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The Aural Horrors of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’

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We like to be scared, but we can’t exactly figure out why, or how fear works, though we try.

“Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions,” the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote. Of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, she said, “He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays, but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.”

The music of Goblin is an aural manifestation of evil, stunted and impoverished within its grasp of emotion and fear. They are authors of fairy tales, narrativizing their sounds and drawing their listeners closer to the grotesque and the magical. Has there ever been a group more elated and enveloped by the supernatural and the unusual?

Neil Gaiman has said: “We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.” Goblin’s music comes from beyond the grave, tantalizing but aggressive, sensual but repulsive.

They found Italian film director Dario Argento, or perhaps he found them (stories vary), but theirs was a match made in heaven and hell. As an upstart in the Italian horror scene, Argento had helped to craft the enormously successful giallo subgenre with films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), consisting of stylistic murders and horrifically opulent aesthetics. Before that, Goblin had been nothing special, and Argento’s films were successful mostly inside the borders of Italy, and at most through Europe. It wasn’t until Deep Red, and the use of the music of Goblin, that Argento became recognized internationally, in 1975.

The members of Goblin began under the band name Oliver, with Claudio Simonetti on keyboards, Massimo Morante on guitar, Walter Martino on drums and Fabio Pignatelli on bass guitar. They signed with Cinevox, who changed their name to Cherry Five (for no reason, according to Simonetti), and got nowhere. In early 1975, however, a conflict developed between Argento and composer Giorgio Gaslini about the music Gaslini had written for Deep Red, and Argento turned to Goblin to finish the score, which was largely written in one night by Simonetti and recorded the next day. Argento was so impressed that he brought the group back two years later for his next film, Suspiria (1977). This time, they had close to three months, and they made every moment count. They experimented endlessly with different instruments and techniques from all over the world. Argento was a regular presence in the studio, offering suggestions, guidance and different sounds for reference. It was uncommon at the time to hear synthesizers in film soundtracks, but Goblin helped change that for good. They bought a rare System 50 Moog modular synth and used it heavily in the soundtrack with the help of Italian composer Felice Fugazza. In the 1980s, synths were increasingly used in movies (particularly horror films), but Goblin got there first, inspiring people like John Carpenter, director of Halloween and The Thing. In a 2014 interview with FACT Magazine, Simonetti said he met Carpenter a couple of years prior, and Carpenter told him he had been directly inspired by Goblin for his Halloween score. “I know you very well,” Carpenter told him, “I stole all your music.”

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Goblin’s iconic soundtrack for Dario Argento’s cult Italian horror film Suspiria serves as an excellent example of how horror soundtracks have a significant impact on film spectatorship, revealing the tension between images and music in cinema and the significance of sound in horror. From John Carpenter’s Halloween score, just a year later, to Disasterpiece’s for It Follows, horror soundtracks have long been influenced by Goblin, and individually held central to the effectiveness of their films. How do these soundtracks, and Goblin’s in particular, achieve their success, and what does it say about horror as a genre that aural decisions have such an impact on a film’s aesthetic and narrative actualization?

Argento reportedly was not initially sold on what Goblin handed in as demos, largely rejecting it and demanding that frontman Simonetti go back into the studio and write something else. The soundtrack as we know it was completed after that. It’s impossible to think about Suspiria without that music now, as one of the best horror soundtracks ever recorded, but it was completed through frustration and creative energy, trying desperately to please Argento and complement the film. It is a visceral soundtrack, aggressively clanging and banging as if viewers are sitting privy to a Satanic ritual. In the title track, the word “witch!” is yelled repeatedly, revealing the mystery but only heightening the terror. Later, screeches and howls pierce the ear.

The legendary film composer Max Steiner (behind the music for the 1933 version of King Kong, Casablanca, The Big Sleep) once said, “They used to say that a good score was one you didn’t notice, and I say, ‘What the hell good is it if you don’t notice it?’” Horror soundtracks typically contradict that long-held belief, that an effective soundtrack will go unnoticed by the audience. Composers for horror have certainly taken this attitude to heart, most purely exemplified by the abrasive score for Suspiria. The decisions composers make can mean the difference between a movie that engenders real fear and one that creates an unintentional laugh. “I need the audience to feel that the witches are still there, even if they’re not actually on the screen,” Argento told Simonetti.

Suspiria was a departure for Argento, a move toward the more outwardly supernatural rather than the slasher-style giallo of his past work. He wanted this film to differentiate itself from his past films in every way, and he made sure to tell Goblin that it had to sound different than anything he’d done to that point, including their own score for Deep Red. Suzy Bannion, played by Jessica Harper, is an American ballet student who has enrolled in a prestigious but mysterious dance academy in Munich, Germany. The opening credits are accompanied by the brash sound of Goblin’s ritualistic drums and a screeching noise reminiscent of fingernails on chalkboard. If this is the introduction to Argento’s new world, it is not a particularly welcoming one. Suzy’s arrival at the Munich airport, and the taxi ride to the academy, are awash in impossibly vibrant colour and the music shifts to the iconic title song, with its use of the bouzouki, a Greek instrument, and the dobro, punctuated by the twanging “thonggggg” drum beat.

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“I think that the real Goblin sound is in Suspiria,” Simonetti told The Quietus in 2015. “In Suspiria we created something really new – never heard before.” Or since. That main theme, which returns throughout the film when a killer is present, wracks at the viewer’s nerves, a malevolent force that buries itself within and attacks. As effective as Argento’s film is on its own, it would be merely suspenseful if not for Goblin’s soundtrack, adding a propulsive layer of authentic fear, scratching and pawing. But it’s unfair to separate the music from the film to the latter’s offense. The band’s prospective demos for the soundtrack, completed based purely on the script and before any footage had been wrapped, were far different than what was reworked for the final film. Nevertheless, the visuals and music never seem to be working against each other, even when Argento has cut awkward silences into his murder set-pieces. These silences, in contrast with Goblin’s score, serve a chilling purpose, taking the audience by surprise and closing in on foley sound details, like an extended attempted lockpicking later on in the film. The music is used thematically, with different cues applying to different sounds, but all in the fundamental practice of securing the perfect aesthetic assemblage and marriage between image and sound.

These opening scenes are a synthetic introduction to the film’s style, a barrage of sensual overload intended to overwhelm, terrify and disturb. That it is all set against a terrible storm is of no thematic coincidence. Suzy arrives at the academy, a gorgeous example of Art Deco architecture, absurdly colourful and equally imposing. There is confusion, as someone runs out into the torrential downpour as Suzy arrives, the music fades and someone inside refuses to let her in. Already thrown off-balance so far, this confusion is palpable for the audience, as well. The music and images have turned viewers toward Suzy’s perspective more intimately than they otherwise would be, identifying with her fear and anxiety about travelling to Germany without knowing anyone and arriving under such unusual circumstances.

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Then, the wailing screams and unsympathetic drums and synths return as Argento flashes back to Suzy’s drive, when she seemingly saw a woman running and flailing through the woods. Argento leaves Suzy behind and follows the running woman, arriving at an apartment building, another architectural marvel with an explosion of colour and geometric shapes scaling its walls. The woman refuses to explain anything to her friend, keeping up the state of confusion, and viewers are placed into an unbearable silence until her window clangs open from the wind. The wind takes on a personified status through eerie breathing and wheezing, which grows louder and louder until it overtakes the dialogue and the friend leaves the room. This is the opening to the track “Sighs”, which progresses to louder screeches and an overpowering twanging. She thinks there might be something or someone outside her window. She looks out and sees a pair of glowing, green eyes. The music is growing the suspense, making the next moment feel utterly inevitable. The music fades into silence, very briefly, as a hairy arm breaks through the glass and slams the woman’s face against the window. Suddenly, she’s outside being stabbed and ultimately hung with a wire, crashing through the beautiful window on the roof and her blood dripping onto the floor like a Rorschach image. Now, the song is more aggressive than ever, which is hugely important.

The image of the woman’s face against the window would look comical without Goblin’s cruel and unforgiving sounds. Much of the film could be seen as absurd, ridiculous and amusing if not for the music. Instead, there is fear, though metered through the lingering sense of amusement. How better to reconcile such gory violence than with an inherent playfulness? Argento masterfully keeps up this balancing act throughout the film, mixing his aesthetic flair with Goblin’s menacing sounds and the story’s horrific violence.

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Can hearing something be scarier than seeing something? Sound design is one of the most important departments in the making of any movie, but especially for horror films. The reaction of fear created by sound is altogether different than how our brains interpret fear from visual cues. Sound, of course, travels faster than the information we receive from sight. Alfred Hitchcock famously said 33 percent of Psycho’s effect was due to the music. In fact, our response to “scary sounds” is usually biological, as composers purposefully tap into emotional responses that have developed to certain types of sound (usually nonlinear noises) over centuries of evolution. In this way and others, Goblin’s score for Suspiria is very deliberately meant to be noticed and utilized to terrorize.

Make no mistake: the evil in horror begins with its sound. And Goblin is the greatest of all evils.

Jake Pitre is a writer based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has written regularly for Movie Mezzanine and PopOptiq and has been published by Ottawa Magazine. He is a Master’s candidate in Film Studies at Carleton University. Find him on Twitter @jake_pitre

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