Making your spooky kidlit scenes even scarier with sound effects

1024 577 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

Sensory description is so important in any genre of fiction, but in scary stories it can add a chilling, leave-the-lights-on-tonight-please-mum atmosphere to an otherwise flat scene. In fact, you should write with all your senses; it’s easy to focus on what your characters see, but think what the reader is missing out on. Show us that distant creaking gate your MC hears walking through the park at night, or the floral perfume they can’t get off their clothes, even though they didn’t put any on. In a previous post I talked about describing a graveyard setting in your horror novel using all the senses and today I’m going to widen the setting but focus on just one sense: hearing. So, how do you go about writing spooky sounds in your horror story? How do sound effects translate to the page?

My top tip is to learn from the pros. When I was writing about an abandoned fairground in my middle grade novel, I found an interview with the sound effects team behind horror movie Hereditary. They described in detail how they manufactured the sounds of wind whistling through a dilapidated building, and it was a huge help to me. Here are some other interviews that might help get your brain ticking:

If you’re writing about an eerie silence

The sound of silence in A Quiet Place:

I think audiences aren’t used to that experience. Normally there is a security blanket of music, sound, and loudness that can make them comfortable and lean back in their seats and chomp on their popcorn. They can relax and get lulled into the movie.
By subtracting the sound — finding how quiet we could get, it creates a much more unsettling experience because audiences just aren’t used to that. In real life, the world is noisy and full of sonic stimulus.
There’s hardly a quiet place in the world anymore that you can go to. And normally theaters are the opposite of quiet. So this film created a novel, very different experience that I think was really unsettling for people and made audiences a part of the experience. Just like the characters on screen, the audience was afraid to make a sound in the theater. That’s what we were hoping for, that kind of effect.


If you’re writing a haunted house

Flickers and buzzes in The Haunting of Hill House 

‘I have this really interesting iridescent flicker sound in my library that I created for a movie about six or seven years ago. It has an interesting filament/glassy element too. So that is one of my signature sounds that we used here. I’m a big fan of interesting light buzzes. You can make things buzz and it sounds annoying and not interesting.
For those basement scenes — including the scene in which young Hugh and the groundskeeper Mr. Dudley (Robert Longstreet) are in the basement cleaning up the mold and they’re discussing Olivia’s (Carla Gugino) blueprints — we made some really good decisions about what interesting buzzes we could use and how far we could push keeping them playing through a monologue.
Mr. Dudley’s monologue in the basement was really interesting and we kept the iridescent bulbs buzzing while he was talking. We tried to figure out how long we could sustain those buzzes without being distracting, all the while making it feel uncomfortable through the dialogue.’

And the house as a character in The Orphanage:

‘The house is one more character in the movie and so I needed many sounds to emphasize its personality. My family has a very old house in the mountains, which is completely isolated from civilization.
I went up there one weekend. I was lucky because it wasn’t windy and it was a quiet, misty winter day, so I could record a lot of sounds both from the inside and the outside of the house using a stereo Schoeps microphone and recording on a MacBook Pro with an M-Box Pro running Pro Tools.
I recorded steps from different floors, bangs on the wooden beams, doors slammed from different positions within the house, and glass windows being opened and closed. The creaks I got from the main staircase of the house were edited later into the foley footsteps to get that creaky wood floor of the house.’


If you’re writing a monstrous villain

The voice of a villain in It

‘The sound of Pennywise’s voice truly began with the actor’s performance. Bill Skarsgård experimented with modulating Pennywise’s voice—morphing childlike wonder with animalistic terror. He is one of the most fascinating voice actors I have worked with. As he stepped up to mic on the ADR stage, Skarsgård actually dropped his lip, and his face became Pennywise. On mic he explored the full frequency range of his throat and voice including Tuvan-like throat tones.’


If you’re writing a gory slasher

Snapping bones with the A Sound Effect library:

Take bone breaks, for example. You want to use something crunchy and snapping. For this I’d highly recommend Chinese cabbage or celery. Single leaves or sticks make great bone-snapping sounds when broken fast. When breaking or twisting several sticks or leaves at once it gets really brutal. This is perfect for crushing rib-cage sounds or any kind of dismemberment.


If you’re describing an unsettling landscape

Spooky silence in The Nun

‘When you get to the Abbey, all the life just falls out of the track. The only things that you hear are really nasty bugs and sparse and creepy creatures. Whatever is there, and is alive, is not pleasant. Even though the evil is contained in the Abbey, there’s an aura or halo around it that is infected. The people in town speak about that. When they talk about the Abbey, they spit on the ground to keep the evil spirits away because it’s so bad. No one goes there but Frenchie, and he only goes to the ice-house to deliver supplies every couple months.’

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes