“Who’s There?”: Attacking with Sound in Suspiria (1977)

Horror films are interested in what we can see versus what we anticipate. Most times, the horror we imagine is more frightening than anything a film could provide. We already know ourselves, our triggers, and our phobias, which means that being afraid is deeply personal. Perhaps fear tells us more about ourselves then any other sensation. To evoke this reaction, a successful horror film should leave gaps, dark spaces for the viewer to fill in. These moments stand out because we were directly involved with them. One such moment comes from the horror classic Suspiria.

What is unique about Suspiria is that it is aware of the relationship between horror subject and viewer. This dynamic is increasingly prevalent in modern horror, but more from the characters. Form is what is most noteworthy in Suspiria, the way in which the story gets told. The film operates using dream-logic, where things look and act familiar but are simultaneously distorted or unnatural. A good example of this is the film’s lighting, as it features a lot of bright primary colours like red and green. However, it also features a more troubling aspect of dream-logic: sound.

Suspiria has one of the most recognizable horror scores of all time. One of the reasons it is so effective is because we are never exactly sure where the music stops or begins. Its eerie tone compliments the narrative so well, to the extent where it is impossible to divide the score from the events in the film. It is not just a score; it is an antagonist.

For instance, when Daniel is attacked by his dog, the film implies that sound was what caused the violence. This sequence is frightening for a few reasons. First, Daniel is alone, blind, and prone. Neither he nor the viewer can see a threat, but we can hear it because the dog starts barking and the score picks up. What seemed like creepy background music has transitioned into a real threat, which leads to the scene’s second frightening aspect. Because we can hear the same thing as Daniel, the film implies that we are also in danger.

In a typical film, the soundtrack or score operates either in the background of a scene or outside the narrative, just heard by the viewer. It does something different here, as it becomes an extension of the witches and intervenes with the character’s actions. This makes it unclear if the score exists inside or outside the events in the film, which poses the question, does the music exists inside the character’s head, in their environment, or in ours? Can it exist in each of these places simultaneously?

This scene demonstrates that the boundary between subject and audience is ambiguous, making it unclear if our world could intervene with theirs, and vice versa. The music is not solely a background element, but an invisible threat in the narrative. As such, Suspiria is not interested in recreating our reality, but rather in establishing an uncertain and overlapped world, one where our experience as a viewer occasionally intervenes with the character.

The film continues to create an uncertain sound environment through dubbing. Many of the actor’s voices are dubbed and left asynchronous. As such, speech and sound are as unnatural as the film’s lighting and design.

Suspiria further complicates this environment by switching between diegetic and non-diegetic moments, where sometimes the characters hear the same things that we do, and other times they do not. When the viewer and character experience the same sound, the film implies that its dream world is an extension of our own. This means that although we are not responsible for the violence in the film, we are still involved with it because we occupy a similar space.  

Simply put, Suspiria’s use of sound demonstrates that music and score can intensify or even become the violence in a scene. The music pierces the characters and attacks the viewer while also troubling the boundary between the subject’s reality and our own.

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