The terrifying sound of Sinister 2

A big release on this year’s horror movie calendar, Sinister 2 hits cinemas today and promises to have audiences the world over cowering in cinema rows. The sequel to the 2012 horror movie, Sinister 2 follows a protective mother and her 9-year-old twin sons as they find themselves in a rural house, terrorized by an evil spirit as it continues to spread its influence.

Paul Hackner, who shouldered the responsibility of sound designer, sound re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor on the film, chatted to us on his thoughts on the genre, what makes quality horror sound design and how he and his team approached the crafting of the film’s chilling atmosphere.

“Horror is an interesting genre for cinematic sound,” Hackner begins. “It employs both extreme realism and fantastical sound design in each project. In order to make a movie sound scary it is necessary to have the setup of the film be extremely quiet, realistic and detailed. Once the supernatural narrative begins, the sound has no boundaries and can become surreal and often musical.”

Sound is of course integral to moulding an effectively terrifying atmosphere, but according to Hackner, both the audio and the visual are equally important and must be carefully harmonised in order to really get audiences jumping out of their skin.

“Horror films present the same challenges for sound and visuals,” he explains. “Great horror films have visual and sound languages that must be constant in their own way. Hitchcock taught us in Psycho that seeing a slashing knife in a shower is extremely disturbing. Yes, the film relies on music stings to enhance the horror of the knife but the visuals and sound actually work in tandem. Kubrick taught us that you create an amazing unsettling tension just watching – and hearing – a little boy ride a Big Wheel tricycle down long creepy hotel hallways. The shifting sound of Danny’s wheels from wood to carpet creates an amazing tension yet it is totally based in reality. I don’t think the soundscape has any more latitude for being weird or strange.”

The Science of Scares

As can be seen, Hackner’s methodology is heavily idealised based on the theoretical works of other great sound artists, and this is heavily ingrained in his process when it comes to utilising sound to manipulate an audience and building the perfect scare.

“In David Byrne’s How Music Works he writes about a concept from theatre: ‘Tell the audience what you are going to do, and then do it’,” he continues. “A great jump scare is created by pushing and pulling the emotions of the audience and then delivering what they want when they don’t expect it. If everything suddenly gets quiet and the music drops out that is not necessarily scary. It can often pull the audience out. It is more effective to have eerie drones, creepy winds, and rumbles come and go. The notion is counterintuitive, but it is necessary to let the audience know that a jump scare is about to happen. The trick is that you manipulate the audience to let go and give in to the soundscape and then you can smack them in the face with a loud gut wrenching sound.”

With inspiration coming from so many horror greats, Hackner has a very clear view of what he feels constitutes top-notch horror sound design: “It must be dynamic and organic,” he tells us. “The most important tool in horror is the use of silence contrasted with loud moments. I believe human nature is quite simple. We like roller coasters because of the anticipation, speed and fear that all good rides entail. Horror films need to have great quiet moments juxtaposed with loud sound design that is integrated to the project. The audience should never feel that a sound is new or weird but rather some that they have felt or heard before.”

This ideology provided a direct and defined path for Hackner and his team to follow when crafting the film’s sound:

Sinister 2 presented many opportunities for sound design,” he explained. “The first layer I focused on was ambiences. The insect sounds, wind and creepy room tones create a special bed for the Sinister series. The second layer were the creepy offstage sounds that draw the characters into scary moments. It is important to shy away from overused sound effects library creaks and bangs that lure characters into scary situations.

“The final layer is the ghostly and subliminal sound design. Each horror film has its own language when it comes to creepy sounds. For Sinister 2, I used processed vocals to represent the ghostly sounds as well as modulated low-end sounds to create subliminal tension. A large aspect of the sound design is meant to be masked by dialogue and music creating a sound design palette that is felt rather than heard.”

Like it’s predecessor, much of the film’s scare-factor is delivered via antiquated sound and picture technology such as movie reels and old vinyl players, and this unique element provided Hackner with a lot of room to get creative with his sound design:

 “My favorite part of the project was creating the newest aspect of the Sinister horror soundscape. In addition to the 16mm films, the demon in Sinister 2 reveals himself in a shortwave radio. Creating the creepy sounds in the broadcast was a culmination of all the things that led me to be a sound designer.”

He continues: “Like the original Sinister, the 16mm films in Sinister 2 do not have any production sound, dialogue or foley. The unique aspect of Sinister 2 is that there is a record player that plays music while the kids watch the movies. I had to create a demonic sound for the mechanics of the evil record player and process the music to sound like it was coming out of this strange old-fashioned gramophone.”

But great ideas aren’t all it takes to sculpt a truly haunting soundscape, and the team had access to a wealth of gear to make their vision a reality.

“The main tools that helped me in this project were Audioease’s Speakerphone 2, Izotope RX4 Advanced, and Fab Filter Pro Q2,” Hackner recalls. “Speakerphone was extremely helpful in creating a creepy hyper-real gramophone sound for the music in the 16mm films. It has an amazing set of tools that allow me to create the warble of the records and the resonance of the speaker horn. Izotope RX4 Advanced was incredibly useful in dealing with the production sound issues ranging from removing dolly squeaks within dialogue, de-noising scenes with thick windy ambiences, as well as suppressing cicada and wind sounds that obscured dialogue during important performances by the actors. Fab Filter Pro Q2 is my new favourite tool for mixing. Matthew Iadarola, the dialogue re-recording mixer, skillfully utilised Pro Q’s EQ match to make ADR sound just like production. It is just amazing.”

Of course, as with any sound design project, even when you’re armed to the teeth in the technology and creativity departments, not everything goes smoothly. But Hackner and his team managed to not only overcome production obstacles, but turn them around and incorporate them to compliment the film’s overall sound.

“Sinister 2 was filmed in the American midwest town of Illinois during the summer. The cicada sounds were extremely loud and had a natural rise and fall that was not conducive to smooth sounding film editing. My dialogue editor managed to cull enough production cicada sounds to recreate the natural ebb and flow of the insects ratcheting up and down. In order to embellish this I created custom surround ambiences of cicadas to embed the production insects into the environment. What began as a technical challenge transformed into a beautiful leitmotif. We even added additional cicada sound waves to embellish the emotions and tension of quiet scenes.”

“Sinister 2 and the original Sinister have an extremely unique horror soundscape,” Hackner concludes. “It is almost impossible to determine what is sound design, score or licensed music. This marriage of horrific music and sound helps make the films have such an amazing sense of dread and terror. I wish I could tell you more, but you have to see the movie to hear it first!”