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Aural Fixation: What’s Scarier — Silence or Sound? A Closer Look at the Scores for ‘The Thing’

By  · Published on October 13th, 2011

Anyone who has seen a horror film knows the cue for when a scare is right around the corner – the music begins to draw out the tension before a percussive boom reveals whatever monster or villain (or in this case, shape shifting alien) has made a sudden appearance on screen. Because it is not just the image that is terrifying, it is the sound leading up to its reveal that contains the real fear. Ever watch a scary movie on mute? The scares on screen become almost comical without the music or sound. Even just listening to the music from a horror film (without the accompanying visuals) instinctively puts you on edge. (And yes – I listened to these scores with the lights ON, thank you)

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) took us to a remote research station in Antarctica where the sudden appearance of a seemingly stray snow dog and a low flying helicopter bring us into a world of extreme weather, extreme isolation and a lot of questions. This year, director Matthijs van Heijinigen Jr. is bringing The Thing back to theaters as a prequel to Carpenter’s film. Heijinigen’s film works to explain how things came to be at the start of Carpenter’s tale and the scares and score have been amplified along with it. Famed composer Ennio Morricone created the haunting, but minimal score for Carpenter’s film while composer Marco Beltrami has created a more “traditional” horror score for Heijinigen’s prequel.

Morricone is best known for his work creating the scores for Spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but stripped things down for The Thing, creating a score that could almost be mistaken for ambient noise at times. Morricone’s score worked to play into the silence, highlighting how it would begin to close in on a person already in an isolated location, suddenly realizing that even though they are not alone, those with them may not be who they seem.

Beltrami gives us a bit more fleshed out score that plays up the tension as the group realizes what they are facing and the frenetic pace as the action comes to a desperate pitch in the film’s climax. Uneasy strings and sudden percussion keep you from ever feeling fully at ease with Beltrami’s score, but Morricone’s near silent score creates the same effect because you are constantly wondering when the sounds (and the scares) are going to come rushing in.

The question then becomes what is more frightening – ominous music or little to no sound at all? Sure – horror films are less scary on mute when the music is not there to put you on edge, but a horror film without those cues can make you more anxiety ridden because you are left with little to go off of while immersed in the story. This question of more or less could also be applied to the two films themselves. Heijinigen’s The Thing answers questions posed by Carpenter’s The Thing, but in some ways not knowing those answers while watching Carpenter’s vision was more terrifying because you did not know what was going on or what was going to happen next. The presence of music works to turn up the pressure, but not having music to go off of can almost be more upsetting because your imagination is left to run wild.

In both films, the focus is on the visuals on screen and the psychology of how the characters begin to turn on one another as they question who is truly who they claim to be and whom they can trust. Both Beltrami and Morricone’s scores work to keep the tone of these films tense and unsettling, working as a constant reminder that nothing is what it seems. There are hints of Morricone’s score in Beltrami’s, which is updated with touches of more jarring electronic sound effects woven into the music and a fuller orchestral sound. This helps with the feeling that these films are intended to accompany (not compete against) one another. Looking at the films from that perspective, it is almost more frightening to have a more full-bodied score lie out the origin story and then get to the second act (as it were) where that score has been stripped down – a sign that movement (and life) are beginning to disappear.

The soundtrack for The Thing (2011) is available through Back Lot Music.

  1. “God’s Country Music”
  2. “Road To Antarctica”
  3. “Into The Cave”
  4. “Eye Of The Survivor”
  5. “Meet and Greet”
  6. “Autopsy”
  7. “Cellular Activity”
  8. “Finding Filling”
  9. “Well Done”
  10. “Female Persuasion”
  11. “Survivors”
  12. “Open Your Mouth”
  13. “Antarctic Standoff”
  14. “Meating Of The Minds”
  15. “Sander Sucks At Hiding”
  16. “Can’t Stand The Heat”
  17. “Following Sander’s Lead”
  18. “In The Ship”
  19. “Sander Bucks”
  20. “The End”
  21. “How Did You Know?”

All songs on this soundtrack composed by Marco Beltrami.

Do you find silence or sound scarier in horror films? How appropriate is the track titled “Meating Of The Minds”?

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