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Animal Screams Manipulate Movie Audiences : Discovery News

One reason why "The Exorcist" and "The Shining" scared audiences so much is that both had a lot of animal screaming in the soundtracks.

- Animal distress calls in film soundtracks influence human emotions on a primal level.

- The sounds affect our feelings because humans and other vertebrates are hardwired to react to harsh and unpredictable noises.

- Film soundtracks are getting better at manipulating our emotions, since the science behind this phenomenon is coming to light.

From screaming meerkats to roaring lions, animal distress calls and other animal vocalizations are being included, or copied by instruments, in film soundtracks to influence human emotions on a primal level.

The musical manipulation works because humans and other vertebrates are predisposed to be emotionally affected by animal yells, human baby cries, and other noises that may sound harsh and are unpredictable, according to a new study published in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters.

As a result, snakes, lions, hippos, birds, whales, dolphins and even fish are now being recorded for film soundtracks, or are being emulated by musicians. In the future, more such sounds will likely be included in movie scores, which will probably do a better job at influencing audience emotions since the science behind the process is coming to light.

Daniel Blumstein, who co-authored the new study, told Discovery News that "our results suggest that good composers and those putting the entire soundtrack together are tapping into a common mammalian, and probably avian, phenomenon -- that certain types of sounds evoke certain sorts of emotions."

Blumstein, who is chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, added that composers are "tapping into our mammalian roots to evoke fear, a basic emotion. Everyone knows what a really upset dog sounds like, versus one just barking, and everyone knows what a fear scream sounds like. These (distress calls) are remarkably conserved among mammals and in birds."

He and colleagues Richard Davitian and Peter Kaye heard plenty of screams, shrieks, wails and other fear-inducing sounds after analyzing the soundtracks for 102 films from four genres: adventure, dramatic, horror and war. Choices were based on Internet film sites' public polling lists of the best films within these categories.

The researchers determined that the soundtracks for each film genre possessed characteristic emotion manipulating techniques. The scores for dramatic films, for example, had more abrupt frequency shifts, both up and down, to induce emotional changes in moviegoers.

Horror films, on the other hand, usually had screaming females, while adventure films incorporated a lot of noisy male screams into their soundtracks. War movies had more fluctuations in volume than expected.

While humans often served as the soundtrack screamers, the researchers detected non-human animal sounds in many films.

"From sound editor Murray Spivak's groundbreaking work on "King Kong" (1933) right until today, including films such as sound designer Christopher Boyes' "Avatar" (2010), the basic material of many film sound effects start with real, recorded biological animal vocalizations," said Kaye, who is himself a musician and composer for television and film.

He added that usually these people "can often be found at zoos with their portable recorders and headphones on."

This latest study was even inspired by Blumstein's field studies on marmots. While looking at acoustical features of marmot pup screams, he discovered that some characteristics were difficult to measure because they were filled with nonlinear elements. He later determined that virtually all mammal screams shared these harsh, rough and unpredictable qualities.

"I then did some experiments with marmots and found that adding noise to adult alarm calls made the calls scarier," Blumstein said.

Electronic manipulation of such sounds is just one technique that composers use to create the nonlinear noises that can whip audiences into a state of suspense or fear, according to the researchers. Other methods include having brass and wind instrument players over-blow, or directing violin players to rapidly move their bows across the strings without losing contact with their instruments.

The more extreme these sound effects are, the better the audience response seems to be, indicated Kaye.

"As any of us movie lovers well know, when confronted by the supernatural, gigantic, or just plain nasty and gnarly, we humans will express our immediate emotions with passion and vigor," Kaye said. "It seems that all of us vertebrates do it!"