’s more gruesome scenes – serves to make us aware of our own voyeuristic involvement” (99).  In this way, the “Last House denies audiences any comfortable or “easy” audio-viewing position from which to consume scenes of traumatic carnage and brutality” (100).

Claire Sisco King’s “Ramblin’ Men and Piano Men: Crises of Music and Masculinity in The Exorcist“, looks at the cultural and ideological  implications of music within The Exorcist. Music, King argues,

reveals traces of historically specific anxieties about the state of American masculinity, which the film constructs as in crisis. Discomfiture about the vulnerability of masculinity’s master narratives…becomes visible (or, more precisely, audible) in the film’s musical moments. Specifically, music might be understood as giving voice to cultural anxieties that The Exorcist, in large part, labors to silence (115).

David J. Code’s “Rehearing The Shining: Musical Undercurrents in the Overlook Hotel”, investigates The Shining‘s score, which, Core observes,

makes abundant use of radically dissonant, sonorously extreme modernist musical languages. In fact, with this film’s renowned selection of pre-existing compositions by Béla Bartók, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki, it is tempting to say that this central musical convention of the horror genre reaches a kind of apogee (133).

K.J. Donnelly’s “Hearing Deep Seated Fears: John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) examines the primal quality of the film’s music. Carpenter’s scores are repetitive and characterised by minimalism. In The Fog, the relentless drones embody the fog. The synthesizers create a sonic and virtual threat and produce effectively the physical embodiment of the threatening presence of the fog (165).

James Buhler’s “Music and the Adult Ideal in A Nightmare on Elm Street” discusses the presence of music in the film’s dream sequences, as well as outside the nightmares which signifies the threatening presence of Freddy (173). The soundtrack specifically, “makes apparent Freddy’s relationship to the adult ideal as a negative image. If the adult world of reality has no music proper to it other than Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March, music suffuses the nightmare world of Freddy; it is a world synthesized and thereby rendered surreal” (180). The synthesizer that represents the nightmare, the failure of the dream of society, creates a surreal sound which reflects Freddy’s changing forms: the abject, erotic or the different genders he performs to seduce his victims (181).

In “The Beauty of Horror: Kilar, Coppola, and Dracula” James Deaville, discusses Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula and the musical compositions written by composer Wojciech Killar. Music in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,

serves as a primary agent in “unbounding” the opulent image, whereby it extends the engagement of audience participation beyond the “mind and eye,” beyond specularity, to incorporate the “ear.” This use of  music results in a type of celluloid Gesamtkunstwerk, in which the diverse aspects of the film conspire to deliver a cinematic experience of beauty that renders the world of the Undead a site of visual and aural pleasure and Dracula himself an appealing all-too-human character (201).

The last essay of the collection, “Quieting the Ghosts in The Sixth Sense and The Others“, written by Lloyd Whitesell, deals with both of the films’ scores in creating “spine-chilling effects” (207). Through the music’s shift from “fear to consolation, and from action to a pacific temporal suspension” (222) these films convey the double vision of surrendering power and illusory ideas and accepting humility as a way to heal psychically. In the finale of these films, music expresses peace and fades away (222).

Although sceptical in the beginning about a book that claims to provide a new outlook in films that have already been analysed by film and cultural studies scholars, I found that the collection does indeed manage successfully to generate some very interesting discussions and offer fresh views on horror films through descriptive analyses of musical scores. I would definitely recommend this to scholars who are interested not only in music, but also in film in general. The close reading of musical passages and scenes from horror films does indeed illuminate the overall meaning of the films, as well as produce new readings which are not obvious without the consideration of music.

There is an interesting interview with Neil Lerner about music and horror at Cinefantastique

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