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Inside the World of a Halloween Sound-Effects Artist

Spooky sound effects haven’t changed much since we first began rattling chains and crunching leaves.

What does fear sound like?
What does fear sound like? Dean Leatherman/Youtube

A chain rattles and the wind blows. A skeleton’s bones clatter and a woman shrieks. A wolf growls and a ghost whispers in the darkness.

Halloween, amirite?

The Halloween sound effects album is a staple of the holiday, almost as inextricably linked to it as trick-or-treating. Each year people buy Halloween sound effects albums with a reliable seasonal fervor usually surpassed only by the sales of Christmas music.

But where do all these spooky sounds come from? Who is out there torturing screaming victims and creating ominous soundscapes? Polite English musicians, for one.

“Halloween sounds are timeless, I think. An old Disney Halloween album is still as popular as ever, and although the market has been saturated in recent years, the sounds themselves do not go out of fashion as far as I can tell,” says Leigh Haggerwood, a professional media composer and musician who has created six Halloween albums himself, as well as a number of others under contract for third parties. “The most popular album I’ve produced to date is Halloween Horror–Scary Sounds and Music. It sold over 50,000 copies in one week back in 2009 and was higher than Thriller in the iTunes chart at one point,” he says.

The history of modern sound effects can be traced back to the live radio plays of the 1920s. Live sound-effect creators would stand in the studio breaking light bulbs, clapping wooden boards together, and shaking panes of sheet metal to recreate the sounds of, say, breaking windows, slamming doors, and growling thunder. A 1931 annual produced by the BBC defined sound effects broadly as “everything that comes out of a loud-speaker, except what is usually classed as ‘Music’ or ‘Speech.’” Within that wide definition, the art of sound-effect creation and the foley arts (for movies) began to evolve. That same year, America got its first full-time sound effects department, at CBS, which is credited as having been a driving force in the development of the industry as a whole.

Jumping ahead to the late 1950s, vinyl records allowed people to bring albums of sound effects home. Novelty records by the likes of Spike Jones, featuring funny monster songs and spooky stories set to eerie effects, became popular. However, possibly the first record with a track of just spooky sounds seems to be a record released by Disney in 1964 called Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. The album features effects that are now Halloween staples: moaning ghosts, barking dogs, clattering chains, and screaming victims, interspersed with short, often comedic, vocal segments that established them. “Disney’s Haunted House album, which was rereleased in 1995, seems to have become a staple in the U.S.A. in particular,” Haggerwood says.

Over the next decade, the cottage industry of Halloween sound-effect albums exploded, as the number of albums being produced increased. Today, a quick Amazon search for “Halloween sounds” pulls up more than 65,000 offerings. “Due to the availability of cheap recording devices, and the easy access to selling in online stores such as iTunes, there has been a huge influx in copycat albums over the past five years,” says Haggerwood. “When I first released Halloween Horror in 2008 it was one of only a handful of horror albums on sale.”

So what does the creation of a Halloween sounds album even look like in the 21st century? Surprisingly, not that different than it would have in the 1920s.

Even with all the changes and technology and increased competition, when creating an eerie soundscape Haggerwood still sticks to the basics. “The main elements are shock factor and creepiness,” he says, “It’s good to find a balance between eerie drones and ambiances that sound weird, and intercut them with fast, loud, and shocking sounds like snarls, bangs, and screams.” Haggerwood picks specific sounds to fit the theme, from cemeteries to torture chambers, he’s working on. “So, for example, a cemetery would utilize the sounds of crickets, owls hooting, and gentle wind as a background, then I would use gravestone sliding sounds, zombie moans and shrieks, and footsteps to bring the scenario to life,” he says.

Of course, recording a zombie’s moan isn’t as simple as going out and recording the undead. Haggerwood often needs to create the effects for his soundscapes from scratch, whether it’s the sound of monsters, birds, or menacing footsteps. “[I] spent a lot of time recording myself breathing, laughing, moaning, rattling chains, asking friends to scream, following circling crows, you name it!” Haggerfield’s methods seem about as simple as they were when live radio players were doing the work. “In the past I’ve borrowed chains from my father’s shed. I’ve hired actresses to spend the afternoon crying and screaming in my studio. I’ve walked through forests recording my own footsteps on leaves, captured the sounds of dripping water, growling dogs, creaking doors, and floorboards.”

The sounds on Haggerwood’s albums, while much more hi-def, are essentially the same variety of noises. For instance, in his torture chamber track, dripping rot and creaking wood seem to permeate the space, accented by the occasional scream or sound of sawing wood (or is it bone?). Some sounds have also become more prevalent over time, such as those evoking technological shocks, like the ghostly TV static and deep bass growls of Haggerwood’s Poltergeist tribute (one of the musician’s favorites).

Technology has changed some things, though. Most notably, the depth of sound is much greater now than when Haggerwood began. Making a sound louder when it is closer and more muffled at a distance was once produced by simply changing the distance between the sound and the mic, but today sounds can be layered and distanced to create any effect desired.

In addition to doing more and more sound effects for Halloween apps, Haggerwood is hoping to bring video into his own soundscapes. “In fact my next venture is to create short, scary videos with similar sound designs so that people aren’t left with just an album cover to look at—but that’s obviously a whole new area.” He doesn’t sound scared.

This article was originally published on October 28, 2015. It has been edited and updated from the original version.