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Why Do Scary Sounds Frighten Us?

10 Why Do Scary Sounds Frighten Us? - Hearing, Balance and Speech Center

It’s a time of year where many of us are snuggling up on our couch, preparing to watch a movie that is very likely to terrify us. After all, Halloween and horror movies go hand in hand!

Besides the creaking stairs or blood curdling screams that unfold in a good horror flick, the soundtrack and sounds used throughout can send shivers of fear down your spine. You may even find that watching the same movie on mute is much less frightening.

The Fear Response

From an evolutionary biology perspective, automatically acknowledging a potentially deadly situation makes perfect sense. When we stop to think about situations, this takes time. In certain situations, these few seconds that we take to think can literally make the difference between life and death.

Processing and digesting visual information can take longer than processing auditory information. This is evident in the animal world. Humans are just one of a number of species that both generate and respond to sounds and vocalizations when we’re frightened.

Why Do Scary Sounds Frighten Us?

Daniel Blumstein, professor and chair of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, carried out a study looking at how we react emotionally to two types of music.

During his study, Blumstein referred to the sounds and vocalizations we make when alarmed as ‘nonlinear sounds’. These sounds are particularly seen in the mammal world, although they have also been observed in avians. Young creatures will make these sounds to signal distress to the animal’s parents. Over time, our brains have evolved to associate these nonlinear sounds with potentially life-threatening situations. This results in an instantaneous fear response.

Throughout his study, Blumstein and his partners, Richard Davitian and Peter Kaye, had subjects listen to soundtracks from dramatic, war, adventure, and horror movies. The soundtracks for horror movies tended to use nonlinear sounds, which in turn correlated with subjects feeling the most negative emotions.

Put simply, we’re biologically programmed to respond to certain nonlinear sounds with a fear response. And the movie industry have become very good at using this response to illicit emotional reactions.

Now that you understand a little more about nonlinear sounds and their role in fear responses, try watching a horror movie on mute! You may be surprised to find out how much it can impact your perception of the movie. If you’re struggling to hear the movies even when they’re not muted, it may be time for a hearing assessment. To book an assessment, call us on 1-800-HEAR-IT-1 or click here to request an appointment online.


  1. https://www.audicus.com/the-halloween-hearing-special-why-scary-sounds-scare-us/
  2. https://heartlandhearingiowa.com/blog/halloween-hearing-why-do-certain-sounds-scare-us
  3. https://www.salon.com/2013/10/29/why_do_certain_sounds_scare_us_let_science_explain/
  4. https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/person/daniel-blumstein/
  5. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/06/07/rsbl.2012.0374.short?rss=1