WARNING! THIS ARTICLE HAS HORROR CONTENT SUCH AS SCARY NOISES AND GORE!
One thing that’s particularly hard to capture in writing is sound. Visual stimuli is the easiest, in my personal opinion, as you can describe color, texture, and movement. The sense of touch seems a bit more straightforward as well. Sound, however, brings in a lot of needed comparison points, something I imagine would be the case for taste & smell too. You can’t really say something smells red/the menagerie of synonyms for red unless you’re describing a drug trip.
You need to keep your target audience in mind, and that’s something I’ll talk about below. By that, I mean location, and what sounds they’ve heard before. This could help when you are making comparisons. Some sounds might be universal, but that will generally be really hard to determine. Sure, most people know the sound of ocean waves, but those by the shoreline have a genuine understanding of the sound as opposed to those who have seen it on mediums not in person.
Horror movies have the benefit of music for building suspense and don’t need to describe those sounds–you can just hear it unless it’s in captions. That’s why it’ll be a fickle thing in horror writing, because a lot of the ‘easier’ methods in horror video media just isn’t there, especially for sound. I wanted to give my outlook and advice on sound in horror and dark fantasy for this article!
Not everyone has heard the scream of a mountain lion, and sometimes it can be described as sounding ‘like a screaming woman’. I think it sounds like a very demonic meow. Taking the different footpath for description in this case may be the best way to go. If you want to stray from generic, saying: “The scream was like that of a high-pitched, demonic ‘meow’.” That’s a bit more on the nose, given these are large cats, but it seems more accurate to me this way.
Then, of course, if your audience is in an area where they’ve heard mountain lions or was likely exposed via media like this, you could use this as a base sound. “The monster’s scream was nearly identical to that of a mountain lion”. Some folks may need to look up what a mountain lion sounds like, but you can’t avoid that with every reader, so I would say not to refrain from doing so just because that may be a factor!
Warning: This gets significantly louder after the initial trills the foxes make. So, what does the fox say? Well, a variety of noises that can be either cute or absolutely terrifying. If you use the term in your writing, “Screams like that of a fox”, though, your reader might be confused. I don’t think it’s super well known that foxes can do this, especially to those in the city. The mountain lion’s ‘scream’ is more commonly known, I think.
To describe this, I would say something like ‘a few high pitched, eerie trills followed by all out animalistic screaming encompassing all of the agony in the world. Extremely foxlike, probably an actual fox.’ It depends on if your creature is a fox in this case or an entity that just sounds like one, of course. This way, you’re elaborating on what the fox sounds like, and helping the reader to learn this little neat tidbit as well.
The fox is fine here, of course, and from what I can tell in no sort of agony. They just stopped and decided to scream for one reason or another. Sometimes things work out that way, I suppose.
I’ve always considered the Tasmanian Devil to have an iconic sound. Granted, not everyone knows what they sound like, but damn is this snarling monstrous. This would go perfectly with a variety of monsters. I actually describe this noise in my book, Red Viper, for Darcia, my Tasmanian Devil shapeshifter. Often I will use ‘screams like nails ripping down a chalkboard’ or something because this screeching is so grating and attention-grabbing.
“Warbled, demonic snarling” also could be a great descriptor for this. So to put it all together: “Warbled, demonic snarling like that of a Tasmanian Devil” if you’re describing a monster who is using this noise.
Sharing a few animal noises here, I feel, is helpful for some folks to get an understanding of how they can shape organic monster noises. Hopefully this helped! There’s so many out there, like the rumble of a crocodile or screech of a barn owl that can be used too. Good practice could be exploring the variety of eerie animal noises to toss onto your monsters.
What happens if you combine a few of them, too? Something no doubt terrifying, I bet.
Creepy Mechanical Noises
This particularly eerie noise has featured a few times in creepy compilations I watch on youtube. Why wouldn’t it? On a foggy day such as this, hearing a broken tornado siren probably put so many people on edge. I know in movies like Silent Hill, the siren was used for some strong tension. Sirens come in times of peril in every instance, and are used a lot to a potent degree in horror.
Something like this could be described as “The broken, repeating shriek of a siren, rising and falling in tone unnaturally as if warning of some never-ending doom”. Keep in mind to also find and describe EMS in your book if you’re utilizing world-changing events. I sort of regret not utilizing the EMS in my book when the world-changing event occurred, but you can’t win everything! It probably happened. I just failed to describe it. Oops!
A classic horror noise is the chainsaw, bringing to mind movies such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and what have you. The “Gritting, whirring scream” of a chainsaw can strike fear into almost anyone given being chased by someone wielding a chainsaw can lead to an extremely gory, painful death. I feel like mechanical noises in general would have the word ‘whirring’ tacked onto them a lot.
Describing the startup of the chainsaw prior to the climax of when the machine is actually on can describe too. Something like: “The tug rendered a growl from the machine, but that didn’t do it… another, then another, my fate was to be sealed soon, but when? Upon the continuous roar, I knew I needed to run faster.”
I used to think ‘getting your teeth drilled’ was by something like this and was terrified. Luckily that misconception of mine was destroyed when I ended up getting them done in real life, which honestly was nothing compared to the horror show I had in my mind. There’s something about drills that are terrifying. You can use them to drill holes into flesh and possibly bone, depending on the strength. As a horror tool, I feel it’s effective.
“Whirring” and “Screeching” come in well here again, like the chainsaw. Though I don’t think “roar of a drill” works so much as “screech of a drill”.
Mechanical noises in general can really cause some people’s hearts to clench, so for modern horror, these work very well. We’ve been exposed to a variety of noises in this modern era, after all.
I leave you with this scary train noise… that I recorded myself! Yes, I joke about there being a haunted train in my living area. I’ll try to get a better sound if I take a walk while the train goes by, perhaps for a future article.
Alright so this distorted, weird sound is a perfect example of just how sound can be used to be extremely creepy in horror and hard to describe. Something tells me: “Grating, moan-like grunting” isn’t as effective as listening to the sound here. Adding in terms like “unnatural” and “distorted” though will help your case in a horror situation, as well as “Growing louder and louder”.
Human moans, screams, and groans tend to blend well in both horror and erotica. What? It’s true–all about context in this case, to be honest.
This is a better example of a tortured moan of some sort. (Also the music in the video is creepy as hell but we’re not going to talk about that now.) I also discussed this horror piece in my article Nightmares On Christmas: 5 (Mostly) Underrated Horror Pieces you should check out as a horror fan! because it’s just too good. Anyway, this is an example of possibly a “morphed, wordless wailing and cries that imply the person would be better off dead long before those sounds were uttered”. I think capturing the emotion in this sort of piece is really effective.
How warped or tortured is your humanoid? Is there gurgling, liquid like blood or mucous in their lungs/throat? Think of how our voices can be warped and edged with agony.
Infants crying can be really creepy if used right. We often see them used as bait in horror or actual horror monsters like in this case. (Even though this is a fetus, not an infant, but you get it, same concept.) What’s so scary about the cries of babies? Well, humans tend to be vulnerable because generally we’ll check to see what’s wrong if it’s in some unusual area. Or maybe not check, but truly consider why there is a child crying in the middle of nowhere.
“There was a demonic undertone to the monster’s cries, which mimicked that of an infant as it dragged itself ever closer in a sloshing of loose flesh.” That’s what I came up with for this one. Of course, like in the last case, you could lace it with emotion, be it cries of sheer anger or curiosity. Either way, it’s going to be creepy.
Describing horror can be a difficult thing, but if done right, very effective. Even if my describing of things in this article didn’t help, I hope I shared a few sounds here I enjoyed for horror that sparked ideas. I think a good way to come up with noises for horror is to do a little bit of research on that end, then trying to figure out different ways to describe it. Truly, there is no right way to do this. You could strike fear in one reader and get ‘meh’ from another. Horror is a fickle beast, but it’s a fun one nonetheless.
To also elaborate on what I said in the beginning of the article, your target audience is important. If you’re going broad, you might want to be less specific. Targeting a specific area or location in your works will allow for more exact sounds to be described.
As for me, I’ve always found describing the looks of something much more easy, but I think that’s the case for most people.
Interested in a vampire horror book? Look no further than my The Dancing Crow!