What's the scariest sound you've ever heard?
August 16, 2011 8:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm a film editor and am looking to find a sound that will scare anyone and everyone. What is the scariest sound you've ever heard?
posted by blakeinla to Media & Arts (71 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Ominous, building-shaking rumbling is terrifying. The kind that builds to a roar that has no fixed location, or seems to be coming from everywhere at once.
posted by Buffaload at 8:19 AM on August 16, 2011

Well, I dunno if this is universal but I find the death rattle sound that the ghost woman makes in Ju-on terrifying. Of course, maybe it's not scary if you don't associate it with the movie.
posted by dubitable at 8:23 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wordless, angry screeching. It cuts like a goddamn knife into my chest.
posted by griphus at 8:24 AM on August 16, 2011

A crying human baby abruptly silenced.
posted by odinsdream at 8:25 AM on August 16, 2011 [17 favorites]

Raccoons having sex. Not something I ever expected to hear, but man... *shudder*
posted by librarianamy at 8:27 AM on August 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

Human high-pitched screeching. Wordless, contentless. It's the sound of panic. I can think of once or twice I've heard it in my life. It's almost contagious.
posted by penduluum at 8:31 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Bull alligators growling. It was the sound used for the tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park. Something about it touches your lizard brain like nothing else I've ever experienced.
posted by saladin at 8:33 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

There are some unidentified sounds from the oceans, which have been sped up - and the results are pretty scary. The most scary one I find is:


posted by dnc at 8:35 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Cats in heat/having sex can sound like babies; sometimes they can sound like demonic babies.
posted by kimota at 8:36 AM on August 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


Or, as Buffaload said, building structure giving way. One huge loud boom or crash or rumbling that reverberates through your feet.
posted by DisreputableDog at 8:41 AM on August 16, 2011


Seriously. The lack of sound and your imagination can be scarier than any manufactured scream or noise if you do it right.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 8:44 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

The sound of something, a piece of furniture or a child maybe, tipping over and falling, but not followed by the sound of anything hitting the ground.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:46 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

2nding the raccoon thing. I had an issue with that earlier this year as documented in this thread. Check a youtube search for it, and you'll find some damn horrific sounds.
posted by Gilbert at 8:47 AM on August 16, 2011

Air raid sirens
posted by geekchic at 8:47 AM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Many of the sounds listed above wouldn't scare me at all. You're not going to find something that scares every single person ever.

Unintelligible anything is pretty unnerving: whether that's a rustling whisper or a heavy breathing that might have words in it or that death rattle mentioned above.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:47 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, the breathing in this game scared me quite the bit.
posted by griphus at 8:49 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

More generally, try taking an otherwise unremarkable sound effect, like a door closing or something, and cut it off at the "wrong" time.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:50 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

IMO David Lynch is a master sound designer and notably good at the scary stuff. Just go and watch / listen to pretty much any of his stuff (including collaborations with Alan Splet) but especially Mulholland Dr, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 9:01 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Something scratching under your bed. I was trying to fall asleep last night, and every time I would juuuust start drifting off, a faint scratching sound would occur. There's an immediate, lizard-brain reaction when something like that happens. No matter how close to sleep I was, that noise woke me up fully and completely every time. Completely unnerving. I even checked in the kitchen to make sure it wasn't the cat.

For those interested: I kept looking under my bed with a flashlight, but I couldn't see anything. Granted, I do have a lot of stuff stored under my bed, so there are lots of places to hide. The noise kept me up so long that eventually I had to pee again--when I got out of bed and opened the door, my roommate's other cat (the surly one who hates me and NEVER comes in my room) came bolting out through my legs. Problem solved, but that scratching sound made for a really freaky hour.
posted by phunniemee at 9:04 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

W/r/t David Lynch, also make sure you see Eraserhead. I think there's a combined fifteen minutes of dialogue in that film and the rest is amazing and terrifying sound design.
posted by griphus at 9:05 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

The tones used for the Emergency Broadcast/Emergency Alert System are very unsettling, although that might be more for American audiences who associate it with "imminent nuclear death"

Also, have you heard of numbers stations? Creepy as hell. Some of them aren't creepy unless you know that they are radio stations of unknown origin, but the "Faders" station is terrifying even without context. Others include "Pozor" and the backwards music station ...brrrr.

You can listen to samples of them at The Conet Project.
posted by castlebravo at 9:05 AM on August 16, 2011 [15 favorites]

Silence when there should be noise. ie Kids playing in the backyard then you suddenly realize you can't hear them.

Also the really bass frequencies they say elephants talk at. I know they are subsonic but when they alter them so we can hear them that scares the stuffing out of me.

A lamb or goat calling in the distance for its mother can sound like a kid screaming in pain, that hits my monkey brain just so and freaks me out. The sound of any child in real serous distress/pain (not I have an owy on my knee sort of pain, though that isn't nice either) does the same thing. Shoots through all logic to the instinct part of me.
posted by wwax at 9:05 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Distorted human voices. The part in Ringu when the main characters discover a strange noise in the cursed video tape that turns out to be somebody groaning (awkward translation alert) "frolic in brine, goblins be thine" freaks me the fuck out. Like, I was going to look up a clip of this scene for you, but I'm kind of trembling at the thought of having to watch it.

Radio static, with human voices almost discernible, works well too.

And I'll second that throat-gurgling noise from Ju-On. Eesh.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:07 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's almost no such thing as an inherently scary sound, it's all about context. What is this a sound FOR?
posted by aimedwander at 9:11 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

When it comes to air-raid/tornado sirens, the Federal Thunderbolt's minor-third growl can't be beat for inducing pure lizard-brain shivers. It really takes things from "warning" to "a demon-tornado has sprung up from the depths of hell and is coming to eat your kittens!"
posted by penguinicity at 9:11 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mountain lion screams sound disturbingly human and yet unearthly.
posted by Seamus at 9:12 AM on August 16, 2011

Scary sounds are totally normal ones at totally unexpected time, like running footsteps on the stairs when you know you're alone in the house, or children whispering/giggling when no children are there.

i have officially creeped myself out.
posted by elizardbits at 9:12 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Soft sounds/low volume sounds.. going on long enough for your audience to get use to it..with a sudden and loud sound will scare the bejeebus out of just about everyone, I think.

(and I second being creeped out reading this thread)
posted by royalsong at 9:20 AM on August 16, 2011

Infrasound! Low rumbling, especially with a waveform change (triangle to sine slow sweep), is very unnerving, but maybe not as instantly terrifying.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:21 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sound of a television turning on without obvious human involvement. Bonus, though not exactly a sound: when it will not go off, even when unplugged.

I think brown notes/infrasound/rumbling stab a person right in the survival node of the lizard brain. The most recent War of the Worlds remake was kinda stupid, but the noise those goddamn things made was highly effective.

Also that noise in Ju-On. The throat noise. Guh.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:28 AM on August 16, 2011

Baby laughter in the dark.
posted by headspace at 9:31 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Subtlety can be good. Keep it ambiguous, play with your audience's imagination. That low rumble might not be something growling in the dark. Those probably aren't voices you hear whispering behind the static-y white noise.

But you know what? Fuck subtlety. Use the sound of a woman or child weeping: not the demonstrative cries of someone who might want or need to be comforted, but quiet, almost resigned sobs of despair. Someone crying for herself. Mix it quiet, with lots of reverb, so it sounds far away—too far to reach, even if there were anything you could do to help.

And then the crying stops.
posted by Zozo at 9:33 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

These are all great - and the comments about context especially. Noise when there should be none, silence when you expect a noise. The sound is for an unseen alien force.
posted by blakeinla at 9:35 AM on August 16, 2011

I get to be the first person to mention angry wasps?

Remix the sounds so they're not instantly identifiable, and you'll scare the hell out of people--and they won't even know why.
posted by jamjam at 9:35 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Slightly-too-fast, labored, raspy breathing. Especially if it suddenly stops.
posted by kataclysm at 9:39 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

A dying rabbit. I kid you not.
posted by sculpin at 9:50 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I once heard baby cries pitched way down, and it was creepy as hell. Also, breath run backwards can be angstmachen too.
posted by klangklangston at 10:22 AM on August 16, 2011

Sounds that you think are explained, until they're discovered not to be. I'm thinking of two episodes of Dr. Who - the one with the clockwork robots (but if the clock is broken, what is ticking?), and the recording of the empty child on tape - until the tape leader starts flickering around at the end of the reel.

Also, any ambient sound that you get accustomed to, disregard, and then it stops. Crowds suddenly going silent. Waves not breaking on the shore. No more cars, no more airplanes, no more radio transmissions. Someone breathing, until they're not.
posted by cmyk at 10:25 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you ever heard a peacock scream? Maybe only good for one good scare, but if you don't know what it is, it's really easy to believe someone's in dire need of help NOW.
posted by Ys at 10:25 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Angry bees can definitely freak people out. They used that in the background soundtrack of The Exorcist to stress viewers. But really, I think the one thing guaranteed to scare people is a cry of complete mortal terror, especially from a child. A growling Doberman might do it, too.

If I was looking for the sound of an alien force that should scare people silly, I would think about nonsensical rambling, maybe in a child's voice.
posted by Kafkaesque at 10:26 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the sound made by the aliens in War of the Worlds. The movie was pretty dumb, but that sound still haunts me.
posted by msali at 10:33 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was going to say Fisher Cat, but this Tasmanian Devil sounds pretty creepy/alien to me.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:40 AM on August 16, 2011

The people saying David Lynch are exactly right. The scary bits in Mulholland Drive are too much for me, and a huge part of that is the use of sound.
posted by the foreground at 10:55 AM on August 16, 2011

A person screaming and sobbing at the same time. It conveys not just terror, but unbelievable pain.

I heard this on a Sci-Fi channel special on the Blair Witch Project, and it scared me so bad I swore I would never see the movie. (Which sounds like it was a good idea on other grounds.)
posted by cereselle at 11:04 AM on August 16, 2011

Incongruously cheerful or peaceful music during stressful events.
posted by foursentences at 11:35 AM on August 16, 2011

I agree a peacock has a haunting song but when I hear it at the zoo, it doesn't give me the willies. A tiger roar or falcon screech are pretty scary too but again, at the zoo I wouldn't get so much as shiver at the sound.

Footsteps can be pretty damned scary when you are in a house alone. Fingernails on a chalkboard can bring some grown men to their knees.
posted by JJ86 at 11:45 AM on August 16, 2011

A little British boy, asking, "Are you my mummy?"
posted by jbickers at 11:52 AM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I once heard baby cries pitched way down, and it was creepy as hell.

Walter Murch used this technique (though I think he slowed, rather than pitched down, the babies' screams) to give voice to the shadow things in Ghost. Very effective.

For me, though, the scariest single sound is in Jacob's Ladder. Tim Robbins has just woken up from the infamous hospital scene. He's safe and warm, surrounded by family in a cheery, well-lit room, when a voice - deep, inhuman, sourceless, a little louder than the ongoing dialogue - says "dream on."

There's no attendant visual, no explanation; there's not even a cut. Just a violation of reality that only we and Tim Robbins can hear. His face crumples: all his hope is gone, and so is ours.
posted by Iridic at 12:09 PM on August 16, 2011

the cry of a fox - blood curdling -
posted by cactus86 at 12:18 PM on August 16, 2011

A person screaming and sobbing at the same time. It conveys not just terror, but unbelievable pain.

I'll echo that. I'm haunted by the sounds I heard after my neighbor got his foot and ankle crushed by a car.
posted by entropone at 12:22 PM on August 16, 2011

posted by LogicalDash at 12:40 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

A bat making this noise, when you're all alone in your kitchen after midnight.
posted by MsMolly at 1:17 PM on August 16, 2011

posted by DJ Broken Record at 1:18 PM on August 16, 2011

The sound of the dwarf talking backwards in Twin Peaks. (it's like it was coming from hell) I think the feeling is if I could understand what he is saying I could get away or do what he wants so he won't kill me. So the scene would be guy (dwarf preferred) telling me how to escape but he is talking backwards so I will never be able to figure it out and I'll be killed.
posted by cda at 1:50 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

A pig being slaughtered.
posted by AngerBoy at 2:39 PM on August 16, 2011

Damn, someone got numbers stations before me. The one known as the buzzer? Yeah, look that up. Some of those unexplained sounds from the ocean, sped up, would work as well. Even known ones from down deep in the ocean are pretty creepy.
posted by Canageek at 3:05 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd look into constructing sound objects / sound sculptures so it's not one single (therefore recognisable) sound. Using the suggestions from the thread as examples and simplistically speaking: stitch together seamlessly the beginning of the cry of a fox, the middle of raccoons mating and the end of the roar of a mountain lion, pitch down, run through a vocoder with the sound of bees as the modulator or something and underlay with subsonic rumble of elephant talk. Bingo.
posted by yoHighness at 3:39 PM on August 16, 2011

No shit, an angry koala. Listen from about :47.
posted by holterbarbour at 4:09 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ugh. Agree 100% with air raid sirens. Talk about the lizardbrain of modernity.
posted by threeants at 7:43 PM on August 16, 2011

Stone curlews. There's a link there, listen to the end. I had nightmares for years from those bloody things. Thought women were being murdered all around me.
posted by b33j at 9:32 PM on August 16, 2011

Me and a friend at a campfire in a dark woods. Laughing, enjoying ourselves, having a great time, ...

A scream right there. Right there on the other side of the campfire, somewhere just outside the firelight, somewhere in the dark in front of us, so close that someone or something could have leapt across the fire out of the dark and been on us in seconds, but we were too blinded by the firelight to see who or what it was or to see our way back out of the woods in the dark. We ran into a few trees.
posted by pracowity at 1:51 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I thought of this immediately.
posted by pianomover at 8:48 AM on August 17, 2011

A couple years ago a guy on the subway started speaking in tongues suddenly and very loudly. We were the only two people on that car and it really scared me. It was a combination of being shocked out of my own daydream and the sound itself--which to me does not sound sane. Because this escalated in volume and intensity, I also felt unsafe. Because it was on the train, I felt trapped.
posted by marimeko at 2:16 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ever listen to a group of lions roaring in unison?
posted by corn_bread at 3:31 PM on August 17, 2011

redrum redrum redrum
posted by IZ at 2:02 AM on August 18, 2011


Not the scariest but it damn ominous.

I recall babies' cries played backward are used in military sound weapons (possibly a myth, I admit).
posted by chairface at 2:19 PM on August 18, 2011

I can't believe I didn't mention video game creepiness.

Check out Hammer Haunts in Thief. And the monster attack sound in Amnesia.
posted by chairface at 2:34 PM on August 18, 2011

The creepiest sound to me is the mysterious or intrusive transmission or recording. Once when I was a little kid, I was listening to the radio and it picked up some random CB frequency for a moment. All of my hair stood on end and I ran from the room screaming. I thought the devil was in my speakers.
Back in the days of non-cordless telephones, I had a slowed down, warped recording of the "if you would like to make a call" recording cut in in the middle of a conversation and it wouldn't stop until I hung up and called my friend back. THAT was some seriously messed up s**t right there, especially because I was a kid alone after dark (it was only like 5pm, but it was winter in the Northwest).
The "transmission from the future" in the movie "Prince of Darkness" had a similar effect on me.
As has been mention, numbers stations are reeeeallly creepy to me as well.
posted by evilcupcakes at 6:35 PM on August 19, 2011

Thought of another one.

The sound of people pleading out of fear or terror really bothers me. The scene in Casino where Sharon Stone od's and all you hear is her saying "oh no!" in that desperate voice before she staggers out in the hall to die makes my blood run cold. It's that horrible moment of realization that something fatal and IRREVERSIBLE has just happened. Any death scene where someone asks for "mommy" is pretty gruesome too. I work in a hospital, I have seen this in real life when people are hurt or dying, and it is gut wrenching.
posted by evilcupcakes at 7:07 PM on August 19, 2011

I've got two: audible but incomprehensible whispering like here.

Then there's unidentified sea noises.
posted by litleozy at 3:38 AM on August 22, 2011

Thanks everyone!! This is going to keep me busy for days!

posted by blakeinla at 1:21 PM on August 23, 2011

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