Lynch’s Legacy: Making the Mundane Sinister with Audio

I love creepy sound design in crazy movies. And no one does it quite like David Lynch.

While it’s debatable whether he originated the technique, it’s probably safe to say that Lynch popularized the process of “darkening the mundane” through audio. Let me explain how.

Lynch directed such niche films as 1977’s groundbreaking Eraserhead and 2001’s Mulholland Drive, plus the cult TV series Twin Peaks — and he, together with his longtime collaborator, film composer Angelo Badalamenti, typically pair innocent, even neutral moving images with a creepy, foreboding sound design, resulting in a scene that suddenly feels sinister even if it looks banal.

Check out this scene from Mulholland Drive where Justin Theroux converses with a white cowboy in a remote farm (in L.A.?) and under an evil flickering lamp, and note how midway through the conversation, that noisy wind sound tints the visuals with a whole other atmosphere. Later, the ominous strings creep their way into the background.

Excerpt from an interview with David Lynch about how sound plays a part in his films:

“Sound is fifty percent of a film, at least. In some scenes it’s almost a hundred percent. It’s the thing that can add so much emotion to a film. It’s a thing that can add all the mood and create a larger world. It sets the tone and it moves things. Sound is a great ‘pull’ into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.”

Lynch and Badalamenti’s usage of a 1950’s surf guitar ballad for “Falling,” the theme song of Twin Peaks (vocals by Julee Cruise), with its reverb’d guitar and minimal instrumentation is a another typical tactic that you’ll hear repeated in Lynch’s solo musical work as well as all his movies. Rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia leading to melancholic memories and dark nightmares.

The Lynch-ian Sound Elsewhere

The sound design technique has spawned numerous imitators — from the cookie cutter horror movies that use children’s rhymes (Friday the 13th) and 1940s barbershop quartet harmonies (Jeepers Creepers) all the way to the current batch of dark TV series such as True Detective and Banshee.

And the internet mashup editors of Everything is Terrible and Memory Hole use it to devastating effect, turning clips from outdated public service announcements and baffling home video rejects from America’s Funniest Videos into gloomy postmodern critiques of our inane culture.  If you have the time, check out the hour-long cut-and-paste pastiche that is Everything is Terrible, the Movie. Or better yet, enjoy this short transmission from the Memory Hole:

Further reading:

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