Does it make it easier to stand the horror in a movie when you're part of its making process?

I'm not quite sure how this sounds, but I particularly hate horror movies in the sense that I can't stand them. They are just psychologically too much for me. I wouldn't put it on my business card although I'd have to warn people that I wouldn't quite stand making one of these.

I've actually never even had the occasion to work on a horror project, but when I arrived in the company where I'm working now (not as a sound guy), people (editors, mixers, etc.) kept joking around about how hard it was to work on some scenes of Saw 7. In my corner, I was barely laughing.

Do you have issues with the horror genre? How do you deal with it? @tim prebble, I believe you've worked on 30 Days of Night. How did you (did you?) cope with the most disgusting passages?

I'm certainly not the only one with this handicap.

10 Answers 10


I've worked on 3 or 4 horror films and never had any psychological problems with them but each of them were well made films & the content did not disgust me - I don't think I could or would work on films that are exploititive, which is what I consider those torture pron films like Saw to be. You might see it as a single genre, but like any genre there is a huge range within, from the excellent to the ridiculous/crass... Think of films like The Shining, The Omen, Let The Right One In - they are disturbing works of genius and I would happily work on them. But there are plenty of horror films I would not even bother watching, let along want to work on. Its about WHY; what is the motivation in the film for it to be horrific... So I'd be a little careful about discounting an entire genre based on your preconceptions...

With 30 Days of Night, there are moments that if taken singularly are gross eg I spent hours making the sound of someones head being chopped off with an axe as authentic as possible. But two points: the action is not unmotivated. Why 30 Days works as a film is that you inevitably imagine yourself in the same situation - could you, if you had no other choice, do the same thing? You might instantly say no, but think of soldiers - they have to cross that line. The second point, which someone else made: its not real. Watching a film requires suspension of disbelief - whereas when you are making a film that at times can be near impossible, eg that head chop was partly Visual FX which were not complete when I started work on the film.... If you really can't control your suspension of disbelief as a film maker you would spend all day crying on a tragedy film or all day laughing on a comedy. Life isn't like that - how many times is a joke funny? How many times is a gorey scene repulsive? Usually only a few, the other 5000 times while you're working on it, the content does not affect you the way it does the fist time. Just as a surgeon has to get used to slicing open someones chest, you become desensitized to it.

Funny story: when I was working on 30 Days of Night, a friend had rented some space in my building to shoot a stop motion short film. He was often working late at night when I also was in the studio working.... Every now & again he'd come to see what the hell I was doing as it was freaking him out!

But, it might seem I am disregarding or arguing against your personal issue: you don't want to work on horror films. I TOTALLY support that approach. An important part of being an artist is deciding what you DO NOT DO (eg for me turning down 3 years work on LOTR was the best decision I have made in my entire career) Saying no is empowering. But you have to be resolute. Would you really turn down work on a film if Stanley Kubrick rose from the grave and made The Shining 2?


  • I have been indeed miscategorizing movies. The horror films I was referring to seem to be mainly a subset of horror films where the gore is limitlessly pushed always further, which is what most horror movies have been about this past decade. My situation is a lot clearer now. Feb 12, 2011 at 20:41
  • "which is what most horror movies have been about this past decade" you mean some, not most
    – user49
    Feb 13, 2011 at 0:03
  • @tim thanks for such a balanced and respectful look at the issue. Feb 13, 2011 at 20:12
  • Brilliant answer @tim. Exactly they same approach I like with the horror genres. The excellent, psychologically well-intentioned and well-executed ones are a delight to work on. Jun 15, 2013 at 3:46

I enjoy horror films a lot. The scarier the better for me ;) I worked on The Human Centipede and that was pretty graphic in scenes, but it also shows off the power of sound and how as sound designers/editors we have the ability to really make an emotive connection with the audience. Even if that is just disgust lol With many horror and scary films the sound is what really makes it what it is. Try watching them with the sound off. Paranormal Activity 1/2 are good examples. Doesn't feel scary at all!

Thats what I love about sound design. The ability to use sound to make an audience feel things that they probably wouldn't do without it. Immersing the moviegoer into the narrative and being part of the whole magic of it, driving it on. It's very cool :)

You get used to seeing all the gory stuff though. Especially after you've seen that same scene 100 times! After all its just a movie ;) Working on a hard hitting documentary where you see footage of terrible things happening to people would be a different story though I think...

  • @Andy Lewis - Loving the perspective about horror flicks -vs- a documentary. Reminds me why I might cry during an episode of Friends and not something like the daily news where they're reporting on real people dying on an ever increasing basis. Mostly because with material like "Friends" it's all non-realistic fantasy bs we all hope for that will never happen in real life, which, is pretty damn depressing if you ask me. Yeah, I'd rather work on a horror film than a documentary any day. Wait, did I just potentially admit I cried to an episode of friends once? Feb 12, 2011 at 14:39
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    @Syndicate, it's probably when Rachel breaks up with Ross and there's U2's With or Without You playing on the radio, or when they leave the 6 keys on the bar before they close the door for the very last time ;) Feb 12, 2011 at 17:52
  • @Andy, thanks for bringing up documentaries! Doing some further thinking, I realized that what can set a documentary apart from a horror movie, beyond the way it's been shot, is probably the sadism and viciousness as opposed to the more passive and objective character of the documentary. I need to think about how this would translate sound-wise. Feb 12, 2011 at 17:59
  • @Syndicate and @Justin. I guess its good to be in touch with your feminine side once in a while ;)
    – Andy Lewis
    Feb 13, 2011 at 16:02
  • I remember seeing a doc where some guy gets beaten up badly and he's practically unconscious. He starts to make a real guttural snoring type sound. Sounded horrible. I think sounds like that could be better utilised in horror maybe? Making the aftermath just as gross sounding as the proceeding scary/monster/fight/attack/jumpy bit..
    – Andy Lewis
    Feb 13, 2011 at 16:11

It might possibly make it easier. I even used iPhone 3G recordings of my 2yr old daughters voice as the core of the main sound design motif an entire horror film and I was blowing my own mind, especially when I heard what I did on a massive system in suround as I had mixed it on only two hours of sleep over the course of three days.

Sure, that's a slight bit narcisistic, but getting away with what I did is an amazing feat. At least to me it is.

The gore doesn't bother me at all, and having been a part of a sound design team and as a lead sound designer for a feature horror film I have to say it was one of the most liberating and satisfying moments for me in my entire sound design career so far.

I'm not sure what part of you can't separate reality from fiction (and you're not a lesser person for it, maybe I'm the messed up one), but even stuff as gory as Saw likely shouldn't bother you as much as it should seemingly present a challenge for you (at least that's the way I see it as an individual, but maybe I'm jaded). It's just a job (but I'm also a severe agnostic and less sensitive to such things, so who knows).

If it does bother you, I think you might have possibly chosen the wrong career (or at least the wrong sector of said career). Sure, I'm not necessarily qualified to be an arbiter of taste or the final word in what it is to be an icon in our career path, but opportunities like this are sometimes golden in our chosen careers. Typically for very good reasons as well. It generally allows us certain freedoms that are usually taken for granted.

Situations like this are typically lower in budget, but also allow a certain amount of freedom and experimentation that we as sound designers and back-end-budget creative types typically thrive on. They also end up being the very situations that we as extremely experimental individuals end up honing our skills on and allowing us to be able to get away with things we normally wouldn't be able to get away with. Which are usually the exact same things that allow us to learn how to respect and also push the boundaries of what we do.

You're likely not the only one with this particular sentiment though. Don't feel like you're missing out on something or anything. Don't chase after things you don't want. That's futile. There's no preset path we should all be following. You're likely better off working on cartoons/animation where you usually get to do "cleaner" work and don't typically have to deal with any overtly gruesome material and leaving the gore to people like myself and vice versa. Not sure though. I hope that's somehow food for thought for you man.

Here's to hoping you find what you want!

You don't have to work on horror films. You can indeed push your career in the direction you want it to go in. You just have to believe, not give up and just go after it.

  • I hope that doesn't come off as condescending at all. I actually meant that from the heart.
  • @Syndicate I'm not quite ready to strike out the "making sound for movies" line from my list yet... You did point out I might have trouble separating fiction from reality, I'll try to work on that! Feb 12, 2011 at 18:25
  • @Justin Huss I just meant the horror sector. Not trying to discourage you in any way. There's no reason you should compromise if you're not comfortable doing it. Feb 14, 2011 at 4:10

I'll just add that while it probably won't take long for you to be desensitized to the gore and the truer, "gets-under-your-skin" horror elements of a horror or splatter film, it's interesting to think about the potential for being more subtly affected by the imagery you'll be immersed in while working on the project -- both what you're creating as a sound designer and what's been created visually.

Development cycle times for film and games vary by project. When I sign up to work on a game, it's likely to be a commitment of at least two years. During that time, I'll be saturated by concept art posted around the studio, visuals from gameplay, the sound work my team and I are creating, dailies or weeklies screenings, and so on -- essentially "eating/sleeping/breathing" the project for a long time.

If you like a horror project and want to work on it, I'd think you'll get over the creepout factor pretty quickly, but I wonder if working on something Exorcist-like for years at a time would cause some subtle mood variances from, say, years of a Miyazaki animation.


This is an interesting question. I have often wondered what the views of others are on this.

I do a ton of broadcast work on serial killers and crime recently. However, I do mostly documentary and reality based shows with tons of victim photos and creepy reenactments.

Ironically, I long for more of the super gross sound design opportunities of the more gory dramatic work. I find it theoretically less disturbing than actual victim testimony and crime photos. A lot of times, I can't help thinking if the screams, victim struggles, metal scrapes, stabs, and head bursting open sounds I am making are really close to what these people have experienced. The stuff I do tells real stories which, while I am not complaining at all, has gotten to me from time to time (less and less with each show).

I think Tim is right. You do get desensitized. I can get lost in the creation process and motivation of scaring the wits from someone while designing/mixing easily. It becomes like applying fake blood at Halloween. You know you are not bleeding to death. It is just fun to convince someone else that you are for a second. The few opportunities I have had to work on a dramatic independent horror and thriller films were SO MUCH FUN!

But, I started out working for political campaigns and government crisis and weapons systems videos. Now that, often times felt scary.

Worse Creep Out Eva:

I freelanced for a 4 hour TV special about Hitler's doctors experiments on the mentally challenged, aging and handicapp which included actual experiment footage. To make things worse, I was the only female on the team, working with a bunch of bigger dudes I didn't know, including an extremely aggressively amorous night building technician who kept leaving roses on my mix console, and I was on a 6pm to 2:30am ghost shift. That was a little stressful the last few days or so...yeesh.

  • +1 for the roses on the console, now that is a movie I wouldn't want to work on ;) Feb 13, 2011 at 0:53
  • I'm curious as to how Steve reacted to said roses.
    – Utopia
    Feb 14, 2011 at 2:18
  • Agreed. I used to do Industrials for Lockheed Martin and that was pretty scary stuff. I was never allowed to see the videos straight through. I'd get these random 2 minute clips weeks apart so I couldn't really take it all in. So it had to be mixed to very strict specs. It wasn't the specs that were scary, but what their weapons systems were potentially capable of. Working on holocaust victim docs (especially the medical experiments) would likely even get under my thick skin. The super gory over dramatic stuff almost becomes comedic when you're working on it. Feb 14, 2011 at 4:19

This is interesting. I myself LOVE the genre and have worked on a number of projects from no to low budget. I seldom find myself affected by it. Yet I just finished working on a documentary on the 2010 Olympics here in Canada, and had to sit through the footage of that poor athlete on the luge smashing into the pole. The sound was the most disturbing part (and the only thing that ended up in the final cut).

A friend of mine asked me why I could cut sound to people being dismembered or being eaten by Zombies, but not deal with that. After thinking about that I realized that it IS the difference between reality and fantasy. I can deal it with in fantasy by repeating to myself "it's only a movie", but in reality I really wouldn't want to see any of this happen. Just where you draw the line.


I have never been one to watch gory films. I have always rationalized that my imagination is too wild, and the images get in my head and disrupt my sleep. (And I like my sleep to be peaceful, thank you very much.)

Recently, I discovered that I can watch horror films. But, I plug my ears during the bloody bits. Seems strange and disrespectful as a fellow sound artist. I have the utmost respect. But if I'm going to relax and get deeply sucked into the movie, I can watch anything if it is on mute.

That was as really interesting discovery for me.

The other way, is to technically dissect the film. I find this enjoyable on a different level. Sometimes I want to turn off the voice in my head that guesses how I would recreate x effect. Maybe it's my background includes theatre acting as well as sound design. I naturally empathize with (worthwhile) characters.

Cool question, Justin.

  • I always go to the cinema as a sound guy... in French we call it "deformation professionnelle", and I found that the English equivalent is the adage "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". I wish this perspective would provide me with an off-switch for the most vicious passages but it doesn't. I guess plugging my ears and go "la la la" is the next best off-switch! Feb 13, 2011 at 9:25
  • Tangent, but it reminded me of this thread. hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/08/…
    – MtL
    Feb 14, 2011 at 0:48

funny question.. dont know, i like to think about an animated episode i worked on with a screamin monster climbing the stairs in pure hate & vengeance, i worked on this scene for 2 or 3 days and my heartbeatrate went seriously up... the same thing happened to the animator i guess we got so caught up in the emotions of that scene we synced our body's in a weird way


I haven't had the pleasure of working on a horror film, but I just saw a pretty good horror film that had some really good sound work in it. Case 39 was pretty scary and yet, not that gory. It was in the psychological horror sub genre rather than gore induced horror.


Why does everyone think The Shining is a scary movie?

I keep hearing this, but I don't understand.

I don't know about you, but this is the Shining I saw:


It was the feel good movie of the year...

(hope that cheers you up, Justin)

I've worked on a few pretty gory films in my career.

Best thing I could think of was to either put my favorite music on in the room while cutting/syncing effects and take frequent breaks/walks and call my wife.

But, you are totally capable of choosing your path and you don't necessarily need to work on horror films 100% of the time. I can't really think of a single sound designer who is pigeon-holed as a "horror" genre sound designer - possibly for the very reason that it's emotionally taxing and exhausting.


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