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.