Sound Design in Ghost Stories: Analytical Essay

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Sound Design in Ghost Stories “Genres that aim to initiate strong and intense emotional and bodily effects in the viewer (such as horror films or thrillers) produce complex audiovisual metaphors that elucidate affective and physical experiences.”(Fahlenbrach, 2008) Sound design has the incredible ability to evoke emotional and physical responses from audiences, which is profoundly noticeable in the horror genre. Sound is “greatly involved in the production of dread”(Heimerdinger, 2012) and offers a much more inclusive experience than visuals alone, allowing for more character and complexity.

Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, 2017) is a psychological horror adapted from the 2010 stage play of the same name, written by Nyman and Dyson. The film is a moral tale about guilt and the long lasting effects of past trauma. The narrative follows Professor Philip Goodman(Andy Nyman) as he investigates three supernatural case studies in an effort to disprove the existence of ghosts, but becomes haunted by his own past mistakes. Nyman and Dyson have both expressed a love and undeniable talent for supernatural horror and comedy, which is recognisable in Dyson’s writing in The League of Gentlemen(BBC, 1999-2002) and The Guides(Jeremy Dyson, 2002), and Nyman’s roles in The Woman in Black(Herbert Wise, 1989), Dead Set(Yan Demange, 2008) and Crooked House(Damon Thomas, 2008). Ghost Stories has no credited sound designer, with the writers wanting to emulate as much of the stage performance as possible. The film’s supervising sound editor Martin Cantwell(Casino Royale, Kingsman: The Secret Service) reported that the directors had a very specific vision for the sound design that seemed to replicate the stage show almost exactly. Cantwell explains that he never saw the show before he started working on it and stated that the similarities in soundscape was a “happy accident from good direction”(M Cantwell, 2019, personal communication). The sound design in Ghost Stories attempts to blur the line between reality and fantasy, which is achieved through sense of space. A noticeable binary in the soundscape is the difference in space between a characters “safe space” and the areas they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Goodman’s first case study revolves around Tony Matthews, a nightwatchman in his late fifties. Tony’s office acts as his safe space, as it is confined compared to the large warehouse outside. The sound in Tony’s office reflects that of a small room, as expected, but as he moves further away from his office, the reverb on his footsteps and movements becomes much larger, as does the reverb on the music playing from his office, giving a sense of complete isolation. Although not completely visible, the audience can conclude Tony is in a large space where he can’t see much, raising the tension. Here, sound is used to give the audience a point-of-view experience, encouraging them to endure the situation from Tony’s perspective.

Goodman’s second case is Simon Rifkind, a nervous man in his early twenties. Similar to Tony, Simon’s safe place is in his car, and he feels unsafe outside in the open forest. During Simon’s case, the supernatural force haunting him ends up inside the car, rendering it unsafe. This is implied in the sound design as when the creature enters the car, the small car appears to take on the reverberation of a wide, open space, mimicking Simon’s terror.

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Unlike the other two, the case of Mike Priddle aims to oppose the audio conventions that have been presented to the audience. Priddle’s apparent “safe space” is a large, open field with reverb that is unusually small for the area. In contrast, the reverb becomes larger as he enters the nursery in his house. The overall arc of sage vs unsafe spaces seems to blur the line between reality and fantasy, which is emphasised in Goodman’s arc. At the beginning of the story, Goodman’s dialogue, footsteps, and actions appear to be extremely close to the audience. However, as the story continues, and he becomes more and more plagued by psychosis, the atmosphere becomes much larger, to the point of being unbearable, until he is returned to a safe place after the climax. This subtle yet effective design place the audience inside the protagonist's mind, forcing them to experience what he is going through.

“Atmosphere can not only make up for a weak narrative but thrive in the vacuum created by its diminished force”(Spadoni, 2014). Cantwell explains that creating an effective horror soundscape requires subtle elements to be carefully crafted around the plot. Ghost Stories uses a classic horror sound trope which Cantwell refers to as the “placement of silence”, which uses lack of sound or atmospheric noise to create tension. This is achieved by having no sound over a specific scene, either to emphasise a small sound, or to make the audience uncomfortable, as most film audiences have become accustomed to having a soundtrack underneath every scene and feel uncomfortable when there is a lack of sound.

One major plot-related audio motif in the film is heavy, laboured breathing which foreshadows the death of a character at the end. Similar to Cantwell’s designs for creating space using reverb, he increasingly distorts the sound of the breathing to suggest that the characters are not in reality. A common plugin used to distort the audio throughout the film is a flanger, which modulates the sound and gives it a very distinctive, metallic sound. When combined with the reverb, the breathing begins to sound very unnatural, contributing to the atmosphere of “unreality”.

During most films, audience members place trust in the filmmakers to tell them a story without omitting anything. However, in horror, audiences expect to be deceived, wanting to enhance the horror experience by allowing themselves to be mislead. Fahlenbrach(2008) states that horror can initiate “strong and intense emotional and bodily effects in the viewer” which are stimulated by the atmosphere created by the filmmakers. In horror, sound is arguably the most important stimulus in creating an emotional reaction in the audience as many horror films use low key lighting so much of the narrative is told through the soundscape.

Bibliography:

  1. Fahlenbrach, Kathrin. (2008) ‘Emotions in sound: audiovisual metaphors in the sound design of narrative films.’ Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 2 (2), pp. 85+. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link-gale-com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A196442141/AONE?u=ucca&sid=AONE&xid=24024fbf. Accessed 13 Nov. 2019.
  2. Ghost Stories. (2017). [film] Directed by Dyson, J. and Nyman, A. [DVD] UK: Warp Films.
  3. Heimerdinger, J. (2012) ‘Music and sound in the horror film & why some modern and avant-garde music lends itself to it so well’. Seiltanz. Beiträge zur Musik der Gegenwart, 4, pp.4-16.
  4. Spadoni, R. (2014) ‘Horror Film Atmosphere as Anti-narrative (and Vice Versa)’. R. Nowell (Ed.). Merchants of Menace: The Business of Horror Cinema, pp. 109–128. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
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