Our scantily-clad heroine dashes through the darkened hallway, knife clutched to her bosom. Does she flee a masked intruder or gelatinous ogre? It matters little. What she truly flees is the string section. See her panicked expression heighten as those strings screech and squizzle to their peak. Only when they cease can she begin to catch her breath. And then…the violins return in exultation as a machete or squidgy tentacle stabs through the wall.
These musical cues are as much a part of the horror genre as…well, as the scantily-clad heroines and masked intruder. Why? Well, because it builds tension, right? Right?
For your viewing pleasure and edification, I would like you to direct your attention to the screen below. But first, some much needed context (spoilers, obviously):
Sam (Tobey Maguire) was a Marine stationed in Afghanistan. He’s married to Grace (Natalie Portman), and they have two daughters. Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is his somewhat estranged brother.
Sam was shot down in Afghanistan and believed dead. Over the ensuing months, Tommy reconnects with the family. He gets along well with the kids, and there’s a spark growing between him and Grace. Then Sam got rescued. He’s been tortured as a POW for months, and has serious post-traumatic-stress disorder. He’s become paranoid and is having trouble adjusting socially, and he thinks that his brother has been sleeping with his wife. And then…this scene happens:
<Unclench hands from armrest>
I think it’s safe to say that you can build tension without music. (If you still don’t believe me, go watch No Country For Old Men.)
So why are our movies and television shows filled with so many of the same violin shrieks, sad, mournful cello tones, and dramatic BWAHs?
In a sense, these musical devices are an emotional version of a laugh track, telling us when to cry, when to cheer, when to gasp. “What am I supposed to feel, music? TELL MEEEEE!”
I love a rousing soundtrack as much as the next person, but music is an artform. We should be creating new music, not halfheartedly stitching together riffs that we know will get an emotional response.
And now, for no real reason, this: