Why Do Some Sounds Instantly Scare Us?

The spookiest time of the year is just around the corner, which means we’re going to be hearing scary sounds everywhere.

You might think that you’re the kind of person that doesn’t scare too easily, however when it comes to scary sounds you don’t really have much of a choice. It’s all in your biology!

THE SCIENCE OF SOUND AND FEAR

First things first, sounds are not scary, they are just vibrations. Our brains are to blame for the fear they cause. So what transforms these vibrations into something we consider scary?

The answer lies in human evolution. Your brain processes sound information a lot quicker than visual information, which suggests hearing became our first defence mechanism against attack. What do you do when you hear a sudden, unexpected noise? You jump. That startle reflex prepares you for danger as no other stimulus can. Even when you are asleep, your ears are still working and listening out for any potential predators lurking nearby or, as it’s also known, the morning alarm clock.

WHICH SOUNDS SCARE US?

The sounds that affect us most are non-linear sounds. These unsettling sounds have rapidly changing frequencies, non-standard harmonies and are just frightfully noisy. The most common non-linear sounds in nature are animal cries or screams, something our early ancestors had reason to fear. If their brains did not react fast enough and generate the startle reflex, they would have been eaten for breakfast. We evolved to survive.

Hollywood realised this long ago and started using animal sounds to great effect in their movies. Remember the terrifying T-Rex roar from Jurassic Park (1993)? That roar consists of many different animal calls, including a baby elephant, a growling tiger and an alligator. We’ll probably never know what a real T-Rex sounded like but when you hear that sound effect, you know you are in trouble.

It is not just sound effects putting fear in our ears. Whether it is the suspense-filled theme from Jaws or the screeching violins of Psycho, composers can instil fear with just a few simple chords. By maximising non-standard harmonies, as well as changing frequencies, music can create that feeling of terror by playing with the hardwired danger signals in your brain.

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

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