A Northeastern professor reveals the science of scary sounds
Boston Magazine - 10/28/2015
Picture this: A girl walks alone down a long, creaky hallway. The lights are off, her pace is slow, and she’s inching towards the shadows. What sort of music is playing in the background?
Almost without a doubt, it’s the classic “slow build:” a steady increase in discordant sounds. In fact, this trope is present in just about every modern scare scene, says Michael Epstein, a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northeastern University.
“There’s a very small library of sounds that every single major horror film draws from,” he says. “Very precise noises trigger human fear and discomfort, and we just use them over and over again.”
Epstein, who directs Northeastern’s Auditory Modeling and Processing Lab, has been researching human reactions to alarm sounds and film scores for nearly 17 years. A musician himself, he set out to understand how scary movies evoke extreme physiological responses—and found that it’s actually very simple.