Horror Movie Homework: What Sound Does Fear Make?

When I first saw 30 Days of Night (in the theatre when it first came out in 2007), I really wasn’t into it. I told a friend later I felt I should’ve worn a splatterguard and a butcher’s apron — one of those big, head-to-toe jobs.

And then, for some reason, when it became available on Netflix, I thought, “Ah, what the hell,” and watched it again.

And loved it.

I’ve watched it a number of times since then and inflicted it on plenty of other people, including my wife and my father.

Recently, I came across a cheap copy of 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. I remember this being a direct-to-video release that came out relatively soon after the original movie. Obviously, the original cast members — those surviving, anyway — caught the smell of a loser before I did because there is not a single original survivor character — vamp or human — in the sequel.

Dark Days is really quite terrible in a number of ways but that’s not quite what I want to write about today. (Don’t worry — there’s another blog post about the terribleness coming.)

Instead, I want to write about a couple of the things that made the first movie so terrifying — both in the theatre and when I watched it later, in the safety and comfort of my apartment, cozily tucked up on my futon — and they’re things that the sequel lost, much to its detriment.

In the original movie, as those of you who have seen it doubtless remember, the vampires don’t speak English. They communicate through speech but they’re not comprehensible without subtitles. They’re not like Buffy vamps or Underworld vamps or Supernatural vamps or True Blood vamps or Anita Blake vamps or, god help us, Meyer vamps (typing that leaves a real bad taste in the mouth, let me tell you) — they’re a completely ‘other’ force and that comes through most clearly, for me anyway, in their shrieking, screeching, nails-on-a-blackboard, record-scratching language.

It’s not that they don’t talk or communicate or have a common language; they do, quite obviously, and even their servants (“blood junkies” or “blood bonded” in other universes if you’re not familiar with 30 Days…) understand it. There’s even a fascinating suggestion that a woman driven nearly to the end of her rope by blood loss and fear, used by the vampires as drag bait to bring out other humans hiding in the town, can almost understand what is being said to her before she’s killed.

Along with the weird, bird-like body language adapted to a greater or lesser extent by all the vampire performers, the non-language language is incredibly effective at making the vampires frightening, unhuman, inhuman, other. They’re only comprehensible to each other and what they say — as given to us by the subtitles — is made more difficult by the fact that we’re being given it translated. Knowing what they’re saying doesn’t serve to make them comprehensible or open up their story, making their devastating attack somehow understandable. Instead, the sound and the content underline the fact of their otherness, distancing them from the population they’re attacking. It isn’t that they don’t understand the humans; it’s that the humans — and by extension, the audience — are incapable of understanding them.

The human who does understand them — their blood junkie who precedes them into the town and does some preliminary destruction to isolate the community — is about as far gone as you can get and still be putting one foot down in front of the other. It’s a wonderful acting job by Ben Foster who manages to make the man terrifying and cringing and horrible all at once. He’s gone in another, terrible world of his own, completely removed from the humans around him who should be his natural allies against this force of nature with which he has ranged himself instead. Whatever he’s seeing, whatever world he’s moving through, is largely of his own creation and inside his own head and it is a motherfucking dark place. If anyone ever wants to do another 30 Days… movie, I’d suggest this guy’s story.

The sound of the vampire language is, I think, as key to their scare factor as the sounds made by the Predator (stolen quite effectively by a nifty little haunted house story called 100 Ghost Street). The popping, clicking, rattling, and snapping noises of the Predator are completely other. They’re akin to animal noises — or even the noises often attributed to Triffids in film versions of John Wyndham’s great dark novel. But they don’t make sense. They aren’t a code we can decipher. We can only listen for them and, as the story unfolds, learn to be afraid when we hear them.

The vampire language in 30 Days… is very similar. The shrieking screams are hideous to listen to just on aesthetic grounds: they’re not pleasing to the ear; they sound like the screams of a hawk or fox in full cry after prey and they have a similar effect in lifting the hairs on the backs of our necks and making us flush cold. There’s something in the range and tone of them that taps straight into an adrenal response because it reminds us we’re meat.

These vamps aren’t human.

If they ever were human it was a long time ago and we’re not going to be able to bring it back to them with pleading or argument and win ourselves pity or sympathy or even a headstart.

These are not philosophically nihilistic coffee-shop lurkers or goth kids on a spree or politically disaffected guerrillas with a mission. These are killers — they’re not mindless, not unorganized, not disconnected from each other, not unattached to each other. But they’re not attached to us except inasmuch as they need us to stay alive.

Dark Days has completely forgotten this. Its vamps speak English (bar one who is the least impressive vampire queen I think I’ve ever seen) and have lost their weirdly acrobatic body language. Instead, they’re more akin to Blade II-style vamps with a punk aesthetic and aggression rather than post-apocalyptic grunge and predatory instinct. It’s an entirely disappointing step in what starts out in 30 Days… as a promisingly rich and powerful, if bleak and lonely, world.