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Fear and the Power of Association

Updated: May 18, 2021

(Part 2 of the Eliciting Fear in Horror Films Using Sound Design series)

Hi, and welcome to the second article of my series on eliciting fear in horror films using sound design. In this article, I will first look at how association contributes to the elicitation of fear. Then, I’ll focus on common fear associations and how the associations people make can change over time. Next, I’ll explore unknown sound sources and source location. And finally, I’ll touch on the importance of a sound’s context and environmental indicator sounds.

Unpleasant Memories

When confronted with auditory stimuli, the human brain relies heavily on memories to inform us what the correct emotional responses should be. An individual can perceive a sound to be scary as a result of the associations they’ve made with it. These associations come from the meanings given to the sound, which themselves depend on life experiences or knowledge of the source. If an individual hears a sound with similar characteristics to a sound that is synonymous with a scary memory, this memory can be recalled. This association then drives the individual’s reaction to the sound. Therefore, a sound can trigger a fearful reaction in one person, whilst causing a less extreme, or even positive reaction, in someone else.

Common Associations and Evolution of Associations

There are many sounds that signify danger to the majority of people, such as the menacing rumble of an earthquake or the roars of large predators. If someone hears an aggressive vocalisation from a large animal in their vicinity, it usually informs them that danger may lurk nearby. Loud, high-pitched sounds are often associated with the vocalisations of distressed animals and cause the listener to become anxious. The associations individuals make with a sound that is normally considered positive, can change over time, through evaluative conditioning. This means a sound can acquire a new, negative meaning if it becomes linked to a negative experience.

Unknown Source and Source Location

The less we know about a sound’s source, the scarier the sound can be. Not knowing where the source of a frightening sound is located or what the source of the sound actually is, elicits fear in humans, as a result of human evolution and the threat of predators. Fear and uncertainty are closely linked, and being unaware of a sound’s source makes you feel powerless. It’s been said that "we hear with our ears, but we listen with our imagination". An unsighted sound source causes the human brain to create an image depicting what it perceives the source to look like, using the auditory information it receives.

Context and Environmental Indicator Sounds

Any sound may be frightening, depending on the context. Hearing a sound tells you an event has taken place. Footsteps are not normally considered scary sounds, but can be, if, for example, you are alone in your house at night and no-one is supposed to be in the house with you. Humans are receptive to sounds occurring in their environment, like a breaking twig, creaking floorboard, or footsteps, as they can indicate that something is approaching you. These indicators of potential danger elicit anxiety, making us alert and hyperaware of our surroundings. Loud sustained sounds, like bellowing wind, can be unsettling, as they can mask the aforementioned subtle environmental indicator sounds, potentially concealing incoming danger.

Reference List

Grimshaw, M. (2009, September). The audio uncanny valley: Sound, fear and the horror game. Paper presented at the Audio Mostly Conference, Glasgow, United Kingdom. Retrieved May 26, 2019, from

Introcaso, J. (Writer/Producer). (2018). #27 Spooky sounds [Audio podcast]. Retrieved June 29, 2019, from

May, J. (Producer). (2011, October 18). The sound of fear [Radio broadcast]. London: BBC Radio 4

McGregor, I. (2018). Sound design. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Independently published.

Walden, J. (2016, July 28). How the Creepy Sound of Lights Out was made [Web log post]. Retrieved April 5, 2019, from


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