3 July 2018

Hereditary: The scare in the sound

Research & analysis
The new American supernatural horror film, Hereditary, has been billed as one of the scariest films not only of the year, but of our time.

Alongside the immersive plot and flawless acting, the music plays a fundamental part in evoking such unnerving emotion – so we’ve explored just how composers Colin Stetson’s conjured the fearsome soundtrack.

Thanks to Jaws and Psycho, we often most associate the horror film with strings – along with other niche instruments including the waterphone, theremin and blaster beam designed to strike fear into our hearts. However, what makes Hereditary so unique, is their subversion of these conventional scores. As Stetson said:

I think the track may be unique in that it utilizes every instrument, from an army of pulsing clarinets to melting trombones and droning bass saxophone

Known for his intense solo albums and involvement with artists like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, the idiosyncratic saxophonist’s use of various instruments undoubtedly challenges audiences’ typical expectations of an eerie horror film. This is especially evident in his surprising use of his signature instrument – a sound most associated with jazz, soul and other upbeat genres. Nevertheless, it could be this very subversion that strengthens the scare, as the audience sinks deep into the unknown.

Looking closely at the track created for the haunted teenage character Charlie, Stetson portrays the girl’s evilness with “a searching urgency”. Using the sound of a thumping heartbeat, one that beats just a little too fast for comfort, the piece immediately places the listener on edge.

In the middle of ‘Charlie’, there’s a moment of serenity that’s creatively contrasted with an overwhelming rumble of terror. This combination of sleek and chilling musical features sets out to – and undeniably succeeds in – conjuring fear, and unsettling its listener even in the absence of the visual.

Part of what makes the soundtrack so successful in its mission to scare is Director Ari Aster’s vision to make the music feel evil, and avoid any conventional melodic elements. Stetson clearly succeeded in that realm. By not attracting attention to the music itself, and rather stitching it to the happenings of the film, it’s kept completely unobtrusive, creating the feeling that it creeps up on you. In fact, Stetson went as far as personifying the scores he used, stating:

I try not to think of it as writing conventional themes for particular characters in the storyline, and more that the score itself was an unseen, additional cast member – another character in the narrative.

This unique technique orchestrates a very sinister atmosphere throughout the film, presenting it as a figure that’s always present, even when there’s complete silence.

The film is said to have had a dramatic impact on the spectator, with audience reports of shortness of breath, crying in fear, and uncontrollable panic – and that’s after the mass number of walkouts. It’s clear to see that music has played such a huge part in this extreme reaction, really showing the extent of its power on an audience. And when this power is harnessed to showcase the identity of a business, it has an equally dramatic impact in a far more positive way.

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