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Startle and the Film Threat- Scene

Works Cited

1 Dennis Fischer, Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990, (Jefferson North Carolina, 1991): 666.

2 Bansak, Edmund G. Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career, (Jefferson, North Carolina, 1995): 133.

3 Carney Landis and William A. Hunt in their The Startle Pattern. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939.

4 Page 377 in Peter J. Lang, Margaret M. Bradley, and Bruce N. Cuthbert, "Emotion, Attention, and the Startle Reflex," Psychological Review 97:3 (1990): 377-395.

5 Page 487 from Scott R. Vrana, Ellen L. Spence, and Peter J. Lang, "The Startle Probe Response: A New Measure of Emotion?," Journal of Abnormal Psychology 97:4 (1988): 487-491.

6 See Dorine M. Jansen and Nico H. Frijda, "Modulation of the Acoustic Startle Response by Film-Induced Fear and Sexual Arousal," Psychophysiology 31 (1994): 565-571.

7 The character presence need not always be human. See The Hidden (1987) for a threat scene where a dog serves in the identificatory protagonist position of a startle effect. Filmed at a dog's-eye level, a cute mutt approaches a female stripper who has just fallen to her death in an alley. The corpse's eyes (an alien lifeform occupies her body) pop open (startle cue) and the alien/stripper lunges for the dog. The obvious implication, proven by countless outings by Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, is that humans can strongly identify with dogs and other domesticated animals. Animated characters can also serve for character identification. While watching a videotape of The Land Before Time (1988), my children were noticeably startled during a threat scene depicting a Tyrannosaurus attack on the film's anthropomorphic, kid-like dinosaurs.

8 Most startle effects rely on a sound bump, a sudden burst of sound effects, dialogue, and/or music. While many startle effects rely on symphonic bursts of sound, a few single element sound bursts can be heard, like the powerful foley bump at the end of The Stepford Wives. Katharine Ross slowly climbs the stairs in her own home, searching for her children, believing her husband to be conspiring with the local Men's Club to manufacture better women, and is startled by her husband (foley burst) who has snuck up behind her. Music, ominous and discordant, unquestionably contributes to the fear state that prepares the way for startle responses: Bernard Herrmann's Psycho-shower screeches, John Williams' shark motif from Jaws, "Tubular Bells" from The Exorcist. But music can do more than set the mood. It can serve as the primary or sole auditory stimulus for startle. A massive symphonic music burst in Roger Corman's House of Usher heralds Vincent Price's unexpected entry into the film. In Repulsion, Polanski uses a solo music burst in a startle effect that turns on the discovery of a skinned rabbit corpse inside Deneuve's handbag. While startle effects obviously depend on the sheer loudness of sound bursts, I suspect that the inchoate, disharmony of many sound effects (exploited by odd instruments and synthetic sound combinations) stimulates anxiety in viewers who are attempting to maintain some sense of and orientation to a film's aural setting.

9 Robin Horton, "Tradition and Modernity Revisited," in Rationality and Relativism, ed. Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes (Cambridge, 1982): 201-260.