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Psycho Strings
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.


Examples:

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    Advertisements 
  • 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 

    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 boy gets no tip...
  • Used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
    We want... a SHRUBBERY!
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 

    Music 
  • 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".

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    Professional Wrestling 

    Theatre 
  • 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).

    Videogames 

    Web Comics 
  • The shower scene gets parodied in this Order of the Stick strip, with the Psycho Strings represented as sound effects.

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. These notes are used to trigger a parody of a horror movie:
    "From the people that brought YOU the terror of Wednesday and the horror of Friday, 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".


Previews PulseSound FX TropesQuieter Than Silence
Pop Star ComposerScore and Music TropesPublic Domain Soundtrack
Psycho SerumAdded Alliterative AppealPunch Packing Pistol

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