Created By: Generality on April 20, 2011 Last Edited By: Generality on August 27, 2011

Unsettling Background Noise

What interesting BGM- was that the sound of puppies cringing?

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So, you want to create a disturbing soundscape for a horror work that will properly unnerve the audience? Well, you could take the obvious route and put in dissonant chords, inhumanly deep organ music and Ominous Latin Chanting. Or you could try something more subtle.

Certain distressing sounds, most often screams, sobs, and creepy laughter, played near the threshold of hearing, can subconciously set the audience on edge, making them feel that something is wrong, even if they can't place the source. To partially mask the noise, it will often be covered by loud background music of a more benign nature.

The sound can become a Meaningful Background Event if it is diegetic, having an actual source somewhere in the story. Similarly, Fridge Horror can result if an ordinary noise results from a something scary.

Sub-Trope of Hell Is That Noise.


Examples:

  • The Joker's theme in The Dark Knight is no more than a few violin strings being tortured for several minutes. It can be generally unsettling before it reaches the volume level that it resembles music.
  • Milla's mental space in Psychonauts is a huge dance club, with appropriately catchy music... except for the insistent whispering audible in the upper areas. You can find Milla's Nightmare Room where the sound originates, and it's even creepier.
  • The Diablo games do this to a limited extent, mostly in levels set in Hell, where you can hear the wailing of the damned. Creepy laughs and other, unplaceable sounds can be heard in other areas.
    • The only problem is, there wasn't any dissonance between the creepy music in a creepy setting fighting creepy monsters as a creepy necromancer, and the creepy "EEE!" in the Background music that was supposed to make you jump.
  • The Asylum in Shadowman is full of this. One area even mixes up the sounds of children crying, dental drills whirring, and dogs barking, to make the player wonder just what the hell goes on here.
Community Feedback Replies: 24
  • April 21, 2011
    Generality
    Strike one.
  • April 22, 2011
    Generality
    Two. Nobody has any thoughts?
  • April 22, 2011
    BlackDragon
    In the first Dead Space, you find a large room filled with Unitologists who've committed ritual suicide. It's rather eerie, and remarkably short on actual Necromorphs to kill, which just makes it worse. And... what's the funny noise? It's so faint you can barely hear it, but it sounds like... singing...

    ...basically, it's a rather faint version of the Ominous Music Box Tune version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" from the trailer. In that particular atmosphere, surrounded by corpses, each with a head covered with bandages and a rather noticeable red spot on each of them, lit by hundreds of candles... it's quite effective.
  • April 22, 2011
    Speedball
    This is worthy of a trope, I think, it's just that so many entries are covered under Hell Is That Noise already....
  • April 22, 2011
    Generality
    It is a subtrope of Hell Is That Noise, but with, I think, a very key difference, namely that it is less subjective. These are cases where a noise is placed deliberately to be scary, and so should be manageable as a trope, whereas the other, being subjective, is a bit disorganised and random.
  • May 4, 2011
    Generality
    Alright. Any more thoughts?
  • May 4, 2011
    Reflextion
  • May 4, 2011
    Pickly
    • Guild Wars: The Realm of Torment has regular rumbles in some sections.
  • May 4, 2011
    NESBoy
    About the spoilered part in the Psychonauts example, if you forgive my rudeness: why must certain people insist in outdated Pot Holes to Renamed Tropes? Honestly, replace the word "Unleaded" with the words "High Octane" and move them two words up, if you know what I mean.
  • May 5, 2011
    Generality
    In this case, it's because I have a hard time remembering which title is "correct" at a particular moment, and am not inclined to check since I know they both go to the same page.
  • August 13, 2011
    Generality
    So hey, does anyone still think this is a viable trope?
  • August 18, 2011
    Generality
    Guess not. I'll give it one more chance though.
  • August 18, 2011
    NoirGrimoir
  • August 18, 2011
    jaytee
    I think it's pretty well covered by Hell Is That Noise. I remember a nearly identical YKTTW from not too long ago and I believe we decided the same (or it just kind of fizzled... either way).

    I saw your arguments as to why it's different, but I still don't quite see the point in splitting yet. If you think Hell Is That Noise is too messy and subjective, try workshopping it in the Trope Repair Shop first.
  • August 18, 2011
    Technicolor2001
    Parodied and lampshaded quite notably in Sponge Square Pants, in which Mr.Krabs tries to fish out his millionth dollar, and he senses impending danger because he can hear the BGM playing the song Dangerous A. Didn't really help him though
  • August 18, 2011
    Koncur
    It may be hard to pin down some of these noises specifically, since they usually play in the background of the soundtrack. Like sometimes they play the sound of bees buzzing very low to make the audience subconsciously feel unnerved. A few years ago I went through the files of Doom 3 and found a whole pile of various unnerving sounds, most of which a player wouldn't really even notice is playing, just adding to the hellish ambiance of the game. One of which was actually the sound of a cat's meow slowed down.
  • August 18, 2011
    CommanderPanda
  • August 18, 2011
    Generality
    I just want a general consensus. Is this worthy to be a separate trope or not?
  • August 18, 2011
    CommanderPanda
    ^ In my opinion, it's too soon to tell. They do occupy similar mental territory, but with a good name, description, and examples, I feel this could be explored to the point that it becomes strong enough to stand on its own.
  • August 19, 2011
    Generality
    Koncur, your Doom 3 example demonstrates well how this trope works: by placing a subtle noise in the background, especially an unusual or distorted one, the audience tends to become nervous without understanding why. Putting the sounds in is a deliberate attempt by the creators to achieve this effect, which is why this trope is less subjective than Hell Is That Noise. On the other hand, because the sounds are so subtle, it will be hard to find examples...
  • August 19, 2011
    jaytee
    So this is a more subliminal effect than Hell Is That Noise?
  • August 19, 2011
    CommanderPanda
    I read it as intentionally Hell Is That Noise. Maybe the movie has a piano theme... but partway through they record nails on a chalkboard.

    As a tool, this trope is used to paint the mood, intentionally create Mood Whiplash, and unnerve the viewer.
  • August 21, 2011
    CommanderPanda
    I think Diablo 2 tried to do this too. The only problem is, there wasn't any dissonance between the creepy music in a creepy setting fighting creepy monsters as a creepy necromancer, and the creepy "EEE!" in the Background music that was supposed to make you jump.
  • August 27, 2011
    terrafox
    Diablo2 actually does this with the monsters. When you get close enough for the game to spawn some, it will generate low-volume sounds unique to each monster type. Giant Spiders have a clickety, "leg-scuttling" sound; many of the large beasts have a subdued, "heavy-breathing" sound effect and skeletons have a "boney-rattling" sound.
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