the sounds of horror

The Hardest Horror Movie Sound I Ever Foley-ed

What does decapitation sound like? How about a demon birth? Foley artists explain just how difficult it is to engineer the sounds of horror. Photo: Gabor Kotschy / A24

People often ask Foley artist Marilee Yorston to name the most difficult sound she’s ever had to perform on the job. Is it something simple, like the shink of a knife or the creak of footsteps in an old house? Or something more complicated, like the sputtering of a helicopter running out of gas mid-flight, or the distinct onomatopoeia of a wholly original predator? Her answer is blunt: “Nothing is really that difficult if you’re a Foley artist.” She simply asks herself a series of questions — How is the sound moving? What is it moving against? What does it feel like? Is there an emotion attached to it? She admits that for someone who doesn’t know the art of physically reproducing and outright creating sound effects on a stage for movies, these are weird questions to ask. But as long as she can answer them, Yorston can identify the materials and props necessary for almost any assignment. (More often than not: dried noodles and a wet chamois.)

When pressed, Yorston — whose credits include Fear Street, The Witch, The Void, and, interestingly, one episode of The Office — will get more specific: one of the most difficult sound she’s ever had to perform is the squelch of a demon offspring as it’s exiting a womb. She and many other Foley artists in her field have endless stories about the auditory feats they’ve accomplished in horror (film, as well as a horror comedy series and an admittedly terrifying children’s drama), a genre that takes advantage of every sensory impulse to evoke fear. Like the stunt performers in action films, the Foley artists, sound designers, editors and mixers of horror are often inconspicuous but nonetheless crucial to the authenticity of a project. Without a convincing suuuuuuuck to go along with a demon birth scene, the fantastical narrative falls apart.

The challenge of Foley work — named for its first practitioner, Jack Foley — is that it requires artists and designers work in post-production, endeavoring to reproduce scary sounds that were lost in the shooting of a scene or that were never there to begin with. They work under the guidance of a sound supervisor or recording mixer who, along with a movie’s director and producers, decide which scenes need to be Foley-ed and which don’t. As freelance Foley artist Shaun Brennan puts it, “Sometimes I’m involved in the planning session, but oftentimes it’s fast and furious. I’ll show up and the supervisor’s already gone through and spotted all the Foleys, and if I’m lucky I’ll get to watch the movie once ahead of time!” From there, Pinewood Studios Foley artist Zoe Freed stresses the variety of her job, which requires her to do everything from “put a teacup down beautifully” to “fart in a letterbox.”

Ahead of Halloween, Vulture asked Foley artists to answer the question Yorston commonly fields: What is the hardest sound you’ve ever had to perform in a horror project? The answers ranged from the yowls of a disembodied spirit to the exact gushing of a head exploded from the inside by a discharged fire extinguisher.

Midsommar (2019), exposed lungs

Jay Peck, Stepping Stone Foley Inc.: When Christian runs out of that sex scene and into this barn where his buddy is hanging from the ceiling, the friend’s lungs are exposed. And we had to make the sound of the lungs filling, because he’s alive. The lungs are hanging out of his body, and to make the sound of the air going in and out through the lungs — breathing, basically — that was a challenge. I spent a lot of time on it, and I used this really large shammy made from animal skin. It was a really big piece soaked in water, and I spread it out on a flat concrete surface and plastered it down to the ground to create a kind of suction. Then I picked it up by the middle, and, as it pulled off, there was a scchhhheeew. I don’t think you even hear it in the movie, ’cause there’s a lot of music there, but you have to not take things too personally. Like, “Boy, I worked hard on that!” — and then there’s this big rock-and-roll song in the middle of it or it ends up on the cutting-room floor. But yeah, I think I tried probably five other things before the shammy, like breathing through tubes or blowing through different things. You just try stuff, especially when things aren’t really in real life or they don’t even make a sound at all.

And again for Midsommar, when the elder’s head gets pounded, there’s really nothing else you could use besides a big side of beef. We did happen to have a pig head available at that time. I think I used a wooden stump to hit it, and it was pretty grisly. You know when you hit something, often you get little particles that fall? Yeah. It’s like, “Oh boy, I need to wash up after that!” We would do some hits on the ground and some up in the air. You never know what you’re going to get out of an impact, so if we do ten of them in a row, the editor can pick out one we like the best.

Photo: Courtesy of Jay Peck

And we actually brought the pig’s head in for another movie, The Dead Don’t Die. I kept it because we were finishing that movie before Midsommar came in, and I was like, “We’re gonna need that pig’s head!” That was an interesting project because there were different zombies: There were the fresh zombies, kind of, and then the old, crusty ones that were filled with dust. We tried a lot of different things for the zombie heads falling off, especially for the woman in the jail cell. It kind of bounces into a real close-up, and it’s not an old zombie head; it’s like a newer one, right? So we tried all kinds of different fruits and basketballs and bowling balls, and the Foley editor and mixer Matt Haasch was the one who had the idea that we should try a pig’s head. So we went crazy with the pig’s head. It was great, because it had the weight and it had the flesh and it was very gross. Actually, my wife and I one night with the mic set up were rolling the pig’s head and tossing it to each other across the room. It was pretty worked over by the end. I was happy to get rid of that pig’s head.

Hereditary (2018), slow decapitation

Shaun Brennan, freelance Foley artist: In Hereditary, there’s the sound of the ants crawling on the boy’s face at one point. We don’t know what that sounds like, so you just think about the different elements you want and for them to have some impact — something that’s going to give you a chill. I wanted to have the footsteps of the ants and their legs to have some weight even though they’re so light. I used paper clips on concrete to give it a little bit of a pounding sound that the feet might make, just like click click click click. Then I had a piece of garlic and a fork, and I was digging the fork into the garlic cloves to give it a crunchiness. For the ants moving around, I also used this really soft old cellophane to sort of give the body movements a little bit of a human’s cloth-rustle sound.

The cloth rustle is probably the most boring thing for somebody who’s visiting a Foley stage to witness, but that’s a staple that we do with every film that helps bring the person to life onscreen, to hear their clothing move as they walk or make any kind of movement at all. You help to build a character based on what kind of cloth you choose to use for their rustle and what kind of shoes they’re wearing. So those little things go a long way.

But back to Hereditary: For the woman cutting her own head off, I bought a raw chicken and a thin metal wire that’s kind of long with handles on it, and I put the wire underneath its wings to give it something to hang on to. My coworker was steadying the chicken as I was cutting into it with the wire in sync with the movie, and it kind of squished at first. Then it gets into the muscle of the chicken and then eventually to the bones. I buy raw chickens frequently and ham hocks and steaks. They work great for the gory human stuff, but bones breaking are usually some kind of a vegetable. To get that bone-crunching sound, you twist a bunch of celery, and that comes up a lot in films.

Todd and The Book of Pure Evil (2010–2012), a demon birth

Marilee Yorston, freelance Foley artist: When we’re talking horror movies, there’s some Foley sounds that I think are pretty iconic, and many of them involve celery. Some people think it’s pedestrian to just go to the celery. But you can get this really great, crunchy, ripping, tearing sound, and when you add it to a swishy chamois or a swishy cloth component, which is just a very saturated squishy, gooey, slimey sound — then you’ve got all your components for a bone break and flesh wound. It sounds really real. So I’m a big fan of the celery.

I’ve done a lot of things, but I’ve done one thing where there was a demon — like some kind of invented, terrible creature that was giving birth to another terrible creature — and the camera perspective was from the inside of the body of the creature. Does that make sense? It was like a womb POV. What we did was I took a pumpkin — and I didn’t hollow it out entirely, but I carved the top off the pumpkin. I grabbed a few different components — I had a mixed vegetable medley, some cloth, I think I mixed up some squishy Play-Doh with water in there. I cut a hole in the pumpkin and I put the mic into the hole, and I would go in through the top and grab the stuff and pull it out of the top of the pumpkin with the mic inside of the pumpkin. That was pretty crazy.

Untitled Horror Movie (2021), a disembodied spirit

TJ Jacques, freelance sound designer: In the movie, these actors accidentally summon a spirit, and trying to come up with the sound of this disembodied figure — something that doesn’t have any kind of physical form to play on — opens up a world of endless possibilities. You really have to narrow it down. With this particular sound, I decided to go with something kind of humanoid — growls and moans and things like that. But what I ended up doing is taking different layers of my own voice. One of them was my voice through a wrapping paper tube, like a long cardboard tube. I would do these growls and moans, and I would have a funnel on the other end to create this long, tunnel-y sound of me growling and moaning. It ended up working pretty well layered with other sounds.

But I think the difficult part was really just trying to come up with — how do you make something creepy without making something cartoony? I feel like one of the things that you really have to play on is the emotional content. You’re really trying to trigger something in people. People in real life are most scared of people, you know what I mean? I tried to add vocalizations in there, too — the actual sounds of words, so that way it’s something where you can really almost feel like there’s someone creeping up on you. Trying to trigger those emotions is, I think, the key to any good horror film. It’s really trying to get under the person’s skin psychologically more than anything else. That adds an element that helps it stay scary without sounding cheesy or cartoony.

Godzilla (1998), the giant lizard’s cry

Gary Hecker, Sony Pictures Post Production Services: I use my voice for Foley, which a lot of people don’t do. That’s a little advantage I have. So I was able to branch off doing custom creatures for some huge films. The big one for me that was definitely monumental was the sound designers trying to figure out the voice of Godzilla. What they typically do is take, like, lions and cougars and walruses, and they slow them down and they mix all these different animals. Well, they were having a hard time making the voice unique. I was doing the Foley at the time, and I was able to take a big, screechy piece of metal and then pitch my voice down. I’ve always practiced animal sounds and stuff like that, so when they came to my studio and I did it in sync to the picture, they said, “You got it.” Then I’ve done a bunch of stuff after, like the aliens in Independence Day. So when I’m doing Foley, I use my voice a lot on certain tracks layered all together, which helps come up with these sounds.

Hellraiser (2022), the puzzle box

Leslie Bloome, Alchemy Post Sound: The puzzle box is kind of like a Rubik’s Cube that moves on its own. When the sound designer and mixer Ric Schnupp first approached us, he was working really closely with the director David Bruckner and he had a couple of ideas that he wanted to try for the sound of the box. One of them was the sound of all the little moving parts like stone rubbing stone.

Ryan Collison, Alchemy Post Sound: They wanted to have an ancient sound to it, you know? Not metallic. They were very specific about “not metallic.”

Leslie: But it was interesting, the first time I saw it, I’m thinking clockwork. Because the box has like a million little moving parts on it, and every part had to have a different sound to it. Even if it was subtly different, it needed that contrast. Bruckner was thinking of stone — like ancient runes. So we have terracotta pots out, we have bricks, and I have these old torpedo weights that are used for windows. We’re lining these up and rubbing them around. Ric’s really stoked about that, and he plays it for the director, and the director said, “No. This is not what we want.” I was like, “Okay.” He gives us more direction and more direction, and we try steel and metal, and eventually, it ends up circling back around to more of a clockwork kind of sound with a variety of heavier metal objects.

I drew a little inspiration from the Transformers movie when it came to the box. In the Transformers movie, when the cars turn to robots, every moving part had a different sound, and that was from the start really the way we wanted to go with this. We wanted to give every moving part its own space. The hard part about that wasn’t so much coming up with the idea …

Ryan: … or the performance.

Leslie: It was about …

Ryan: … the organization.

Leslie: It was about organizing a palette of sounds. A palette of different materials that we’re going to use for this box. The box changes seven or eight times, I can’t remember.

Ryan: We had to make sure that we were consistent every single time on every move — so if it was the corner piece that moves, then we had to make sure to remember that we used metal item No. 4 to create its sound. Sometimes we’d put the project down for a week or two and then get a call, “Can you guys do the same thing in this spot now?” Keeping notes was a big part of that.

Leslie: When the box does its thing, a blade will shoot out and stab a person, and blood gets on the box, and the cenobites come forth. That was also a very challenging part. I think there were four or five cenobites. These creatures have skin pulled from their face. Their arms are like raw muscle tissue and flesh. Ric Schnupp wanted a really distinctive sound between the cenobites. It wasn’t just a flappy wet skin kind of thing. Every one had a different sound to it, from different objects including shammies, wet or dry; pine cones; wet jeans; leather jackets; a tire iron, among others.

We keep everything written down in longhand in composition books. It’s hard to lose a composition book. I misplace my phone constantly, but my composition book is always around. I keep track of all the different sounds through that.

Ex Machina (2014), the sounds of footsteps in a glass room

Peter Burgis, Pinewood Studios: I’m quite well known within the industry for my meaty kind of army sound effects, because I did Band of Brothers and then bigger, kind of more involved movies. I did all the Harry Potter films, and I was very privileged to be asked back to do the Fantastic Beasts — and they are fantastic beasts. Nobody really had a firm idea as we went into the project what they wanted them to sound like. That was wild, just to have complete free rein over a film to create what I thought the creatures should sound like. I had such good fun doing the kelpie. I was in the river pit, arms full of plants and seaweed, splashing around like a mermaid. I had to create the sound of this really big creature by putting in the same kind of energy and physicality into the performance as the creature itself.

And while every job is a standout challenge, I’m quite a big fan of director Alex Garland. Since I like to make big noises, Ex Machina was a real turnaround for me. It was just one of those moments where I had to put away all of my beloved big-sound noises and start thinking about how quiet I had to be. What we wanted to do was make sure that any footsteps you heard were absolutely reflective of the film’s environment. So we had to build some glass walls on either side of me so that our footsteps would reflect as if off the glass walls of Eva’s cell. Even though we weren’t close to the glass, the sound was bouncing off it.

We also created a robot that didn’t sound like a robot, and created a new sound for skin. I’d actually just come off Edge of Tomorrow, so I had come from an alien war movie into Ex Machina, one of the quietest movies, and those were two very big contrasts for me.

For any other Foley artists who have a great hardest sound story to share, let us know at

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These are distinct but sometimes overlapping roles within a film’s sound department. Skywalker Sounds’ Shelly Roden, a Foley artist herself, explains the distinction as follows: “Sound effects is design based on what you can record in the field and what you can get from the sound library, where Foley is creating in a fixed space, which is a Foley stage, and we perform live to the picture.”
The Hardest Horror Movie Sound I Ever Foley-ed