It all begins with character. If we know a person, and we’re emotionally invested in their situation and their journey – whether those emotions are positive or negative ones – then we feel a connection. If we feel a connection, then a properly executed blood-curdling scream from that character will stay with us forever. It makes the hair on the back of our necks stand on end. It makes our collective breath catch in our throat. It twists in our guts like a giant, rusty-edged blade, and leaves a ringing in our ears. The power of this unearthly noise is such that it haunts us long after the end credits have ground to their inevitable halt.
There is one, single ingredient required from the performer to produce a great blood-curdling scream, and that is terror. The finest, most distressing film vocalizations come from that moment of crushing realization – that sudden and devastating understanding of the gravity of a situation. They come from that claustrophobic flash of comprehension that all may well be lost. They start low down in the gut, absorbing panic as they rise through the chest, constricting the heart, drying the mouth and exploding from the character as an uncontrolled and desperate wail. They communicate pain, fear, horror and woe and they are – crucially – the sound we hope we never have to make ourselves.
Cinema is bursting with blood-curdling screams – and they’re not exclusive to horror films. The very best examples bring an element of horror to whichever genre they appear in, adding layers of complexity and depth to what may otherwise be a one-note ballad. So, as we creep apprehensively toward Halloween, we briefly set aside our pumpkin-carving kits, and hit pause on our favourite Hammer Horror classic. It’s time to think outside the coffin-shaped box and celebrate six of the most blood-curdling screams on film.