The Quiet Terror of 'Alien'

How sound (or lack of it) builds the sci-fi horror film's seminal scares.

Alien

In space, no one can hear you scream, or so goes the famous tagline to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien. And it’s true! So why can’t we hear in space?

Sounds, in the simplest definition, are vibrations in the air. But in the vacuum of space, there is no air. So if you were to scream, the longitudinal sound waves would have nothing to vibrate against resulting in, you guessed it, silence. And we are hardwired to find silence unnerving.

Think about it: we constantly have noise in our lives, be it a TV show on while working, or music during a commute. We’re comforted by this background noise. But step foot into a quiet space, and you start to feel the anxiety created by the oppressive noiselessness.

Sure, being left alone with our neverending cycle of self-doubts and societal angst can make us loathe silence, but I think it’s more animalistic than that. Primal, even. It can make our hair stand on end as we assume lurking in the hushed stillness is something dangerous, waiting to strike. Remember John Wayne’s famous line from 1934’s The Lucky Texan, “It’s quiet – too quiet.”

So silence, magnified in the unending vastness of space, can be palpably terrifying. Ridley Scott, Composer Jerry Goldsmith, and the BAFTA-winning sound design team of Derrick Leather, Jim Shields, and Bill Rowe built upon these concepts to make the sound and score a central aspect of not just the overall design of Alien, but specifically in how each scare is set up and executed.

If I were to ascribe a single word to the ambiance of Alien, it would be dread. Impending, looming, fatalistic dread. And it’s in this feeling that Scott introduces us to the Nostromo, gargantuan in the eerie solitude of space. As the credits slowly bleed on to the screen, the camera pans across a serene expanse of stars.

But juxtaposed with the beauty of the beyond is an ominous soundscape of non-diegetic pops and clicks, setting our teeth on edge. Almost imperceptibly under these foley sounds is Goldsmith’s score, which is deployed strategically throughout the film. Here it adds a much-needed bottom to the overall aural atmosphere, its droning strings drawing out a Low E layered over the ever-present hum of the giant spacecraft.

The music and the sound effects, while working in unison, only do so through clashing dissonance. As John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology stated on NPR’s All Things Considered:

“Generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it’s strange and unexpected.”

The film builds from this place of unease in its subsequent major scare setpieces: Kane’s (John Hurt) assault and the “Chestbursting” sequence, through Dallas’s (Tom Skerritt) encounter in the airshaft, into the Xenomorph’s explosive final confrontation with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). The layering in of Goldsmith’s score specifically accompanies our first glimpses at the films alien lifeforms.

Kane’s assault on LV-426, when the Facehugger attaches to him, is played quietly with only the sound of his measured breathing until the egg begins to pulsate, surprising him with an electric shock. The sound here ebbs and flows, drawing us further in as Kane leans closer to the egg. Goldsmith’s score gradually builds until the egg opens with an otherworldly sound, the Facehugger leaping out with a deafening screech. And while this is the first of Alien’s many jumpscares, it’s the silence of the succeeding shot of the Nostromo, the calm after the storm, that allows the malaise time to creep under your skin.

The score then becomes like a musical signal to the audience for the Xenomorph’s presence, much like the ever beeping proximity monitor Dallas wields in the air shaft. This rhythmic beeping acts as the pulse of the scene over the white noise of Goldsmith’s tremulous low drums and violins. As the alien closes in on Dallas’s position, so too does the score build, crescendoing in the Xenomorph’s guttural scream, arms outstretched, before the sound cuts out. Here too like Kane’s assault, as shocking as the moment is when the sound finally explodes, it’s made all the more unnerving when it abruptly stops, leaving Ripley and crew unsure of the fate of their Captain.

The rising and falling of the sound design are most dramatically seen in the final sequences of the film. When Ripley rushes through the hull of the set-to-self-destruct Nostromo, the score blasts, as you would expect from a film’s climax. But it’s all a feint, luring us into a false sense of security for our reluctant protagonist as she discovers the Xenomorph stowed away on her escape pod.

Through the quiet tension of this real finale – as Ripley softly sings “You Are My Lucky Star” from Singin’ in the Rain, a phantom ticking again keeping time with the scene – we watch in breathless horror as the Xenomorph makes its final approach. The soundlessness doesn’t impede the action or even amplify it. Rather it acts as a blank slate, allowing the suspense to hang in the air as we feel ourselves in the same vacuum as Ripley, the disquiet beckoning us to hold our breath along with her.

This clever mix of sound design and score is all in counterpoint, though, to the iconic Chestburster scene, which is played completely free of music, relying on the quiet-calm of the Nostromo’s environmental sounds – the clinks of cutlery, murmurs of banal conversation – until the scene erupts in a moment of unparalleled violence. It’s a shocking climax that doesn’t lean on the crux of an aural assault of cheap musical stingers, projecting where we should scream. It just allows the tension to creep into you, knowing that this calm moment cannot be trusted. Because something, inevitably, will break the silence.

The natural silence and non-diegetic noises, mixed with Goldsmith’s haunting score, are what make Alien such an unnerving, uneasy film. It doesn’t wholly rely on its characters to propel this fear, but rather like a haunted house, allows the design elements to permeate the terror through an audience. By focusing on the lack of sound, rather than the constant presence of it, our terror becomes more visceral. Scott, Goldsmith, and the rest of the sound design team tapped into a universal, profoundly human, anxiety. And it’s as unbearable as it is brilliant.

Actor. Writer. Available to host your next public access show. Find more of my writing at Rue Morgue, Ghastly Grinning, Diabolique Magazine, and Grim Magazine.