Why Some Sounds Instantly Scare Us at Halloween

This blog post has been reviewed and approved by a hearing healthcare professional.

Halloween is only a few days away, which means the spooky season is upon us. It is time for well-executed costumes and scary-looking pumpkins, but the creepy sounds of Halloween can truly scare the bejeezus out of us. In fact, you may notice that some people seem extra jumpy of things that wouldn’t bother them at any other time of year.


So, why do some sounds trigger instant fear in us? It is not the sounds that are scary — sounds are just vibrations. It is our brains that are to blame for associating these sounds and the timing of them with a fear response.

It's In Our Biology

Non-linear sounds trigger our emotions and often cause fear. This is because non-linear sounds often contain frequency jumps, non-standard harmonies, and noisy elements that make it particularly difficult to ignore. Have you ever watched the movie Psycho? The shower scene in that film is a great example of non-linear sounds. The changes in frequencies in the music cause us to be fearful or scared of what is going to happen.


Our brains have evolved to understand the abnormality in these sounds, so we instantly know something is wrong or that there’s danger. The most common non-linear sounds in nature are animal cries or screams, something our early ancestors had reason to fear. 

 

Between the inner ear and your muscle tensing that signal only has to travel through five nerves. The whole process is over before the rest of your brain has time to process what happened.1
The Secret Weapon of Horror and Drama

Researchers analyzed more than a hundred soundtracks across four major genres of television and movies: adventure, horror, drama, and war. Non-linear sounds are present in all of these genres, but they are more pronounced in horror and drama.2 Whether it’s a scene where a zombie is just about to attack or a couple is parting ways forever, non-linear sounds make the images even more captivating to the audience.3 Remember the terrifying T-Rex roar from Jurassic Park (1993)? That roar consists of many different animal calls mixed together to sound terrifying, including a baby elephant, a growling tiger, and an alligator.

 

Go ahead and enjoy your scary movie, just remember it isn’t the suspenseful music that is scary, it’s just your brain playing tricks on you!

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1 “Why Do Things Sound Scary?” Be Smart. October 28, 2013. Accessed August 30, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JAym6-h4RE

2 Blumstein, Daniel T., Gregory A. Bryant, Peter Kaye. “Do film soundtracks contain nonlinear analogues to influence emotion?” The Royal Society Publishing. June 13, 2012. Accessed June 10, 2022. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2010.0333

3 Blumstein, Daniel T., Gregory A. Bryant, Peter Kaye. “The sound of arousal in music context-dependent.” The Royal Society Publishing. June 13, 2012. Accessed June 10, 2022. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsbl.2012.0374?rss=1