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Hear the tolling of the bells Iron bells! What a world of solemn thought their monody compels! In the silence of the night, How we shiver with affright At the melancholy menace of their tone!
A single, plaintive church bell, given its time to fade away in an appropriately haunting manner. It's a way to add ominous portent to any soundtrack, and it's commonly used to evoke death, or execution, to punctuate a particularly grim turn of events, or just to lay on the creepy atmosphere.
Generally speaking, the bells are a disembodied part of the soundtrack, but occasionally, they are an on-stage article.
Combine this with the Ominous Pipe Organ
, Orchestral Bombing
, and/or some Ominous Latin Chanting
for particularly epic villainy
If used in-Universe and not as part of the soundtrack, this is a type of Portent of Doom
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Commercials and Film Trailers
- A very morbid radio Public Service Announcement has a school bell ringer slow down and crossfade into the sound of a church bell as the announcer compares the number of children killed by AIDS to the number of schoolchildren in America.
- The trailer for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
- The trailer for the remake of 3:10 to Yuma used the train bell to make it seem more like it should be a ghost train, rather than the Prison Train.
- Inverted in Damnatus, where the bell appears on screen but is not part of the soundtrack (Orchestral Bombing being in effect at the time). Though in this case it's not a church bell but a small hand-bell wielded by a doom prophet who is presumably raging against the heavens as the Inquisition nukes his planet.
- Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Bells".
- Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series has an actual Death Bell in the capital city, which rings itself whenever a Herald dies. When it rings, all Heralds within earshot immediately know for whom it tolls. For momentous deaths, Heralds not within normal earshot can hear it, too. Because it transmits over a combined magic/psychic web which connects them.
- John Donne's Meditation #17 provides the inspiration for this trope's title.
- The Dorothy L Sayers novel The Nine Tailors is named for a church's bells. The plot involves a group of men "ringing a full peal" on the bells; a task that takes them nearly a full day. Guess where the murder victim is found. And how he died.
- The bell Digory just has to ring in The Magician's Nephew.
- The Vampire Chronicles: Lestat has a tendency to say "Hell's Bells", apropos absolutely nothing, whenever the situation is getting bad. Particularly in "Queen of the Damned".
- The Bellman is the main character in The Hunting of the Snark, and his bell rings ominously at appropriate points throughout the poem.
- In Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the climactic confrontation with the Storm King atop Green Angel Tower is heralded by a series of piercing phantom bell strokes, marking the progress of the ritual that summons him back into Osten Ard.
- In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the bells in the cathedral tower are the only things Quasimodo are really able to hear. They give him comfort, but the story has a real Downer Ending.
- Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls does not actually contain any literal bells tolling in the manner of this trope, but the title is from the same line in the Trope Namer poem by John Donne and touches on the idea thematically.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, the bells in King's Landing toll when king Robert dies, then not much later when Ned Stark is executed. For doom, indeed.
- In A Christmas Carol, each ghost arrives at the tolling of the hour bell.
- In Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, the abbreviated funeral rites instituted for the Black Death require that the church bell be tolled after each burial: nine times for a man, thrice for a woman and once for a child. Professor Dunworthy finally finds Kivrin while she is tolling the bell for Father Roche.
Live Action TV
- The demise of dungeoneers on the children's game show Knightmare was met with two tolls of the bell. And inevitably an "Ooh, nasty!" from the host.
- In Farscape, this is part of the extremely moving death scene of one of the two John Crichtons.
- The "Cloister Bell" from Doctor Who, heard only when the TARDIS is on a collision course or when the whole universe is threatened. This first features in Logopolis (the last Fourth Doctor story) and can also be heard during The Trial of a Time Lord, The Sound of Drums (collision course), "Turn Left" (armageddon), and "Time Crash" (collision course).
- Also at the end of "The Waters of Mars" and the trailer for "The End of Time" that follows.
- And "The Eleventh Hour" (TARDIS seriously damaged).
- It also appears in "The God Complex", when the Doctor sees inside the room holding his greatest fear but the audience only sees his reaction.
- Narmfully applied in Heroes in one of Sylar's Heel-Face Revolving Door schemes.
- One was added to the normal theme tune of QI for the "Gothic" episode.
- Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined): As Galen Tyrol wanders through the ruins of Earth, he is flooded by the sounds of a phantom city, triggered by the memories of his previous life. These sounds, including a tolling bell, eventually lead him to the spot where he died.
- The first shot of Caprica City we see in the Miniseries also has the sound of a bell in the background.
- AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" is a popular choice of entrance music for MLB closers.
- Metallica: "For Whom The Bell Tolls", a.k.a. the Trope Namer twice removed (got it from Ernest Hemingway who got it from "John Donne" above).
- Iron Maiden: "Hallowed Be Thy Name"
- Black Sabbath fan. The refrain of bells in "Black Sabbath", when combined with the subject matter, doom-laden riff and Ozzy's screams, is brutally effective.
- Daft Punk's "Aerodynamic" track starts and ends with some of these, and in the Animated Music Video directed by Leiji Matsumoto this coincides with the abduction of the band from their homeworld.
- Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" uses two bells, but they definitely make an ominous sound, especially when the "Dies Irae" theme comes in over them.
- "Don't Go in the Woods" by Calibretto begins with a single bell toll.
- Mike Oldfield's magnum opus Tubular Bells cools down near the end with the sound of a distant tolling bell, setting the piece up for its climax.
- The very end of the Paul McCartney song "From a Lover to a Friend" contains a church bell tolling softly three times. So softly, it's easy to miss.
- This trope is the third member of (mostly) instrumental Goth band Nox Arcana's Holy Trinity of Horror Sound Effects, along with Ominous Latin Chanting and Ironic Nursery Tune, though the music manages to be sublime rather than formulaic:
- Darklore Manor uses For Doom the Bell Tolls in several of its tracks, most notably the title cut (which also includes Ominous Latin Chanting) and "Phantom Procession."
- Winter's Knight, set in a Gothic cathedral, almost necessarily makes use of this trope in "Vigil," "Ghosts of Christmas Past," "Gregorian Hymn," "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel," and "Carol of the Bells."
- Transylvania includes the self-explanatory "Bats in the Belfry" and the even more bell-heavy "Gothic Sanctum."
- Blood of the Dragon, while not a horror album, uses tolling bells to depict the evil army in "Legions of Darkness."
- Death knells, among other things, chime in during the last track of Shadow of the Raven, and there are even more if you listen long enough after the false ending.
- The song "High Hopes" by Pink Floyd ends with a melancholy church bell, possibly symbolizing the end of the band's recording career. On the compilation Echoes the church bells segues into a bicycle bell and then into Syd Barrett's upbeat psychedelic song "Bike".
- From "Breathe"'s reprise in "Time":
"Far away, across the fields
Tolling on the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell..."
- "Cygnus X-1" by Rush (a song about flying into a black hole) begins with the low ringing of a bell.
- "From the Underworld" by The Herd (based on the legend of Orpheus) begins with a bell tolling.
- Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend".
- Men At Work's "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive".
- The Rolling Stones' "The Lantern".
- John Lennon's album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band begins with the tolling of a bell at the beginning of the song "Mother". His final album Double Fantasy references this by opening with a higher, more optimistic bell at the start of "(Just Like) Starting Over".
- Eminem's "What I Am" (warning explicit lyrics; also turn up your volume)
- The Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm".
- Benjamin Britten's War Requiem uses two bells tuned a tritone apart.
- Used at the end of The Fighting Machine in Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.
- "Haunted" by Disturbed at the beginning and "Serpentine" during the bridge.
- Three of Dmitry Shostakovich's symphonies use bells to great effect.
- His 11th, inspired by the events of the 1905 massacre in the Palace Square of St. Petersburg, ends with an angry march symbolizing the people's anger and resolve in response to the end. The movement is titled "The Alarm" and ends in a furry with terrifyingly loud bells ringing over the orchestra.
- In his 13th symphony, a work for a huge orchestra with a chorus of 150 or so bass voices singing in unison, the 1st movement uses a somber bell throughout to toll for the victims killed in the massacre at Babi Yar during WWII.
- His 14th symphony, a very strange work for a small collection of strings, percussion, and two voices — and is a setting of a collection of 11 poems about death — uses bells at a handful of very disturbing climaxes. The silence that they fade into is awfully uncomfortable. Needless to say, Shostakovich was not a happy man towards the end of his life, this mainly being a response to Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.
- In The Protomen's Act II, the end of the Father of Death has a repeating gong hit symbolizing Emily's death.
- In the title track and first single from Avenged Sevenfold's album Nightmare, we get a tolling bell directly after the end of the first chorus, as the music comes back in hard for the instrumental section and in the bridge before the third chorus. And they're definitely for doom, as the song is more or less whoever the narrator is telling the subject of the lyrics how he screwed up and is doomed for being evil. Oh, and how IT'S YOUR FUCKIN' NIGHTMARE!
- Night On Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky invokes this trope. Near the end, the loud, ominous music is interrupted by a single tolling church bell, winding down into a soft finish for the song. In the Fantasia segment, the church bell prompts the retreat of Chernabog the Dark God and his ghouls; the bell denotes his doom. Mussorgsky himself intended the ringing of the church bell as breaking up the witches' sabbat described by the piece; witches and evil spirits traditionally could not bear the sound of consecrated bells.
- The 1993 Trance song 'Dreams' from Quench makes good use of this trope.
- Dream Theater's The Glass Prison starts with a single bell tolling before an extremely heavy riff kicks in. The song is about drummer Mike Portnoy's alcoholism.
- Coil's re-interpretation of Tainted Love.
- Combined with Ominous Latin Chanting during the musical bridge of Enya's rendition of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, for peak creepy effect.
- The beginning of Anthrax's "The Giant" has some rather ominous sounding bells.
- Emperor's "Warriors Of A Modern Death"
- Horde's A Church Bell Tolls Amidst The Frozen Nordic Winds.
- Iced Earth use rapidly tolling bells on Boiling Point off their newest album Dystopia.
- Swiss Thrash trio Coroner's Pale Sister off the Mental Vortex album. It comes sharply and suddenly and is actually pretty jarring.
- The intrumental King Diamond song "Cremation" features tolling bells at the end.
- "The Box (Untitled Version 2)" by Orbital.
- "Fallen Angel" by Possessed.
- Lampshaded, although not actually heard, in Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," a long, eerie ballad about an ore ship that sank in a storm on Lake Superior; after the deaths rather than as a Portent of Doom.
"In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the Maritime Sailor's Cathedral. And the church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times, for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald."
- AC/DC has the Hells Bell on the upper-left playfield, and is movable in the Premium Edition.
- Prior to the advent of radio, the tocsin was used for emergency broadcasts. The tocsin involved a single church bell tolling, to be joined by all the church bells in an area tolling at once, slowly at first, then with ever-increasing tempo. This let the people know that they were about to be attacked.
- Inverted in the 1999 US Open. Payne Stewart was playing the final holes in a duel with Phil Mickleson. Stewart needed a 15 foot putt on the last hole to win it. As he was reading the putt, the religious Stewart could hear church bells in the distance. He made the putt to cling to victory.
- In Warhammer 40,000, the Bell of Lost Souls is located atop one of the highest towers of the Imperial Palace, and tolls once whenever a truly great hero of the Imperium dies. It is said to be audible on the other side of the planet. Occasionally said to ring at the death of a Space Marine, likely propaganda since otherwise the bell'd be ringing night and day.
- When Ciaphas Cain references the bell tolling for him, Vail puts in a footnote explaining that it was a figure of speech common among the soldiers; at that time, he could not have expected it to ring for him.
- And in Warhammer Fantasy, you should watch out for bells striking thirteen. The bell figures heavily in the mythology of the skaven, and thirteen is their holy number. They even carry small bells as their musical instruments in the game, and one of their "war machines" is the aptly-named Screaming Bell, which is one part mobile belltower, one part Black Magic shrine. Each time it's chimed, something terrible will happen. It's just a matter of whether it affects the enemy or their own troops.
- The Vampire Counts borrowed this with their Unholy Lodestone upgrade to their Corpse Cart unit, a bell with a Pure Warpstone clapper
- In Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard, the headsman's bell announces the execution of Fairfax (who has escaped, but the other characters don't know this). All the more effective for starting up suddenly in the middle of a cheery Crowd Song.
- The hurricane bell in Porgy and Bess.
- Macbeth: "Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven, or to hell."
- As the Russian Swings act in Cirque du Soleil's "O" nears its finish, the bell on the middle swing begins to toll as an acrobat spins the swing up and over the bar — and a funeral procession, complete with a wagon with a coffin upon it, crosses the stage in the background. However, the rest of the music and foreground action (which evokes a wedding party) remains cheerful, and the coffin on the wagon pops open to reveal one of the minor female characters, who cheerfully waves at the audience.
- In The Cat and the Canary, just as Mr. Crosby is about to read Cyrus West's will to his descendants, a muffled gong somewhere in the house is heard tolling seven. The Creepy Housekeeper explains that it is a warning of death: seven may live, out of eight persons in the house. It's revealed that the gong was planted by the killer's accomplice.
- In 1776, John Hancock orders the bell to be rung as the members of Congress sign the Declaration of Independence, closing the play. The Declaration is only the start to a long, hard struggle—with a badly-funded, -trained, and -equipped army against the might of the British forces, the future is by no means certain. The passage about "our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor" isn't empty rhetoric—every man signing that document knew that it could put him at the end of a rope.
- A few versions of M. Bison's theme. Mostly anything before the CPS2 versions of Street Fighter II.
- Final Fantasy:
- In Soul Nomad & the World Eaters, the song "Penal colony of the soul" uses this trope, although it's hard to notice, but is easier to at 2:13. You can hear it here. It never plays in the normal playthrough OR the demon path, it only plays in a non-canon fight (which is very difficult to reach, let alone grind enough levels to WIN) with Median the Conqueror, so it could be considered a wasted song. The song is also called "Babylon of Souls" and "Purgatory".
- Pokémon Diamond and Pearl versions have this at Spear Pillar, leading up to the hero's ultimate battle to stop Team Galactic from transforming the world with Diagla/Palkia. Used again in the Diagla/Palkia battle theme tune remix in Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
- Groudon, Kyogre and Rayquaza's battle theme from the third-gen games also features ominous bells at the beginning. In addition, a distinctive set of three bell strikes serves as a leitmotif of sorts for Deoxys, recurring in its pre-battle and battle themes.
- Ramirez's theme from Skies of Arcadia. With the game being a Cliché Storm, Ramirez's theme more or less contains every single "scary music" trope in the book, only stopping short of actual Ominous Latin Chanting.
- Part of the Big Bad's leitmotif in Tales of Symphonia. Justified by him being an angel controlling the Cruxis and the Church of Martel.
- Occurs during the music of the "Armageddon" ending of Live A Live, with the song eventually fading out on one final bell.
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's "Requiem for the Gods," the theme of Dracula's Royal Chapel, combines this trope with a positively eerie Cherubic Choir.
- In Terranigma, the zombie-infested town of Louran contains this. Needless to say, the place is really, really creepy.
- The theme for the Necropolis town in Heroes of Might and Magic III utilizes several sonorous church-bell tones as well as a men's choir, for maximum creepage. Listen to it here.
- Any track from Disciples will have this motif somewhere in the overworld tracks. Here's an example for your enjoyment.
- Tabuu's battle theme from Super Smash Bros. Brawl has prominent bells and organs.
- At the beginning of the cinematic where Arthas returns from Northrend and murders his father in Warcraft III, church bells celebrate his miraculous survival. The good use of bells probably contributed to it earning the fourth place in GameSpy's Top 25 Video Game Cinematic Moments article.
- The moment is even commemorated in-game in World of Warcraft: players can hear echoes of the bells beneath the ruined belltower in the entrance to the Undercity.
- Interesting use in Resident Evil 4: early in the game, a church bell suddenly rings out while the player is surrounded by Ganados in a village. It's pretty creepy. On the other hand, it also summons the villagers, who drop their weapons and ignore the guy they had been trying to kill just seconds earlier. Thanks for that, Ada.
- In the Left 4 Dead campaign Death Toll, there is a crescendo event where a Zombie Infectee starts ringing a church bell to summon a horde of zombies to try and kill you.
- In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, every time the local steeple's (very creepy) bell sounds in Twillight Town, someone gets turned into a pig. Goombella even begins to fear it will happen to her or Mario.
- The background "music" of Terra Tower in Chrono Cross consists of nothing but deep bells, somber strings, and unintelligible vocals, all the better to convey the utterly alien atmosphere of a fortress displaced across time and dimensions... and populated by ghosts and bizarre constructs.
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask: The ominous background music in this video is frequently punctuated with the bell rings of the Clock Tower. It plays when there are only six hours left until the moon crashes into the earth.
- Twilight Princess has Blizzeta's first boss music, which then goes into Ominous Pipe Organ territory.
- In The Minish Cap, Hyrule's bells toll three times before Zelda is irreversibly dead and Vaati then becomes invincible. It's even foreshaddowed by an NPC in the game, who tells you that something will happen, once this bell tolls. She never says if it's a good or bad thing. Before the final boss battle, the first two bell rings can't be skipped due to being scripted, but if you take too long to defeat the Darknuts before you stop Vaati...
- In Spirit Tracks, the background music in the Tower of Spirits gets more and more defined as you climb higher and higher up the staircase. Somewhere toward the middle of the climb, snares accompanied by bell rings dynamically enter.
- Sort of played straight in The Wind Waker. When Link rings the bell at the top of the Tower of the Gods (in a pretty cool cutscene), an entrance in the ocean opens up that leads down to Hyrule in a frozen temporal state.
- In addition, the mini-boss battle theme that plays in The Wind Waker sports some particularly epic bells in the beginning.
- Spore's Black Cloud ability uses this every time you click the icon.
- In Castlevania 64, when you open the second gate to the castle, the clock tower bells begin to ring. Then the camera pans up...and fake Dracula is seen hovering in the sky. He then threatens you with a painful death, indulges in an Evil Laugh, and vanishes.
- the last level where the music is nothing but bells and chanting
- Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days has this during the mission when Roxas is escaping the Castle That Never Was.
- The first game in the Clock Tower series used this trope to chilling effect during the title sequence.
- Assassin's Creed I had this during the trailer, leading up to the assassination. This is also true after you've been discovered (or successful) in each assassination: the city bell rings to rally the guards. The Attract Mode video for 2 has a bell sound as the second target falls back dead from Ezio's gunshot.
- Half-Life 2 has the song Ravenholm 1 that starts with one of these.
- The Simpsons: Hit & Run features a track in several missions such as There's Something About Monty with a bell in the background.
- The opening cinematic of Zork Nemesis has a single bell ringing with a particularly ominous aftertone. You later find a bell with the same tone, but its use is rather underwhelming: you hang onto the rope after ringing the bell and get lifted up to window level so you can access a locked room.
- The moment Tassadar commits his Heroic Sacrifice is marked by a single bell toll in the soundtrack. It's subtle and easily missed though.
- The Bonus Boss, Gargoyle, is summoned by Church Bells in Koudelka.
- The first boss of Devil May Cry 3, the Hell Vanguard, makes a bell-toll sound whenever it uses one of its teleport attacks.
- At one point in Ys II, you ascend a bell tower, where Maria Messa will be executed when the bell tolls four times. Unfortunately, You Are Too Late to save her, for now (she gets better later). The music also has a bell-based melody.
- In Ys IV, the song "Temptation of the Master Harlequin" also features tubular bells.
- In Halo 2, a church bell tolls at the beginning of "Blow Me Away", and in "Destroyer's Invocation".
- Ominous bells are used many times in the Silent Hill series, such as in the Dark World school, the moth battle, the Historical Society in 2, and the subway platforms in 3.
- In Grim Fandango, whenever Manny draws his scythe, a death knell plays softly in the background.
- The music played during the real final boss battle against Bowser in the game New Super Mario Bros. Wii when he is turned into a giant and rampaging through the foundation of his own castle. Combined with the chanting in the background, it has a very overpowering effect.
- In Monster Hunter Tri, the final boss theme opens with a kinda sinister-sounding bell.
- In the third mission of Black, the second of two snipers in a slightly eerie graveyard scene is in a bell tower. If the player can dodge him long enough, they can shoot the bell and cause it to break loose from its moorings, crushing the sniper. This will create an extremely loud tolling sound and is possibly the game's Crowning Moment Of Awesome.
- In Twisted Metal: Black, the Freeway stage has church bells in its ambient soundtrack.
- In Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, the music that plays after a loss begins with a bell. (And continues with a particularly mournful choir section accompanied by the faint sound of wind, no less....)
- The background music for the final boss of Drakengard is a bell tolling over and over.
- Very heavily used in .hack games (and carries over to .hack//G.U.): All the themes of the Eight Phases contain a similar-sounding, specific Leitmotif made of the sound of bells. Interestingly, one theme Macha's stops the bell leitmotif at the intro, symbolizing that the Boss is, in fact, your former friend. The themes associated with Phases in GU also uses the same leitmotif, with the same aforementioned bells. It manages to make most of the boss fights very, very creepy.
- Heavily subverted in Dark Souls. For a very grimdark kind of game, online players may sometimes hear a lonely church bell ring in a certain part of the world. This means that another person has rung said bell. Since the bell is actually one of the early game objectives that require fighting a particularly powerful boss, and is named The Bell of Awakening, hearing one actually gives a powerful sense of hope, as someone has achieved that particular objective, so you can too!
- In Eternal Darkness levels set at the Amiens Cathedral, a sound effect accompanying a low Sanity Meter are peals of churchbells.
- In Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain's first bonus mission, Agent Stone snipes Dmitri when the church bell tolls 3:00 to cover the sound of the shot.
- In Shadow Hearts, you battle against the entity that passes for God. Behold.
- Fallout: New Vegas has this in the soundtrack piece "Not My Vault". Dead Money uses a church bell ambient track near the Campana del Sol (the belltower where you trigger the gala event), appropriately. "Acolytes of the New God" from the first two games, also reused in Vegas, combines this with ticking clocks and ominous chanting.
- I Miss the Sunrise has a short section like this as part of its boss battle music.
- One of the more memorable BGM tracks in School Days is an arrangement of the title song for bells. The piece has quite a somber feel to it, which fits the themes of remorse and lost innocence which run through the game.
- The henchman theme Shudder from Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals has a bell that rings at the beginning and end of each chorus.
- When you fight any of the Fiends in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, you can hear faint bells in the theme that accompanies them. In this case the sense of dread isn't necessarily for story purposes as much as it is gameplay reasons.
- Metatron who is fought later also uses bells but puts greater empathize on them, and considering that you are fighting the voice of God this should come as no surprise.
- Some of the music in Homestuck has doom bells, but an air-raid siren usually plays this role instead. Observe.
- In Girl Genius, Mechanicsburg has the aptly named Doom Bell, used to herald momentous occasions, such as the birth of a new scion of the ruling Heterodyne family, for the anointing of a new lord of the family and city, or just because. The bell has an effect of inflicting existential despair upon all who hear it. Only members of the Heterodyne family and their loyal army of Jagermonsters seem completely unaffected, while those used to it or are strong enough sparks themselves to be regarded as peers to the Heterodynes seem to be able to power through hearing it. Witness its power over the next several pages.