A common audio cue used when you want to establish that something is deeply Insane, Evil, or Unnatural, but the Ominous Latin Choir is off on vacation - A series of sharp, screeching notes on any string instrument. Sometimes this is paired with the Vertigo Effect. When done on strings, like in Hitchcock's Psycho, it is frequently used by three short, fast bow strokes below the bridge - the wooden piece that holds the strings up - of a cello. In most horror movies, if it's not strings, it's probably a waterphone. Usually part of a "Psycho" Shower Murder Parody. See also Scare Chord and Drone of Dread for the deeper pitched cousin.
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- They are heard in one Honey Nut Cheerios commercial when Buzz the honey bee realizes the woman he's giving his product to is an entomologist. Insect collector.
- They are used in at least one promo for My Cat From Hell.
- Referenced in this ad for bloody-handprint shower curtains and bloody-footprint bathmats on ThinkGeek
Anime and Manga
- The entire shower scene is parodied in Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, strings and all. It only serves to make Fuura Kafuka even creepier, too—while the stabber changes between every shot (Bruce Lee, Freddy Krueger, and the Drunken Master to name a few), it's Kafuka we see dashing around the corner out of the bathroom.
- Used in the first episode of The Slayers when the Black Dragon attacks.
- Used in episode 11 of Ghost Stories.
- Used near the end of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood when Greed attacks Father. It's notable for actually being a sound byte of the original music from Psycho. The OST titled it "Tribute to BH"
- Used in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya when the SOS Brigade discovers their host stabbed to death on the island. It also makes up the majority of Asakura's theme music.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion has the tracks "EVA-00", "THE BEAST" and "The End of Midsummer."
- Used in a parody of the Psycho shower scene in Digimon Frontier just as Izumi is about to change into a swimsuit. Interestingly, it doesn't appear to be any more than an excuse to have her scream, alerting the rest of teh Five-Man Band.
- Played nearly shot-by-shot in episode 47 of Kirby of the Stars complete with the strings.
- Yuki Kajiura's composition of the Kara no Kyoukai OST used this trope to great effects, it is most prominent in the OST of Episode 5 Paradox Spiral.
- The Kowaina summoning theme from Yes! Pretty Cure 5 has this on spades.
Films — Animated
Films — Live-Action
- Used famously in (duh) Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock supposedly wanted the murder scene to be totally silent, but film composer Bernard Herrmann had a better idea.
- The very same strings are used whenever Carrie (1976) uses her telekinetic powers.
- A similar-sounding variation of the shrieking violins plays several times in Maximum Overdrive when the machines are trying to kill someone. But then, considering the nature of the movie and the fact that it's a "horror" movie that's not scary at all, the Psycho Strings come across as sort of a Large Ham.
- Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Neal discovers what Del did to the bathroom, and that he had been washing his face in the water Del was using to soak his socks.
- The background music for Cabin Fever features a motif that uses double beats of a creepy string note, adding a sinister undertone to a passionate sex scene. The music cue and dialogue during the scene suggest that one of the characters is passing the deadly disease to their one-time lover. This is later revealed to be true.
- The soundtrack for There Will Be Blood.
- In Mel Brooks Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety, the Psycho shower scene parody uses the shrill cries of an angry bellhop in place of the strings: "Here! Here's your paper! Here's your lousy, stinking paper! Happy now?"
Thorndyke: That kid gets no tip...
- The Joker's signature theme in The Dark Knight, "Why So Serious?" is built up of this. The best example is probably in the interrogation scene, where upon Joker's revelation that both Dent and Rachel have been kidnapped, the music begins, and comes to a climax where the Joker laughs manically at Batman's attempts to force details out of him.
- This is more along the lines of Psycho Synths, but in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that note they play whenever the T-1000 is bearing down relentlessly on someone and it gets faster and more intense the closer he gets.
- Used in Kill Bill Vol. I. Said piece, "Twisted Nerve", is also by Bernard Herrmann.
- Used in Daddy Day Care when Max "misses".
- To be heard in Dressed to Kill right after the hooker picks up the razor blade from the elevator floor.
- Used in Django Unchained when John Brittle is about to whip a slave, before Django confronts him.
- Bad Reputation uses this whenever it's leading up to Michelle making a kill on one of her tormentors.
- In Clive Barker's Nightbreed, the psychotic serial killer Dr. Decker is accompanied by a creepy string-based theme designed to unsettle the viewer during his first major knife-wielding appearance.
- Part of Magneto's Leitmotif in X-Men: First Class.
- Used in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin Skywalker attacks the Sand People who killed his mother Shmi.
- Pick any episode of LOST.
- The whole soundtrack, really.
- Lampshaded in an episode of Parker Lewis Can't Lose: A man in a trenchcoat looks at a journal saying "The Chameleon escapes!", then orders a string quartet (which wasn't there before) to play a chilly music.
- Doctor Who:
- In the new series, whereas the Daleks get the Ominous Hebrew Chanting, the Cybermen get the Psycho Strings. The same sound effect was used for the Family of Blood.
- And in the classic series, the Daleks get the Psycho Bleeps.
- Also in the revived series, the Master gets his own distinctive Psycho Strings theme, which is four loud drum beats.
- As does Davros, which is actually a re-arrangement of the Midnight monster's theme.
- The Weeping Angels' Leitmotif is nothing but Psycho Strings.
- Craig Owens's baby son Alfie (sorry: "Stormageddon: Dark Lord of All") also gets his own dramatic chord.
- In the new series, whereas the Daleks get the Ominous Hebrew Chanting, the Cybermen get the Psycho Strings. The same sound effect was used for the Family of Blood.
- In the Hogfather tv series, these form the leitmotif for Psycho for Hire Jonathan Teatime.
- In Pee-wee's Playhouse: "I'm going door to door, to make you this incredible offer..." (AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH! Ha ha!)
- The ridiculously awesome extended version of Lord Zedd's Theme from Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.
- These appear in an episode of Castle.
- American Horror Story: Murder House uses the actual Psycho Strings as Maria is stabbed in the back to death at the end of the flashback in 'Home Invasion'.
- The X-Files uses a rather ominous violin-string plucking number in scary scenes—usually when the Monster of the Week is stalking (and then killing) its victims.
- Chandler Bing of Friends accidentally got the top of his toe cut off to the sound of Psycho Strings. When he arrives at the hospital, a carrot top was brought instead.
- Happens twice in one episode of Mrs. Brown's Boys. Although, as soon as it's over, she walks to the door, and yells at the violin players standing right there to PISS OFF!
- Parts of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia".
- The opening of Krzystof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (written in 1960) may be an inspiration: all fifty-two string players are instructed to play "the highest note on the instrument" as loudly as possible, producing a very harsh and grating high-pitched tone cluster which sounds a bit like a scream. (Its relation to the subject matter is actually purely incidental; Penderecki originally intended to call the piece simply 8'37", but figured a memorial to the victims of American nuclear bombs would be more likely to be accepted by the government of Poland as more in line with their Social Realist artistic policies.)
- Serial music in general can sound really weird. Anton Webern's Fünf Sätze could easily be included in a survival horror soundtrack.
- György Ligeti's music, which is also serial in nature, utilizes a similar method in his Atmospheres, where the string players play every chromatic note over five octaves at once. That's 60 notes. This is the largest tone cluster ever written in a serious piece. Then things get weird when the string players start using microtones.
- There's also George Crumb, and his famous piece, Black Angels, the introductort section of which, which is titled "Night of the Electric Insects," literally makes you feel like there are bugs crawling all over your skin. It was used very effectively in soundtrack of The Exorcist.
- Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has these in some movements as well.
- Sonata Arctica use this at one point in "Juliet".
- Avant-garde metal band Unexpect use Psycho Strings a lot, but most notably on "Silence 011010701".
- "O Green World" by Gorillaz opens with a sort of deranged banjo-plucking solo. The entire song may be a deliberate Shout-Out to Alfred Hitchcock, as you also hear crows screeching throughout the instrumental portions of the track.
- "Opheliac" - the album, not the song - by Emilie Autumn is full of creepy notes on electric violin.
- The Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich was fond of using these for political commentary. For instance, the Party-mandated Fifth Symphony's grandiose, triumphant finale is rather undermined by the string section sawing away in the background, rendering the whole thing rather hollow, creepy, and artificial. Not that anybody important noticed.
- The intro track to Sepultura's Schizophrenia album features this.
- In J.S. Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) the 3rd movement contains a series of 11 very sharp chords played on a solo violin.
- Appears in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" when Billy sings "Psycho".
- Not surprisingly, this was included in Sycho Sid's entrance music.
- Used in many songs in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, "Epiphany" in particular.
- The Reduced Shakespeare Company uses Psycho Strings as the music cue for Hamlet stabbing Polonius.
- Richard Strauss's opera Salome uses an effect of this sort as Salome is listening for Jokanaan's death cry. The short sharp sound, made by double basses playing far higher than their usual range, is meant, according to the composer's footnote, to "resemble the stifled moans and groans of a woman."
- Hinted at in the song "Oh The Thinks You Can Think," played in recent productions of Seussical The Musical, in which the audience is invited to "Think of something horrible and hairy, something sinister and scary that you've never dared to think of before!" Cue Psycho Strings (big solo for second keyboardist).
- In Heathers, high-pitched violins and electric guitar are often played in the background of J.D.'s songs and dialogue, specifically in his "that school was society" rant towards the end.
- Assasssin's Creed: Brotherhood score takes this trope to extremes.
- Assassin's Creed: Revelations also has its own variation of this trope.
- Grim Fandango: Used a few times, including when Chepito reveals the Demons of the Deep.
- Used often in the F.E.A.R. games whenever Alma appears, along with other scare events. At least one soundtrack piece uses a waterphone.
- The opening of "One Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII, as well as Exdeath's theme from Final Fantasy V.
- Used throughout Drakengard to great effect. The composer favored repeated Psycho Strings to set the mood in some cutscenes.
- If Laura Bow has a shower in The Colonel's Bequest, and she gets killed for it.
- Also occurs in the second game, The Dagger of Amon Ra, whenever she finds the corpse of a murder victim.
- The second game also has it as the first thing you hear while Laura is chased by the killer.
- In Grandia II, the establishing music for Selene is a flute melody which degenerates into dissonant violins. It can be heard during the second part of "The Broken Seal" theme (OST).
- Heroes of Might and Magic III.
- Halo often uses this during Flood encounters, eg in the songs "Devils... Monsters", "Shadows"(sounds much like the actual Psycho strings), "Lament for Pvt. Jenkins", "Ancient Machine", "Dread Intrusion", and "Gravemind".
- The music played in X-8 in Eversion is basically just this, with the occasional drum sound in the background.
- Also, it ends with a Last Note Nightmare.
- "Purge the Xenos Scum" from the Dawn of War 2 soundtrack (usually played during defensive missions when you have to hold the line against waves of enemies).
- Surprisingly, this shows up in Katawa Shoujo. The piece is called "High Tension", and the first time you hear it, it is seriously unnerving. It comes right the hell out of nowhere and it's not he sort of thing you've expect out of a game like Katawa Shoujo.
- Used in various forms in the Silent Hill series. Sometimes it sounds like the aformentioned Psycho Waterphone. For example, in this clip. One piece in the first game sounds like bowed piano strings, and a variation is pitched an octave down, making it much scarier. Also used when Pyramid Head kills Maria in the hospital basement. And the first game's alley sequence uses psycho industrial percussion.
- All the bacteria in Left 4 Dead. Can be heard here. Also, the main and horde themes for "Swamp Fever" campaign from the sequel.
- The Legend of Zelda:
- In The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Cave and Dark World Dungeon themes use this.
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. is fittingly fond of these, being used in many tracks, notably in all of the main villain's themes, and the title opening, which has a Last Note Nightmare.
- Chancellor Cole's Leitmotif in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Also, the Bomb Trains' theme, to great effect.
- The "Guardians Awaken" theme in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which is heard when Link accidentally draws the Guardians' attention while collecting Sacred Tears in the Silent Realm.
- Clock Tower: The First Fear has it in some of the times Jennifer goes into panic mode or discovers something, examples including when strangled by her reflection in the mirror, when seeing blood come out of the sink, when finding Laura's body, either in her shower or armor deaths, seeing the zombie in the closet, and so on.
- "Death Marshes", "Hive of the Mantids" and "Oblivion" from Turok 2. "Death Marshes" also uses "psycho trumpets".
- The Nightmare in Metroid: Other M gets these in its battle theme.
- In Metroid Prime: Hunters, Sylux's battle theme consists of high-pitched strings which actually use the "psycho note pattern" in some parts.
- Used liberally in Batman: Arkham Asylum, especially during the Scarecrow encounter. It's even played for laughs once. In the beginning, as the Joker is wheeled through Arkham, a doctor looks over the Joker. The Joker suddenly goes "BOO" accompanied by a scare chord, and scares the poor doctor shitless as he starts laughing. Quite funny the first time it happens.
- The In the Groove song "Determinator".
- Used throughout the Resident Evil series, such as Tyrant's theme in the original, the Bandersnatch theme in Code Veronica, the Leech Zombie theme in 0, and the Neptune shark danger music in RE 1 Remake. The Noche (night battle) music and Mendez's battle theme in Resident Evil 4 overlap this with Drone of Dread.
- A lot of BioShock's music uses violins to represent madness, such as in Doctor Steinman's battle theme.
- In Bioshock Infinite, violins play whenever Booker manages to pull off a Melee Finisher. In addition, the Songbird's Theme incorporates a lot of very sudden strings.
- Dusknoir's battle theme from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Darkness/Sky.
- The "Sniper's Last Stand" theme from Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.
- In Deadly Premonition, Psycho Strings are widely used.
- Warhammer Online's music for Chaos-controlled areas uses these to full effect. To help things sound even more discordant and unnatural, the musicians played their instruments upside-down.
- Aside from the scare chords that accompany some xenomorph encounters, Aliens Vs Predator uses Psycho Strings in parts of its rarely-played soundtrack.
- In Conkers Bad Fur Day the music for "Frying Tonight" sounds like a track mostly composed of this.
- The Banjo-Kazooie games remix the music depending on where you are in a level. When you're, say, very, very deep underwater, strings of this ilk kick in, to sometimes unsettling effect.
- The drowning music used throughout the Sonic the Hedgehog series.
- Doom II's title music.
- In Pikmin 2, the theme for the battle against Titan Dweevil is full of this. In fact, the more parts you take off of him, the more intense the Psycho Strings get! Pretty much every single song (about to attack, [insert element here] attack, and so on) during this battle has these at some point.
- Halo: Reach uses this in the first encounter with Zealots; specifically the "Bait and Switch" movement of the Winter Contingency OST track.
- Gothitelle uses it as it's Battle Cry.
- Used in Molecular Clock from Ray Storm, alongside theremin, doubling the creepy factor.
- You can hear it sometimes in the ambient background music while in the Fade in Dragon Age: Origins.
- The Ren & Stimpy Show: In the episode "Stimpy's Fan Club" we see an insane Ren contemplate strangling a sleeping Stimpy. It's after he says the line "Just...one...twist!" when the Psycho Strings start to come into play.
- Also used in the episode "Haunted House" when Stimpy's taking a shower, in homage to Psycho.
- Used in the Spongebob Squarepants episode "Bummer Vacation" in which Sponge Bob's sitting in Patrick's house after being forced by Mr. Krabs to take a vacation and hiring Patrick as his temporary replacement. When Patrick finds him, Sponge Bob looks (and acts) completely insane, complete with Psycho Strings.
- Used in the episode "Squeaky Boots" when Mr. Krabs goes insane with guilt after stealing rubber boots he gave to Spongebob.
- In Star Wars: Clone Wars, General Grievous' nightmarish assault on the beleaguered Jedi is set to a mix of trumpets and Psycho Strings, proving that that possessing mastery of the force will still mean nothing in the face of shock-and-awe tactics and superior swordsmanship. And that Jedi are still very much capable of feeling absolute terror.
- In Star Wars: The Clone Wars the main instrument in Ventress' leitmotif is a sinister sounding violin, emphasizing how dangerous and unpredictable she is.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, several of the scenes in the series finale, featuring Azula's Villainous Breakdown, are accompanied by these.
- Sequel Series The Legend of Korra does these for Eska's Woman Scorned moment. Then it's used whenever she unexpectedly enters Bolin's sight.
- Kim Possible does it twice, once with Bonnie taking a shower as a homage to Psycho's famous scene, and again when music from the film plays after Ron falls off his bike and water comes from his head.
- Hilariously done in The Simpsons in the episode "The Springfield Files", when Homer hears the strings from Psycho while lost in the woods... but it turns out to be an orchestra driving by on a bus.
- Used in "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge" of season two whenever Maggie attacks Homer with a mallet.
- Used in "The Bob Next Door" when Homer, Lisa, and Walt enter a room and find hundreds of pictures of Bart that have knives stabbed into them.
- Heard twice in Invader Zim, once when an old lady throws up sawdust on GIR in "Door to Door", and again during one of Dib's crazy fits in "Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom".
- In the episode of South Park where Damien, the Antichrist and Son of Satan, arrives at South Park Elementary, and ultimately wants to fit in and be just another kid, his entrance is always presaged by an ominous choir singing a Latin phrase ending in Domine - "Lord".
- These are used in "Out of Luck" of My Little Pony Tales when Clover returns home and spots the teapot she believes is making her unlucky. They resurface later when the teapot is returned to the house again.
- Heard in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "May The Best Pet Win" when Opal bares her claws at the beginning of the Guts test.
- These are used in an episode of Garfield and Friends called "Monday Misery", in which Garfield learns, to his dismay, that it's Monday, the day of the week that he hates most. These notes are used to trigger a parody of a horror movie:
Announcer: From the people that brought YOU the terror of Wednesday and the horror of Friday...
Woman in trailer: (seeing kids get off a school bus) The kids will be home all weekend! AAAAAAGH!!
Announcer: ...comes the most horrifying, terrifying day ever, the day invented just to make the rest of the week seem good... MONDAY!
- Combined with a Drone of Dread in the Thomas the Tank Engine episode "Ghost Train".