Terrifying tracks for Halloween

With Halloween approaching, the music research experts, Entertainment Media Research have identified which songs people find most frightening. 

In order to simulate appropriate atmosphere listeners were asked to imagine how they would feel if they were alone at home on a dark night and heard each piece of music.

The clear winner is Black Angels by the legendary American composer George Crumb. More than one in four of all people found this track terrifying but amongst the under 35s this rose to 54%. The work was written in 1970 and the first section which is called Night of the Electric Insects was composed in honour of Crumb’s students called to fight in Vietnam. The piece was intended to be played in near darkness by four musicians. Although never used in a mainstream movie it clearly has a tremendous power to conjure imagery.

Click here to listen to Black Angels

Here is what one listener said: “I almost feel ill listening to this, like I have been buried alive and maggots are crawling through me. I just can't hear this again.”

The second most frightening music was Cursed Realms of Winterdemons by Sunn O))). The band is an American experimental outfit from Seattle renowned for its synthesis of genres including drone, ambient, noise, doom and black metal. The sound is very slow and heavy with prominent electric guitars in low tunings such as drop A, combined with feedback to create dark soundscapes. There is little drumming and the music therefore has no discernible beat. When performing live the band often wear 'grim robes', fill the air with fog, and play extremely loud.

Click here to listen to Cursed Realms 

The soundtrack to the movie Jaws came third; 1 in 6 of all people find it terrifying and 1 in 4 under the age of 35. According to Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, John William’s score was “clearly responsible for at least half the success of the movie”. 

What in particular distinguishes the score is the simple “thump thump” theme which cleverly matches the primitive horror of the shark while the ingenious contrast in volume and timbre is used to match the heart rate of the shark conditioning the viewer to its impending arrival. The theme increases in pace and volume as the shark’s excitement rises and then inflicts an unforgettable and disorientating shock when the shark appears out of silence. Clearly what is remarkable about the music 30 years after its release is the visceral effect it still has upon listeners even though the associated mental image is situation-specific and the model evidently fake!.

Click here to listen to the soundtrack to Jaws

Music is highly effective in inducing fear and has long been used to amplify the feeling of suspense which explains the large number of film-related tracks in the top 10.

Brian Kelly from music branding agency Soundlounge explains: “Music that is designed to scare us has predominantly stemmed from horror film soundtracks. They temporarily subvert our emotions, by creating a sense of fear and discomfort.

“You cannot separate a horror film from its soundtrack. If you do, you are often left with images that do little to frighten the viewer. However if you remove the music from a horror film and listen to it in isolation, it can conjure-up new visual images and trigger memories of the film”.

If that is true then how come there are a number of tracks in the top 10 that do not owe their familiarity to a movie? Composers and film directors have trained us well - pieces of music that have no association with a film, but still elicit a frightening emotional response, follow closely a horror soundtrack template of: noise, sudden changes in frequency, synthesized voices, cold environments and general sonic discomfort.

Table 1: All respondents

 

% Absolutely terrified / Very frightened

% Agree song sends a chill down spine

% Associate song with film/TV

Black Angels – George Crumb

28%

51%

21%

Cursed Realms of Winterdemons – Sunn O)))

23%

45%

10%

Jaws – John Williams

17%

50%

67%

Nightmare on Elm Street – Charles Bernstein

15%

44%

13%

Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield

14%

38%

68%

The Omen – Jerry Goldsmith

13%

40%

30%

Crux – Broken Note

13%

32%

7%

Commuted (Part 2) – Khanate

12%

25%

6%

Phantom of The Opera – Andrew Lloyd Webber

12%

35%

66%

Come To Daddy – Aphex Twin

11%

26%

7%

 

Table 2: Male respondents

 

% Absolutely terrified / Very frightened

% Agree song sends a chill down spine

% Associate song with film/TV

Black Angels - George Crumb

23 %

44 %

27 %

Cursed Realms of Winterdemons - Sunn O))))

22 %

42 %

16 %

Jaws Theme - John Williams

17 %

48 %

70 %

Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield

14 %

33 %

70 %

Phantom of The Opera - Andrew Lloyd Webber

10 %

29 %

62 %

Come To Daddy - Aphex Twin

10 %

25 %

9 %

Nightmare on Elm Street - Charles Bernstein

10 %

35 %

13 %

A Night on the Bare Mountain - Mussorgsky

9 %

31 %

51 %

Crux - Broken Note

9 %

23 %

11 %

Commuted (Part 2) -Khanate

8 %

21 %

10 %

 

Table 3: Female respondents

 

% Absolutely terrified / Very frightened

% Agree song sends a chill down spine

% Associate song with film/TV

Black Angels - George Crumb

33 %

59 %

14 %

Cursed Realms of Winterdemons - Sunn O))))

24 %

47 %

4 %

Nightmare on Elm Street - Charles Bernstein

21 %

52 %

13 %

The Omen - Jerry Goldsmith

19 %

40 %

21 %

Jaws Theme - John Williams

18 %

53 %

65 %

Chucky Theme - Don Mancini

17 %

38 %

7 %

Commuted (Part 2) - Khanate

17 %

30 %

2 %

Crux - Broken Note

16 %

41 %

3 %

Phantom of The Opera - Andrew Lloyd Webber

14 %

40 %

70 %

Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield

14 %

43 %

66 %

Notes about the Research:

The research was conducted in September 2010 amongst a sample of consumers aged 13 to 59.

After an initial qualitative screening, 40 songs were selected for quantitative testing conducted online.

Additional information