Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls… Scary Sounds!

Sound effects in film are powerful emotional triggers. The key jiggling in the lock, the hiss of a piece of paper sliding under the door, and an ominous melody (thank you JAWS) all inspire fear.

Of course this is true in real life and some people — and some fictional characters — are particularly sensitive to the psychological suggestions of sound. I’m going to count myself among them and I’m conscious of how this informs the fears of some of my characters.

The following anecdote is true and slightly embarrassing. I’ll start with the caveat that I had not slept for days and was completely jet lagged and ragged, so I was perfectly prepped for the situation. It’s still a great example of a classic scary sound scenario.

I was in Italy. It was the first morning of a Tango week in Umbria and I was sharing a little apartment in the villa with my friend B.W. The big bedroom had two narrow beds and plenty of room for Tango shoes. The kitchen was fully appointed, so we’d stocked it with ground coffee, milk, fruit, cheese, cookies, wine, etc. the things we’d need for lunch under the trees and pre-dinner toasts with friends.

That first morning, she showed me how to use the Italian coffeepot. As I’m a serious coffee addict and am likely to be the first one awake, I needed to know how to use it. B.W. has a German accent. Her English is fluent, but filled with wonderful auditory eccentricities. She gave me careful instructions on how to use the coffeepot, including the importance of the gurgling sound the brewing coffee would make.

“It’s like that town in Vermont.”


“Burr-ling-ton, burr-ling-ton…. But remember, if you don’t screw the three parts of the pot together properly, it will explode sending hot coffee and grounds flying all over the kitchen.”

She pulled me away from the stove as she said this.

“Burr-ling-ton… burr-ling-ton…. BOO!”

I jumped. (This is a literal description, not a metaphor for the feeling of sudden fright. I actually jumped.) We both dissolved into giggles, still standing in the doorway, waiting to hear the coffeepot tell use it was visiting Vermont.

“BOO!” She did it again. And, again, I jumped and then laughed.

I think about that incident, when I’m trying to find the right scary words for sounds. Oddly enough, the classic BOO worked very well in real life.




  1. Boo is a good word.

    When we saw the mummy (the new one a few years ago), the scarabs really freaked out my kids. We used to scare them by yelling scarab and running our fingers down their backs.

  2. Or boo spelled backwards is oob. Have you seen the condensed version of Shakespeare’s plays? I love the part where they do Hamlet in reverse and the ghost cries, “Oob!” I can’t think of a scary word as much as scary sound. My cousin once scared me by crinkling a butterscotch wrapper when we were sleeping on the two couches in the living room of my grandparents’ cabin. It was a hot July night and the door was open. He kept making the crinkling sound and asked me if I heard Bigfoot out there sneaking around in the woods. To this day, I still think of how scared I was every time I’m over there and have to walk through the the woods at night on my way fro the cabin to my camp trailer.

    • Candy

      I’m going to remember that… OOB!

      Love the story of the crinkling butterscotch wrappers and the writer in me appreciates the detail of BUTTERSCOTCH. It wasn’t just a candy wrapper it was butterscotch.

      I think I’m warming up to Halloween. You? It got washed away by Hurricane Sandy last year. I need some Halloween!!! Candy & Costumes and general scariness! (But no big scary storms, please)

  3. Before moving out here to Warrandyte we lived in a modern-ish rental and the two bedrooms were upstairs. But because this was a modern design, part of the bedrooms were built out over the walkway that led to the front door below. The house was also overhung by about three gum trees. Those gums gave the possums a highway onto the upstairs roof [which was flat, corrugated iron.

    Most of the time the possums would thunder across that roof like a herd of elephants, but every now and then one of them would tip toe across and for some reason it would sound just like someone tiptoeing down the walkway.

    For the first year, my ex actually kept a hammer under the bed. Even after we finally worked out that it was just a stealthy possum, that sound would still wake me up with one of those elevator stomach jerks.

    Thank god the possums stay in the trees out here!

    • Candy

      Fabulous real life scary sounds story!

      I wonder, maybe one day you’ll morph the tip toeing possum into a science fiction creature for one of your novels?