I’m about to play for you the most important sound effect ever recorded.
You’ve heard this one, a million times before.
It’s your old friend Castle Thunder, of course. It was recorded for the movie Frankenstein in 1931 and it hasn’t changed a bit since then.
Have you ever noticed that Castle Thunder sounds nothing at all like thunder? It’s a long rolling shout, it’s very mid-rangey, without any of the exciting subwoofer-punching properties of real thunder.
But your great grandparents loved Castle Thunder, your parents loved Castle Thunder, and darn it, you do too. So why does this 85 year old sound refuse to give up the ghost?
Thirty years before Castle Thunder was recorded, legend has it that a scientist named Ivan Petrovich Pavlov taught a few dogs that every time they were about to be fed, he’d ring a bell. And those dogs came to understand that the ringing of the bell meant that it was chow time. And they’d start to salivate.
Now you may think that was the way it went down. But that wasn’t actually what happened. Pavlov actually used a variety of stimuli, including bells, whistles, metronomes and tuning forks. Ultimately it didn’t matter whether Pavlov rang an actual bell or made some other kind of sound effect. Sound then food means that that sound gets associated with dinner time.
Hey, it’s been two minutes since you heard Castle Thunder. Here it is again:
Now that you’ve heard Castle Thunder, you might be thinking of the original movie version of Frankenstein. You might be thinking of Scooby Doo, where the sound effect was used like salt at Burger King. Or you might be thinking of the Powerpuff Girls. Or it might make you remember the Back to the Future movie.
Castle Thunder is a sonic icon, in the same sense of the Windows 95 bootup sound or the “you’ve got mail” holler from America Online. It doesn’t sound like a castle, and it doesn’t sound like thunder; it doesn’t even sound scary in and of itself.
What Castle Thunder sounds like is… a scary movie.
And it has sounded like a scary movie, to generations, and millions upon millions of people. It’s a sound whose meaning has remained unchanged, ever since sound effects were first recorded for mass media. That’s why it’s the most important sound effect ever recorded, even if Castle Thunder doesn’t sound like either a castle or thunder.
Castle Thunder isn’t really even that scary.
But if, every time someone rang a bell, something scary happened on that glowing screen in front of you… wouldn’t you start to think that bells sound scary?