Musical Terror: It Follows and the Mastery of the Audibly Uncanny

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“This thing … it’s gonna follow you.”

As Hugh speaks these unnerving words to Jay during the first act of David Robert Mitchell’s, It Follows (2014), we could be mistaken in thinking these words refer to the film’s music as well as its plot. The film is an effective horror film, taking many visual and stylistic cues from 80s horror such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), as well as many retro filmic elements from classic horror directors such as John Carpenter. However, by far the most chilling element of the film in terms of evoking pure horror is its score. Composed by Richard Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace) the score of It Follows works in a variety of complex and manipulative ways; subverting audience expectation and emotion with non-traditional musical techniques, abrupt rhythmical shifts, and a soundscape of rich textual noises that at times leap the boundaries of the cinematic medium to affect the viewer in profound physical ways. In this essay, I will critically examine the score of It Follows, accounting for its effectiveness as a new classic of contemporary horror film music. I will present this argument within three core issues. The first, to focus on the score in terms of the film itself; what significance does the score hold in relation to the characters and story of the wider film? How do the sounds we hear help to elevate and evaluate the personalities, spaces, and social psychology of what we see on screen? Secondly, my attention will turn to the audience; how does the structure and aesthetic of the music work to startle and shock its audience? How does the music both mentally and physically affect its audience? Finally, my critical evaluation will turn to the genre and style of the music within the score. Why are so many classic horror films scores largely composed of the electronic sounds of the synthesizer? The electronic synthesizer and horror have for decades shared a close affiliation, thus I will focus on the audibly uncanny effect emulated by the synthesizer, making the critical connection to horror in terms of the relationship between bodies, machines, and technology within a postmodern world of human fears and anxieties.

“Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you.”
Musical Signifiers

Writing about the relationship between film and music, Peter Larsen states that “music creates a sound universe round the narrative and at the same time is one of the expressive elements that creates the narrative.” (Larsen, 2005, p.208) The aesthetic relationship between the audio qualities of music working to enhance and enrich the visual qualities of the cinema has long been established as an important cornerstone of both popular and experimental filmmaking. Claudia Gorbman notes this relationship beginning to develop towards the very birth of cinema, claiming that, within the silent era, music “had important semiotic functions in the narrative … it provided historical, geographical, and atmospheric setting, it helped depict and identify characters and qualify actions.” (Gorbman, 2003, p.37) The score for It Follows continues this tradition by working with the narrative, style and characters of the film to further emphasize and highlight certain visual signifiers, but is also used to mentally communicate a more detailed interpretation of certain moods, emotions and feelings felt by the characters and personalities within the film’s narrative; elements that could not as effectively been explored solely by visual aesthetic alone.

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     To illustrate this point in regards to It Follows, it would first be appropriate to detail some of the film’s main characters and plot. The narrative of It Follows concerns Jay, a young woman of whom has recently started dating Hugh, a kind-but-mysterious man who seems largely unknown within Jay’s community. Often innocent and childlike in her sensibilities, Jay begins to explore her sexuality; she sleeps with the older and more experienced Hugh after their second date, but is soon abruptly knocked out by Hugh, waking up tied to a chair in an empty car park. Here, Hugh explains to Jay that, via sleeping with her, he has passed along a curse that will slowly follow her in the form of a human; this curse may take the identity of anyone, even close friends or loved ones. Whatever its form, the curse will forever follow Jay, walking at a zombie styled pace until one of either two things happen. If the curse catches Jay, it will kill her in a brutal and violent manner. Yet, if Jay can sleep with someone else before this happens, she will pass on the curse to said person. Hugh explains that, if Jay is killed, the curse will then work its way back down the line; coming for him, and eventually, moving on to whomever started the curse. Ultimately, Jay will meet Greg, a local boy with an independent and socially closed attitude. Greg takes advantage of Jay, gaining her trust by pretending to believe her and protect her from the curse, and eventually using this as an excuse to sleep with her.  

     Within this plot, the film’s music works in many effective ways; the first of which relates directly to the characters of the film. Interesting to note are the names of the individual tracks on the score. ‘Jay’ and ‘Greg’ are each given their own named tracks that serve within the film both as introductions of personality and indications of their character’s onscreen presence. The track ‘Jay’ is an innocently sobering tune with an often darkly descending melody. The track is composed of two conflicting textures, one of which sits above the baseline of the wider soundscape, a mid-pitched synthesiser that cries out atmospherically with reverberation; lost and lonely, yet not without some degree of hope. The second comes in the form of a low and sharp vibrating base synthesizer at the end of each melody; this base seems to stalk and endanger the higher pitch, appearing abruptly and aggressively to drown out the cries. The track appears in the film as Jay bathes in a swimming pool before being past the curse, thus it reflects her innocence, her vulnerability, but also foreshadows her later demise. The track is also played just before Hugh and Jay sleep with each other, indicating Jay’s imminent exposure to Hugh’s deception. This music refers to what Michel Chion labels ‘empathetic music’, referring directly to Jay’s vulnerable state, yet also the film’s calm and subdued tone as she sombrely floats upon the still and tranquil water surface. (Chion, 1994) To contrast, the track ‘Greg’ is made up of short bursts of quickly ascending beats which eventually begin to overlap and trip over each other. The track is darker and more frustrated, an inpatient and frantic echoed beat that reacts and moves too quickly and ignorantly to notice its own interrupted musical cues. The music is spontaneous, unstructured, and unhinged, as are Greg’s actions in taking advantage of Jay, thus his named track reflects the psychology of his character’s personality. Commenting on this profound link between audio and filmic visuals, Cara Marisa Deleon claims that, “When visuals need to be accented, the story moved along or a character emphasized, it is the score that provides added emotional and intellectual weight.” (Deleon, 2010, p.12) Through hearing these tracks, the film spectator is not only helped to understand the inner tensions and motivations of these onscreen characters, but is also provided with an audio binder that acts as an indicator and intensifier of their physical and emotional presence. The film’s music helps carry its story, but also acts as a shortcut for effectively engaging and connecting with the film’s characters on both an intellectual and emotional level.

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     It Follows harbours its tone of paranoia and anxiety within the unknown, within the unseen. The ‘fear’ within the film is generated by the notion that Jay does not know who or where the curse may be at any given moment, yet does know that it is heading directly towards her. This power dynamic is haunting, underlining the entire film with tension, even during moments of calm. The film’s music is thus used to fuel this fear by associating certain sounds and audio textures with the unseen presence of the curse. The curse is audibly signified in the film by visceral and primitive synthesizer sounds such as stomping, ticking, itching, and burning. These unpleasantly piercing sounds seem to decrease or increase in volume and intensity depending on the curse’s spatial relation to Jay; yet because the sounds are non-diegetic, the audience is made aware of the presence of the curse before Jay, thus evoking a collective audience response of panic and urgency before any one of the film’s characters are aware of any potential off-screen danger. This panic is produced by the film’s soundtrack in teaching the spectator to fear certain sounds in early scenes of onscreen panic, before then deploying these textural noises as warning sirens and non-diegetic indicators of incoming danger and peril later in the film. For example, the film opens with the death of a briefly seen character named Annie. As Annie runs out distressed from the front door of her suburban home, the building sound of stomping footsteps begins to slowly increase in volume and intensity. At this point, the spectator cannot see the curse on screen, but via the tactile sounds, we understand that danger is increasingly close. As Annie runs for her car, we hear the curse’s main theme for the first time. A distorted ticking noise creeps into the foreground of the audio mix, bringing with it a bellowing base thud that abruptly calls out at the end of every bar. The music then evolves further, intensifying with greater atmospheric urgency as the curse draws closer to Annie. Annie is killed by the curse shortly after, solidifying the role of the music in the film as a signifier of approaching violent death. The music represents the unseen curse in the scene, but more importantly, represents the instinctive internal panic and horror felt by its victims. This short musical signifier, known as a ‘leitmotif,’ is used as “a special kind of associative theme,” which will also resurface to evoke the same associated emotions once again. (Bribitzer-Stull, 2015, p.10) For example, the same distorted ticking sounds can be heard later in the film when Jay runs from the curse at her school. This time, the audience sees the curse on screen in the form of an elderly lady slowly walking towards Jay. The same musical theme as the one that opened the film begins to play, intensifying audience thrill, but also representing the same instinctive fear within Jay as felt by Annie before her violent death. The film successfully combines the audio signifier of certain tactile sounds with the visual signifier of panic and violent death. Meaning that the film’s score can provoke and embody strong feelings of character and spectator anxiety and paranoia. Because of this, the film deceives its audience through the subtle resurfacing of segments from this music to heighten audience paranoia – although, at times, there may in fact be no immediate danger or peril on screen whatsoever.

“It can look like someone you know, or it can be a stranger in a crowd.”
Musical Affect

Xavier Aldana Reyes states that, “The startle effect or the ‘jump scare’ is, quite easily, the most prevalent somatic effect encouraged and exploited by Horror. (The effect) is largely premised on physiological reflex and is not cognitive in the same way as dread.” (Reyes, 2016, p.151) Later, I shall explore the effectiveness of the score from It Follows to evoke this cognitive dread, but equally important are the fundamental basics of what makes the score so physically affecting to the spectator. The startle effect has been used in both film horror and film horror music since their birth. Some notable examples would include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). During the famous shower scene from Psycho, as well as the opening scene of Jaws, tensions begin low, yet unnoticed, they abruptly rise in violence and brutality. Each scene is accompanied with high-pitched violins replicating quick and sharp stabbing motions; metaphorically piercing the eardrums of the audience as the piercing of the onscreen victim’s skin viciously commences. The sudden frantic motion of cutting and rapid editing is enhanced by the rapid onslaught of aggressive sounds, making the scenes both visually and audibly threatening. The startle effect is provoked by surprise, by exploiting the physical gulf between calm and terror, thus manipulating the visual and audible senses of the spectator. The audio qualities of horror film music are also more difficult to escape than visual ones since the viewer can easily close their eyes or look away from the screen, yet cannot as simply hide from the affective and ethereal nature of sound. Regarding this, Robynn Stilwell notes that “Sound … forces a surrender of control; we cannot turn away. Closing our eyes serves to intensify our experience of the sound because of the lack of interference from visual input; putting our hands over our ears rarely shuts out sounds completely.” (Stilwell, 2001, p.171) The score from It Follows uses the startle effect to produce heightened states of mental and physical panic on several occasions throughout the film. One of the most effective uses arrives during a scene of the curse breaking into Jay’s house. There are two types of startle effect used in this scene, both somewhat contrasting in tone, yet both successfully producing moments of instinctive horror. The first arrives somewhat unexpectedly. As Jay slowly walks to the kitchen to investigate a broken window, the already signified sounds of the curse’s stomping footsteps become louder and more echoed. As the stomping suddenly cuts out, an uneasy sense of calm captivates the film; silence grips the cold atmosphere. Suddenly, Jay turns to see the curse in the form of a dishevelled and beaten naked woman who slowly walks towards her. Upon this visual cue, the strident screaming of several intense synthesizers penetrates the silence. The severe sounds of crackling, burning, and distortion take hold of the film’s image, brusquely disorientating and shocking the viewer into complete sensual submission. The score is also scattered with short awkward and random off-key notes that appear fully formed, yet quickly die into flat and bitter buzzing, replicating the sound of stinging and biting insects such as wasps or mosquitoes. The music is disjointed and jarring, struggling to construct a coherent sound as numerous screams play a range of harsh notes all at once. The effect of the music is to distress and disarm the spectator; the visuals and music work in conjunction like a lock and key to trap the viewer within an inescapable world of aesthetic nightmares. The music at this point correlates directly with the onscreen distress by using harsh ‘stinger’ or ‘shock’ chords that “double events on-screen … to accompany shocking or violent acts.” (Donnelly, 2014, p.32) Neil Lerner explains, “Frightening images and ideas can be made more intense when accompanied with frightening musical sound … through its sudden singer chords and other shock effects.” (Lerner, 2010, p.ix) The shock in this scene is primal, playing on natural human instincts to jolt the spectator into a guarded position of fear. The second example of the startle effect happens just moments later in the film, more unexpected, yet more gradually. Jay runs upstairs and locks herself in her bedroom, before (after letting in a friend and her sister) beginning to hear knocking on the bedroom door. At this point, the score is subtle, a light rumble that sits almost unnoticed beneath the visuals. The score at this point could be described as filler, as overlooked background music; as Claudia Gorbman labels ‘functional music’, “remov(ing) barriers of belief; it bonds spectator and spectacle, it envelops spectator and spectacle in a harmonious space … it makes as a little less critical and a little more prone to dream.” (Gorbman, 2003, p.39) Unlike the echoed stomping before the climax of the previous scene, the low rumbling in this scene works to calm already heightened tensions, eventually dying down to a complete silence when the door is opened to reveal Yara, Jay’s harmless friend. Naturally, this silence lasts for but a few moments before the curse eerily fades in through the darkness from behind Yara. At this point, so too does the music fade in via a rapid succession of quickly descending notes. This music builds up to the shrieking discord of several incoherent notes playing to form an extremely disconcerting soundscape of conflicting textural noises. Because of the music’s descending dissonance, the aesthetic of falling or plummeting is created, working with the arrival of the curse on screen to create the aesthetic effect of heightened anxiety, terror, and bewilderment. John Belton suggests “The flow of sound serves to stabilize the audience, to hold them in place across the visual discontinuities which appear on screen.” (Belton, 1994, p.53) In this scene, as well as the previous, the film’s music acts as a filmic stabilizer wheel during moments of rising/falling tension; working towards the moment of visual and audio shock when the wheel is quickly removed, leaving the audience aesthetically exposed and unbalanced. To place a visual shot of Jay abruptly seeing the curse in complete silence would break the film’s spell and starve the visuals of much of their emotional impact. Regarding this, Scott D. Lipscomb and David E. Tolchinsky observe that “Musical sound provides a cue for the listener concerning whether the narrative is supposed to be preceded as scary, romantic, disturbing … the role of music is significantly enhanced by the level of ambiguity inherent in the visual scene.” (Lipscomb & Tolchinsky, 2005, p.393) Both startle effect build-ups share much of the same visual ambiguity; yet, via musical sound, one works to communicate the heightening of audience tension, and the other works to dampen and subdue audience expectations before the final jump scare. The startle response is highly unconscious; as in the real world, living beings jump and recoil upon swift simulations to promote self-protection. Thus, It Follows, and other horror films alike, use music as a means by which to activate this automatic response; forcing the spectator to raise their natural guard, before using score to skilfully swipe it away again, unnoticed; leaving behind an urgent feeling of heightened vulnerability.

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     While the score from It Follows does at times play to the common horror film practices of shocking and startling its audience, much more apparent in the film is the score’s subtle use in generating the already alluded to, cognitive dread. The score is both dark and unnerving, but what are the instinctive reasons for this? Why does the music in the film force the spectator to shiver with terror? One reason is the already mentioned character signification; the arrival of the curse is signified with threatening stomping and screaming sounds, loudly echoed via way of the film’s often bleak and isolating visuals. But what makes these sounds threatening enough to produce cognitive fear even without the film’s visuals? Peter Larsen alludes to some musical theorists who perceive “a kind of analogy between music and other forms of human expression: when we experience a piece of music as being ‘happy music’, this is because the music reminds us of how happy people talk and move.” (Larsen, 2005, p.73) Likewise, when the curse’s music is played in the film, its rumbling minor chords replicate human moans and groans, its screams resemble pain, its stomping simulates anger and frustration. The mood of the music bellows within a deep grunting voice, embodying intimidating situations or individuals within the spectator’s external experience. Yet, horror music can also move beyond representing fears of the physical, and instead move towards what K.J. Donnelly labels, ‘Demonic Possession’. Speaking of the 1968 Hammer Horror film The Devil Rides Out, Donnelly argues, “that the music is a central component of the materiality of (the film’s) devil … which does not merely signify its presence, it is its presence.” (Donnelly, 2005, p.93) The curse’s theme within It Follows allows its filmic materiality to be experienced by the haunted spectator, possessing their supernatural fears from beyond the screen. Donnelly goes on to suggest that “film music might insert frames of mind and attitude in the listener much like an injection from a hypodermic needle … there is an obvious direct effect, in that hearing is more immediate than vision. Lacking the physical distance between viewer and film on screen, hearing seems to take place ‘inside’ our heads.” (Donnelly, 2005, p.95) Because the curse’s theme within It Follows represents its direct presence, the music itself can bypass the visual distance of the screen, allowing the curse to directly manifest within the minds of the audience. The film’s score acts as a gateway to the spectator’s imagination; this gateway provides privileged access to the cognitive processes of the spectator, effectively communicating the fear, anxiety and dread within the world of the film, as though the spectators themselves are present within it. The manifestation of the film’s score is the manifestation of the film’s curse; it leaps into the mind of the spectator from beyond the screen, distressing and manipulating the audience in a range of successful ways.

“It can look like anyone, but there’s only one of it.”
Musical Otherness

Already mentioned, but not exclusively focused on so far, is the style and genre of the music in It Follows. The film follows a long line of tradition in cinematic horror with its extensive use of the electronic synthesizer to provide the backdrop for its sinister visuals. Electronic sounds representing the ‘unknown’ or ‘unearthly’ began within the science fiction films of the 1940s/1950s, particularly after the invention of the Theremin in the late 1920s. Most notably, in Robert Wise’s 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Theremin is not only used within the score as a musical element, but is also used to represent and signify the film’s aliens, creating an uncanny noise that is on one level noted as musical score, yet on another is accredited with the arrival of an unidentified being. Lisa M. Schmidt comments that “The (Theremin) does seem subject to a pitch instability, a ‘slippery’ or ‘slithery’ quality … this means that the Theremin tends to hit notes that are not within the tonal structure of whatever key the music is using.” (Schmidt, 2010, p.31) With this, the use of electronic music to portray a sense of cinematic ‘otherness’ was solidified. Yet, the use of electronic music was popularised and transformed further into the 1970s/1980s with the development of more complex instruments and computer systems, which included, among others, the Moog synthesizer. Vangelis’s score for Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner used synth music to portray the spatial pastiche and schizophrenic temporality of the film’s postmodern city, calling attention away from the human and nature, and towards the machine, the city, and the manufactured cyborg. But, perhaps most notable when examining the historical relevance of the score of It Follows are the films of John Carpenter. It Follows is in many ways a nostalgic and retro re-thinking of Carpenter’s horror genre work, not to mention many of his film scores, which share much of the same style, tone, and aesthetic as the score from It Follows. Carpenter’s score from Escape From New York (1981) consists of many textural synth layers, creating the same spatial and temporal uneasiness as It Follows, but also primarily concerns itself with ideas surrounding the inhuman and uncanny via its rejection of traditional orchestral instruments to promote the buzzing electrical vibrations of the machine. On the score, Philip Brophy remarks, “the pulse is exceedingly inhuman … it is the product of electrical energy. (T)he synthesizer’s innate capacity for ‘inhumanness’ is exploited to conduct energy and channel it through the score.” (Brophy, 2004, p.99) The music from It Follows reflects these same capacities, but attempts to intensify them further, at times distorting the acoustic vibrations of the score to near electrical purity in order to establish and construct a profound sense of the uncanny; the spectator recognises the sound of the music, yet cannot mentally picture its specific source. Isabella van Elferen, on electronic music, claims “The almost infinite range of drones and white noises that can be created with the help of electronic and digital technology enables a musical expression of transgression and ghostliness.” (van Elferen, 2012, p.63) For example, the track, ‘Doppel’ on the soundtrack begins with an amplified version of the aforementioned stomping footsteps, only this time, surrounded by an intense electrical ringing that slowly builds in volume and distortion. This distortion is highly unpleasant; its audible texture simulates the comparably harsh ring of interference presented on an untuned radio or TV emitting the empty fuzzing of celestial white noise. The audible fuzzing on the track is as sharp as the jagged points of blazing flames, the building electrical screams as industrial as rapid circular saws grinding against strong metal. In this sense, the score’s synthesizers take the form of recognisable earthly sounds, yet present them within the electrical energy of the computer, the machine, and the inhuman. Just as the film’s curse takes on the human form in order to heighten Jay’s anxious state of mind, so too does the film’s score, hiding behind natural and industrial audible textures in order to increase the spectator’s awareness of the uncanny. Regarding this effect, Lisa M. Schmidt conceives, “There is some suggestion that our brains physically interpret electronic sounds as in some way profoundly artificial … thus no matter how pleasing it may be to the ear, the electronic may always signify both itself and an anxiety about authenticity, and might have always been pre-destined to be alien.” (Schmidt, 2010, p.36) The electrical distortion at the beginning of ‘Doppel’ is subject to fears of the inauthentic; the spectator becomes immediately suspicious towards the sounds, not being able to mentally ground the noises within an instrument or physical object, they become unlinked to the material world, instead inhabiting a mental space defined by postmodern anxieties of ever-advancing technologies and machines.

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     It could be argued that the deception behind the material sounds of the electronic synthesizer also hold a much more sinister aesthetic deployment. As already discussed, the central sense of fear within It Follows comes in the fact that the curse following Jay may take the form of any human, even loved family members or friends. Jay lives with her widowed mum after the death of her father, of whom, the audience is shown a photo of on Jay’s bedroom desk as she gazes into a mirror during one scene. Towards the end of the film, Jay’s friends attempt to kill the curse using electricity; Jay stands waiting inside an empty swimming pool, surrounded by live electrical equipment. They wait for the curse to arrive and enter the pool, planning to push the equipment into the water after it does so. But the plan backfires after the curse arrives in the form of Jay’s father. Claudia Gorbman writes about musical sounds in terms of an infant’s sensual experience of their environment, stating, “Even from birth, sounds such as the mother’s heartbeat, digestion, and voice – and why not voices outside the mother’s body? – constitute the sonic environment.” (Gorbman, 2003, p.43) In taking on the form of Jay’s father, the curse is attempting to manipulate the sensual experiences developed during her childhood. The curse takes the form of a nurturing image for the purposes of sinister deception, just as the many tactile electrical sounds on the score take the form of bodily or fleshy noises (e.g. screaming and scratching) to create false environmental references to the sounds first understood and processed during infanthood. Regarding this, Holly Rogers writes, “Because a child enters the auditory realm before it has access to visually encoded information, sound apparently remains the only true remnant of the infantile state.” (Rogers, 2010, p.30) The scene is accompanied by the track ‘Father’; a soundscape of confused sonic references that distort and collide into violent and destructive mental images. The track is both audibly blended and temporally disjointed; we experience its motions not as a single melody or rhythm complimented by musical beats, but rather, how an infant would experience their own sensual environment, as an echoed mashing of yet to be signified sounds; only these sounds are not rooted within the natural or nurturing world, rather within the vicious and unstable electrical world of the postmodern machine. The dystopian soundscape of the score often begins somewhat composedly in many of the film’s scenes, creating what Gorbman cites an “’Oceanic feeling’ … caus(ing) a temporary, benign regression, transporting the subject to the pleasurable realm of early phantasies.” (Gorbman, 2003, p.43) However, with exception to a few of the score’s tracks, the electrical distortion of the synthesizer soon takes over, forcing the spectator to become aware of the music’s material inauthenticity, thus allowing the power of the musical style and genre to manipulate its audience as effectively as the structure of the music itself.

     More than any other musical genre, electronic music most appropriately reflects urban anxieties of the postmodern. It Follows provides temporal ambivalence within its geographical suburban space. Based in Detroit, the space of the film feels both futuristic and retro at the same time. The characters live within a world largely lacking in modern technology; that is, aside from a small TV, where old science fiction films are often heard playing, and an obscure circular electronic device owned by Yara. A chronological reference is never set within the film; Yara’s electronic device would suggest the postmodern age, yet little other technology is seen on screen. The suburban environments within It Follows remain largely detached from modern technology, reflecting a sense of fear and caution since the most technologically advance spaces in the film are found within central Detroit, an area depicted as isolated, decaying, and broken by the film’s camera. In this sense, the tone of the film’s urban environment is reflected within its score. As a musical tool, the synthesiser and electronic music represent the temporal displacement of the postmodern age. Noted again by Isabella van Elferen, “Electronic and digital music have long been culturally inscribed with … anxieties surrounding (the) technological. The technological uncanny plays an important role in electronic and digital horror soundtracks, in which machine-made voices function as uncomfortably enlarged indicators of disembodied presence and technological agency.” (van Elferen, 2012, p.60) Unlike other musical instruments, the sound of the synthesiser does not directly indicate the presence of a human musician, thus the noise seems to exist regardless of human involvement; the autonomous cries of a postmodern machine. Judith A. Peraino reminds readers, “synthesizers generate an electrical signal made up of a continuous pattern of voltage fluctuations that correspond in a one-to-one fashion with the continuous wave of sounds. These fluctuations are then transduced from electrical signals to sound waves.” (Peraino, 2015, p.296) The sound from within a synthesiser is based upon the manipulation of electrical signals, thus the film’s music represents the ethereal presence of technology within a visual world lacking in it. The presence of the curse is expressed by electrical soundscapes full of noise distortion and sound wave vibration, thereby physically interrupting the spectator’s normal listening functions, and instead forcing them to adapt in order to listen to the language of the uncanny machine. The onscreen cityscape of It Follows seems to actively resist and fear the inclusion of modernity, instead attempting to locate its temporal identity within conflicting chronological periods. The music of the film works to disrupt this identity, imposing upon the film vast synth generated soundscapes that evoke the fear of degrading human power and control within a world increasingly operated by technological machines. The track ‘Detroit’ is played in the film while Jay and her friends drive through abandoned and derelict parts of the city. As Jay glances from the car window, the music devolves into a quickly repeated descending of pinpoint synth notes that seem to vanish and arise again before they are consciously processed, thus creating a tone characterised by fleeting moments of uncontrollable and untameable detachment since the music itself does not allow any close emotional connection to be made towards its electrical and ungraspable melody.  The music echoes the tone of the city as presented in the film, situating the spectator at arm’s-length to the environment, thereby reflecting the same sense of world isolation felt by the characters of the film as they desperately wander their surroundings in search of an ultimately unattainable solution to Jay’s begrimed circumstances. Graeme Harper and Jonathan Rayner note the importance of film music and sound as a tool for elevating cinematic landscapes, stating, “Sound and music … can add a mimetic depth to the frame, or film sequence … The cross-sensory aspects of cinematic landscapes are considerably evaluated in any consideration of the aural.” (Harper & Rayner, 2012, p.19-20) The film’s electronically produced music achieves this via tactile and visceral layers of vibrating electrical frequencies to affect the human body alongside the filmic experience. As Shelley Trower notes, “frequencies of vibration in the external world result in corresponding intensities of sense experience, quantifying the connection between the world outside and the interior mechanics of the body and mind.” (Trower, 2012, p.38) Using the synthesiser as its sole source of musical sound, It Follows taps into postmodern fears of technology. The music suppresses the physical space of the film, increasing the spectator’s sense of anxiety and isolation, but also bypassing human consciousness within pure electronic vibrations to draw sensual connections between the body of the spectator and the world of the film itself.

The score of It Follows works on many profound levels, not only by working with the plot and mood of the film to increase action and character motivation, but by operating to affect the spectator as a bridge between their own physical world and the mental world created within the space of the film. The film’s score invites certain emotions and manipulates others, allowing audiences to feel cautiously relaxed, subtly unsettled, and cognitively disturbed, sometimes all at the same time. The music acts as a discourse, surfacing fears that present themselves on screen, yet creating others that never existed within the consciousness of the film at all. The film’s music acts as a powerful aesthetic experience in the film, allowing the spectator to experience the paranoia of the film’s characters, but also as an experience within itself, skilfully organising its musical arrangement to create sonic textures and emotional terror within dark and uncanny layers of tactile soundscapes. For these reasons, I argue that the score itself be recognised as a new classic within the genre; expanding the edges of what horror film music can be, the score never loosens its grip, eerily stalking its audience like the film’s curse, lingering within the darkness of the background until the least expectant moment, before working to shock and disturb even the most brave and fearless of listener.

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Schmidt, L, M. (2010) ‘A Popular Avant-Garde: The Paradoxical Tradition of Electronic and Atonal Sounds in Sci-Fi Music Scoring’, in Sounds of the Future: Essays on Music in Science Fiction Films, ed. Mathew J. Bartkowiak, London: McFarland & Company, Inc.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. beetleypete says:

    Another nicely-tuned academic piece, Darrell. (If you will forgive the pun…) You got this right though. It all worked very well to create the complete horror film experience, with enough originality to keep me watching.
    https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/just-been-watching-15
    Best wishes, and a Happy New Year. Pete.

  2. emmakwall says:

    Fantastic write up, interesting and very well written. Bravo!

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