Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alien: space, screams and Michel Chion

Sound plays a huge part in horror, the best example being that when I get too scared I mute the building creepy music, thus eliminating the aural tension. I have a theory that horror of late is losing some of its melodramatic elements, as I cannot think of a recent horror musical soundtrack that so readily evokes fear such as those from Psycho, Halloween or Friday the 13th (did Saw have a theme song?). The trailer for Alien capitalizes on this use of music in that there are no voices, rather a building music which crescendos in an animalistic snarl and machinery breaking down, followed by silence, where the tag line appears: “In space no one can hear you scream.” This trailer functions as “a machine built to give birth to a scream” (Michel Chion) and yet we do not have a woman’s scream, rather a pseudo-creation of one through cat and mechanical sound. Is this then why the viewer still wants to see the movie, as the promise of the erotic screaming point, as Chion puts it, is not yet revealed?
Returning to Alien’s tagline, this is not unique to space, but is the premise of most horror. Fear, in most narratives, requires a group to split-up thereby isolating the individuals in order that no one can hear them scream. And if no one can hear you there is no chance of rescue. This may have been one of the investments of setting this movie in space. However, by setting the film in space to be scientifically correct the exterior shots of the ship should have had no sound. This speaks to Chion’s thought that “filmmakers don’t necessarily have to make use of the real space where sounds circulate, but the perceptual expectations of today’s spectator are more and more determined by it” (167).
Horror works best in locations of extreme isolation. But audiences are not willing to forgo the power of sound. Thus, perhaps a more fitting tag line would have been: “In space no one can hear you scream…except the audience.”


gathatoulie said...

fantastic post!

I'm curious to know, what book precisely are you citing page 167 of?

Kiva said...

One of my favourite all time books on film: "The Voice in Cinema" by Michel Chion (trans. Claudia Gorbman).

It changes the way you watch/listen to film.