The art of the scream

In 1947, DC Comics debuted one of the early female superheroes: Black Canary. Her superpower was her ability to scream. Both piercing and blunt, her scream could shatter walls, and shock villains to a standstill.

That time might be considered the golden age of screaming. In 1933 Fay Wray delivered an aria of horror while strapped to a perch in the original “King Kong,” wailing inventively, eloquently, and endlesslessly as the gigantic ape approached.

In spite of countless numbers of horror movies that have been made since the birth of cinema, few screams are remembered like Janet Leigh’s in “Psycho.” The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece of horror is perhaps more famous for Bernard Harrmann’s slashing violins than Leigh’s pipes.

In 1978, Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, took the crown as Queen of Scream for her performance in John Carpenter’s Halloween. But her “final girl” sprint at the end of the film may have pushed movie screaming on its downward slide.

Screaming has become cliched, something to be avoided if possible. If it can’t be avoided, then it is used wisely. In Peter Jackson’s re-make of “King Kong,” he has Naomi Watts deliver a few needed yelps, but her Ann Darrow is much more cunning and intellectual than Fay Wray’s emotional decibles. It’s like watching Liz Phair put on Ethel Merman’s dress.

Philadelphia filmmaker Steven Denisevicz ( has come to learn that screaming might not work in movies anymore, at all. He recently finished making a short horror movie called “Annuncio,” about an online dating stalker.

“We were shooting the trailer in a basement, and we had some girls screaming their hearts out,” said Denisevicz. “In that basement I was freaked out. It was scary and creepy and wierd. Hearing girls scream their hearts out is the creepiest thing in the world.”

But when the screams went into the sound mix, it came off as a little cheesy. “The intensity in person is masked on film. It just doesn’t feel like it transpires in film.”

Denisevicz got the mood he wanted by going low. He filled his soundtrack with heavy breathing, strangulation gasps, and stifled struggle. It’s creepy. Not screamy.

Another filmmaker team – Johnny Zito and Tony Trov of South Fellini Productions – went into horror production over the summer. Their feature film “Alpha Girls,” about a sorority house infested with demons, brings back the scream.

NewsWorks visited the shooting set on a hot Sunday in July to witness the art of the scream.

“We are trying to approach every scream differently,” said Zito. “We have the victim scream, the angry scream, and the terrified scream so far. This is the monster scream.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal