Suspiria at 45: Audio Magic
On the back of his highly-successful Giallo thriller, Profondo Rosso (1975), Dario Argento yet again hit a bullseye with his now cult-classic horror of phantasmagorical witchery, Suspiria (1977). A wildly inventive tale of a coven in charge of a dance academy, it captured the imaginations of contemporary audiences and retrospectively won over critics after an initially mixed reception. While often acclaimed for its surreal visuals and astonishingly vivid colour pallet, Suspiria‘s score and audio decisions are just as unique.
After discovering the Italian prog rock band, Goblin, for the film score of Profondo Rosso, Argento decided to continue his collaboration for Suspiria, leading to the gestation and birth of a pounding, psychedelic soundtrack that adds a whole new level to the scares and spooks.
The film opens with pounding drums, frenetic strings, both building in intensity, all over the opening credits. Then the title card: Suspiria. Quickly, the audio cuts out, switches into a twinkling fairy-tale synthesiser tune, repeating like a earwormy mantra. A gentle voiceover begins, introducing the protagonist as a ballet student travelling to a prestigious dance academy.
Without any visuals yet, the score raises your heckles to start, gets the heart pumping to the drums. The sudden switch to the twinkling tune feels uneasy, darkly unsettling, yet you still get a sense of mystique and magic. It’s in a very similar vein to the use of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ in The Exorcist (1973). However, once the narration stops, the frantic and squealing violin comes in again, rising to a climax and dropping out once the first visual appears: a banal image of flight schedules.
These contrasts and cuts, these quick changes in music and tone, characterize Argento’s audio choices throughout the film. Often we know a scare is coming once the music begins to kick in, even when there are no visual indicators to prepare us. The music seems inextricably tied to the events in the film: it blurs the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic.
Diegetic music or sound is that which has a source in the world of the film: you see a man hit a drum, you hear a drum sound. Easy enough. Non-diegetic, on the other hand, has no source in the world of the story. For example, most film scores class as non-diegetic: you don’t see Jack and Rose singing along to Celeine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’.
The interesting thing about Suspiria‘s soundtrack is the way in which it flits between diegetic and non-diegetic. We can never fully be sure whether the audio and music are in the world or out of it. The booming drums and repetitions give it the feel of ritualistic music, perhaps suggesting we are hearing the coven weave their dark magic in the background of each act of violence. This is reinforced by sounds of sighing, moaning, even witchy screaming that weaves in and out of each track. With Argento intending Suspiria to focus on “Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs” from Thomas De Quincy’s 1845 essay, the repeated sighing in the score seems to signal the presence of this Mother Witch.
Accompanying each horrifying act, the score appears to have a witchy magic of its own. When the scene changes, away from the scare, the music often abruptly cuts, suggesting that it was in fact diegetic – stemming from the scene itself. Like all good horror soundtracks, it feels irreplaceable.
Dario Argento and Goblin managed to craft a track that feels inextricably linked to the action on screen. Audio and action hubble and bubble together into cinematic madness. Due to the musical talent of Goblin, Suspiria is a nightmare which is a feast for the ears, as well as the eyes.