The Horror in Voice and the Voice in Horror Overview

As posted below, I have outlined 4 tentative categories of the voice in horror.

1 - Split Subject Voice
2 - Dislocated/Relocated Voice
3 - Spectral Acousmatic Voice
4 - A-linguistic corporeal sounds of transformation

The first 3 categories all pivot around a particular metaphysic. That a voice is a presence of someone or thing etc is signified by a voice. For example Norman Bates mother in Psycho (1960) - this is an excellent example of a Split Subject Voice. For the first three quarters of the film Hitchcock understands that a voice will be attributed to a presence, Norman's mother, so two voices afford a metaphysical sleight of hand. We need not see the mothers moving lips or gesticulating hands (of course this is impossible) but a smattering of visual prompts (shadows against a lit window, the wonderful stair scene where we see the back of her head only) are enough to reinforce the mothers voice enough - so much so that for the first time viewer the mother is a character as much as Norman or Marion. When re-watching this film it is easy to dismiss these aspects, but there is one particularly subtle scene that pretty much proves the point of voice as presence. In the police department, after the viewer/Marion et al have been told that Normans mother is dead and that he is suffering from mental health problems, we watch a policeman ask for a blanket for 'him' - Norman Bates. The policeman takes the blanket down the corridor to a door the camera cannot see inside (the camera remains parallel with the corridor walls), as the policeman hands the blanket over to an out of shot Norman Bates his mother's voice responds 'thank-you'. At this moment it is always difficult not to believe that it is his mother behind the door, even after repeated viewing, the voice of the Norman Bates' mother is enough to fulfil her role and presence within the viewer. This scene is the whole film in many ways, after the first viewing we all know that the mother is a corpse, incapable of speaking, but the voice is enough to render a character. The only difference is that up until this point (the blanket scene) the mothers voice is referred to as the mothers voice, it is called her voice and not his voice - but regardless the voice has a presence of itself that overpowers any other reference to it. Up until the blanket scene Hitchcock's direction is aligned with rendering the two voices as two people, but even when this changes and we are informed that the two voices are both from Norman we still hear two people. Straight after the blanket scene we see Norman alone, lips still, with his mother's voice speaking - this shot is an utterly subjective shot. The two voices are revealed as coming from the same source, from a split subject, whose head we are inside but viewing. This is a horrifying scene, it is the revealing of the reality of the split subject voice, but there is one telling admission. As the mothers voice is speaking the image of her mummified face, particularly her smile, fades into/onto/through Norman Bates' face - the power of the voices presence is so persuasive that a voice we know not to be from a corpse but from Norman has to be cinematically reconciled with it's previous position (that of the mother, alive or dead). Brian De Palma' s Sisters (1973) operates along exactly the same vocal metaphysics, but revels in the dynamics potential for horror to a much lesser degree.

The 2nd and 3rd categories both follow this Voice as presence dynamic. A ventriloquists dummy can be inspired, vitalised and given life by a voice (even though we know the voice is not from the dummy) or an unseen force can use a character as a vessel for it's own life (this is possession). There are many examples of this 2nd category (the Dislocated/Relocated Voice) such as Alberto Cavalcanti's "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" segment in Dead of Night (1945), Attenborough's Magic (1978) and Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). The 3rd category, the Spectral Acousmatic Voice, is in many ways an inversion of the 2nd category. In the 2nd category a voice's presence is imbued into a thing or person, however, in the 3rd category the voice is left floating in the aether. It lingers in the fog, or the dark corners of a suitably gothic house in order to haunt an over curious protagonist or sceptical investigator (a great example of this would be The Woman In Black (1989)). The voice has enough presence to haunt an item, a person, or the air - in the first 3 categories voice is a character in itself, it has all the presence it needs for cinema as a voice and nothing more. The metaphysics of the voice are triangulated by these first 3 categories.

I will post something about the forth category soon. for now my list of films for reference is:

Suspiria (1977)
The Shining (1980)
Session 9 (2001)
Blow Out (1981)
Candyman (1992)
Dead of Night (1945)
Dead Silence (2007)
Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)
Devil Commands, The (1941)
Don't Go In The House (1980)
Exorcist, The (1973)
Fly, The (1958)
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Invisible Man Returns, The (1940)
Knowing (2009)
Magic (1978)
Mas Negro Que La Noche (1975)
My Sweet Killer (1999)
Pillow Of Death (1945)
Psycho (1960)
Puppet Masters, The (1994)
Testament of Dr Mabuse (1932)
The Stone Tape (1972)
The Woman In Black (1989)
Twice-Told Tales (1963)
Sisters (1973)
Uninvited, The (1944)
The Changeling (1980)
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Insidious (2010)
White Noise (2005)
The Others (2001)
The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933)
The Grudge (2004)
The Shout (1978)

Some TV Shows for reference:

Hammer House of Horror: Ep. 11 - Visitor From The Grave
Hammer House Of Horror: Ep. 12 - The Two Faces Of Evil
The Twilight Zone: Season 2, Ep. 22 - Long Distance Call
The Twilight Zone: Season 3, Ep. 98 - The Dummy


  1. Great posts, do you have a pdf copy of
    "Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism" ?


    miguel at taumaturgia dot com

  2. Thanks - sorry, no, I have a physical copy - like "The Two Faces Of Evil" ;-)

    Great book though, one you'll revisit if you decide to buy it.