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"Psycho" Strings

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"Violins. Oh, no."
Satsuki Miyanoshita, Ghost Stories

For added atmosphere, play this full "Psycho" Strings while reading on.

A common audio cue used when you want to establish that something or someone is deeply insane, evil, or unnatural, but the Ominous Latin Chanting 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 Alfred 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.note 

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. Compare Orchestral Bombing and Playing the Heart Strings for string music that's dark in different ways.


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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 & Manga 

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Alien features Psycho Strings-themed music from composer Jerry Goldsmith in the third act, when Ripley, Parker and Lambert have decided to evacuate the Nostromo on the emergency shuttle. Parker and Lambert split from Ripley to obtain life support supplies for the shuttle, and the alien corners them. The Strings play most prominently when the alien turns slowly toward the petrified Lambert, its head and arm silhouetted against the emergency lighting. The track is called "Parker's Death".
  • Used in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin Skywalker attacks the Sand People who killed his mother Shmi.
  • Bad Reputation uses this whenever it's leading up to Michelle making a kill on one of her tormentors.
  • Used in Bean upon the revelation that the industrial solvent that the title character used to remove an ink stain he accidentally left on Whistler's Mother is also starting to dissolve the paint underneath.
  • Done in Big Fat Liar when Marty Wolf realizes that his skin and hair have been dyed blue and orange, respectively.
  • In Blood Drips Heavily on Newsies Square, the famous theme plays when Ivan is butchered with a knife and the killer washes it off in the sink.
  • 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 very same strings are used whenever Carrie (1976) uses her telekinetic powers.
  • Used in Daddy Day Care when Max "misses".
  • 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.
  • Used in Django Unchained when John Brittle is about to whip a slave, before Django confronts him.
  • To be heard in Dressed to Kill right after the hooker picks up the razor blade from the elevator floor.
  • 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...
  • Used in Kill Bill Vol. I. Said piece, "Twisted Nerve", is also by Bernard Herrmann.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A Pure Formality: The opening music.
  • Saw II: The soundtrack that plays during Amanda's struggle in the Needle Pit once she gets up features a squeaky string melody prominently, although not over its whole length.
  • The Shining uses excerpts of Pendrecki's Utrenja as well as material by Bela Bartok and Gyorgy Ligeti.
  • Spencer: Diana's moments of discomfort and mental instability are accented with a sharp string score.
  • A comical variation is used as the Leitmotif for Iggy and Spike in the Super Mario Bros. (1993) movie.
  • Terminator:
  • The soundtrack for There Will Be Blood.
  • Us uses a unique version in that its high musical screeches are actually the melody from Luniz's "I Got 5 on It" played higher.
  • In Wayne's World, Garth screeches "Reeee! Reeee! Reeee!" as he's "killing" Mr. Donut-Head Man. They also show up (underneath some of the band music) when his ex-girlfriend Stacy shows up at the Gasworks.
  • Part of Magneto's Leitmotif in X-Men: First Class.

    Live-Action TV 

  • 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.
    • Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has these in some movements as well.
  • "Gimme Some More" by Busta Rhymes offers a variation to the trope; although it prominently uses Psycho Strings, it more specifically samples the opening theme strings rather than those from the shower scene.
  • 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.
  • Kraftwerk's "Mitternacht" from the flip side of Autobahn uses electronically distorted violin to terrifying effect.
  • The intro track to Sepultura's Schizophrenia album features this.
  • In Johann Sebastian 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".
  • Knife Party's "Internet Friends" breaks into these immediately after that line. Never block a Yandere on Facebook.
  • "Delilah" by Tom Jones opens with sharp repeating strings that evoke this. A fitting choice for a song about a man driven to murder his cheating lover.
  • Distressed violin notes are part Stream of Passion's Signature Style. For instance, the passage that opens "Monster" creates a feeling of anxiety.
  • Naturally, "Slasher" by Aviators features pairs of stings as a recurring motif.
  • Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun", a song about a girl putting an end to her sexually-abusive father, features sharp violin riffs in each chorus.
  • Used fittingly enough in the bridge of Ice Nine Kills' Psycho-inspired song "The Shower Scene".
  • Coolio's "Gangstas Paradise" sets the stabbing on-beat strings over a hip-hop beat.

  • In WHO dunnit (1995), a case involving the murder of a female character will sometimes begin with a shower murder scene that's accompanied by a direct replica of Psycho's string music.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Tweenies: Heard in "Dirty Hands" when Fizz finds her cushion covered in Milo's dirty handprints. Cue Screaming Woman.

    Pro Wrestling 

    Tabletop Games 
  • They Came From Beyond The Grave, a game deeply immersed in the tropes of its chosen horror subgenre, goes so far as to make the quote for the "Slasher" monster just a reference to "high-pitched violin screeching".

  • 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.

    Theme Parks 

    Video Games 


    Western Animation 
  • Arcane: Those affected by Shimmer usually have their grunts and yells underscored by a set of these, emphasizing the dehumanizing and unsettling effects the serum.
  • Arthur and Fantomcat both have these in their score sometimes.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, several of the scenes in the series finale, featuring Azula's Villainous Breakdown, are accompanied by these.
  • The Cartoons That Never Made It short "Frothy Dawg" features psycho strings playing when Frothy turns around to reveal his foaming mouth and frightens the father and son who were looking at him through the pet shop window.
  • Parodied in one episode of Dave the Barbarian. While doing spring cleaning with his enchanted broom Dusty, Dave sticks his head in the fire place and screams as piercing strings are heard, followed by him wrestling his head out and crashing into the wall.
    Dusty: Let me guess, a string quartet?
    Dave: (As piercing string music plays) And they aren't very good!
  • In one episode of Dexter's Laboratory, the scene of trope was parodied with the Mom "murdering" the Dad while has was showering, minus the murder.
  • Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends has a parodied take of this trope where Cheese opens up the shower curtain with Eduardo inside and...
    Cheese: I! FOUND! A! CARROT! [Cheese proceeds to use the carrot like a knife, to no effect]
  • Garfield and Friends: These are used in the episode "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 trailer:
    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!
  • Gravity Falls:
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • The Legend of Korra does these for Eska's Woman Scorned moment. Then it's used whenever she unexpectedly enters Bolin's sight.
  • My Little Pony Tales: These are used in "Out of Luck" 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.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Heard in the episode "May the Best Pet Win" when Opal bares her claws at the beginning of the Guts test.
  • Heard occasionally in Phineas and Ferb.
  • 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.
  • The Simpsons:
  • 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".
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • Used in the episode "Bummer Vacation" in which SpongeBob'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, SpongeBob 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 case you were wondering which song it is, it's ''Killer Birds''. Thirty seconds of almost nothing but this trope and the orchestral chord at the end. Indeed, whenever it plays, you can expect moments of insanity from a given character.
  • 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.
  • Combined with a Drone of Dread in the Thomas & Friends episode "Ghost Train".


Video Example(s):


"What'cha Doin'?"

While calling Jeremy to wish him a Merry Christmas Eve, Candance says, "What'cha doin'?" Meanwhile, Isabella senses that someone has been using her catchphrase without her noticing.

How well does it match the trope?

4.55 (22 votes)

Example of:

Main / MySignificanceSenseIsTingling

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