How can we balance the Right to Information against the Right to Privacy?

When asked to balance one’s right to privacy against the public’s right to information, we are not asking ‘how important this information might be to the public good, and what depth of information is essential for them to know’ but rather ‘how much are we able to get away with and will it sell?’ Thus is the moral landscape of modern media. The debate which, if held within the context of an ideal, and wholly moral society would be an easy to settle.  In fact there already exists standard codes of practice which outline exactly what should be considered instances where privacy can be violated in the ‘public interest’ thus making a clear distinction between what is ethically acceptable, and what is not.   According to the NUJ instances where a violation of privacy might be ethically sound include:

a) Detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour;

b) Protecting public Health and Safety;

c) Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or        organisation;

d) Exposing misuse of public funds or other forms of corruption by public bodies;

e) Revealing potential conflicts of interest by those in positions of power and influence;

f) Exposing corporate greed;

g) Exposing hypocritical behaviour by those holding high office.[1]

But these are not strictly adhered to, not by the tabloid media environment which permeates even into established media outlets (The Irish independent reporting on celebrity sexual promiscuity, personal information of sports personalities etc.)   In this essay I will show that the ‘public interest’ and its right to information is based not on a code of ethics which journalists abide by, but rather a system of trade, whereby by privacy is traded for power, and information is traded for money. We will do this by;

1) Analysing what is both a ‘right’ and what do we mean when we speak about ‘privacy’.

2) Identifying Instances where this system of information, power and privacy operates

3) Understanding the precarious approach taken when breaching the privacy of the bereaved

4) And finally, asking why such a system allowed for the coverage of the Roma children story to gain such public appeal.

What is Privacy?

“Privacy is recognised by psychologists as a basic human need; a drive almost as powerful as sex, hunger and thirst”[2].  Society thrives on the exchange of information and the relinquishing of privacy, (banks hold your money, doctors your most personal information), while individuals thrive on their autonomy or their ability to control information about themselves. It would be true to say that some however are entitled to more privacy than others.  When reviewing the instances where it is acceptable to encroach on someone’s privacy, as defined by the NUJ you will note that politicians, bankers and other public figures are those most susceptible to these special instances, and rightly so. There is an understanding between both the public sphere and those in the private, which claims ‘the higher up the ladder one goes, the less entitled to privacy one is’.  This relinquishing of privacy stems from the journalistic notion of the Social Responsibility Theory, which journalists use to defend the invasion of public figure’s information in the interest of the ‘Public Good’[3].  Invading the privacy of politicians is within their job description.  However as already noted there are major problems with this notion of the public good as are there problems with the notion of Social Responsibility.  J Herbert Altschull has described the theory as being ‘a term whose content is so vague that almost any meaning can be placed on it’, and as a result has led us to the morally subjective media environment that we have today.

The ethical dissemination of information about public figures, while justifiable when regarding politicians and those who are accountable to the public, becomes mired when celebrity gossip enters the fold.  Some would defend the celebrity culture, even though it does not fall in line with the guidelines prescribed by the NUJ.  David Archard has claimed that there is a social role to be played by discussing celebrity gossip, that it “Reminds us that we are all very much akin in our private affairs and informing collective reflection upon the standards we claim to share and live by”, others would claim “it is difficult to see why anyone should incur the penalty of what is virtually journalistic open slather simply because they have entered the public arena”.[4] However from this practice of going beyond their duties according to the Social Responsibility Theory, Journalists have contributed to, if not created a system where private information about oneself can be bought and sold.   Privacy exchanged for fame, without any justifiable claim for it to be within the ‘public interest’. Page three models, and Big Brother contestants have cashed in on the voyeuristic nature of the public while Journalists, in the basest publications have facilitated the self-perpetuating market of privacy/power exchange.

What gives us the right?

When discussing the ‘public interest’, our right to be informed about the happenings in the halls of power is what drives its legitimacy, while our democratic vote gives them the right to govern. Politicians are themselves subject to our right to be informed, but rights are simply truisms created by society to manage itself. They are malleable moral guidelines, and are subject to the same system of exchange which both privacy and the ‘public interest’ are.  Some rights are more fundamental than others, the right to free speech, the right to life, the right to information, etc, and the right to privacy however is held in less regard than the others.  In order to strike the balance between what we have a right to be informed about some commentators draw lines under how affected we might be by the actions of such politicians, “In reporting on public figures, we should publish private information, even against their will, if the private activity might significantly affect their performance of duties to their public”.[5]   Although this would sound to be a more exact measure of how far our right to be informed extends it still leaves room for going beyond what we would consider ethical -boundaries.   It is almost impossible for journalists, and even more so for the public to determine how far it into a person’s life we should reach, while still being for the ‘public good’.

When Journalists are left to determine what constitutes a practice which would ‘affect their duties to the public’, errors of judgement are bound to be made.  This is human error, granted one which we must strive to avoid, but given the tumultuous nature of public opinion it is near to impossible to second guess what the public believe they should be informed about. Take the media coverage of tennis player Arthur Ashe in the late 80’s. The media had decided information regarding his contraction of AIDS was harmful enough to his ‘duties as a public figure’, and as a result against his will published the information.   There was public outcry that such a personal part of a man’s life had been flaunted in the media, and the choice to do so was based on the Journalist’s assumption he was operating within the ethical boundaries as outlined by his own duties to the Public Good.   As a result it is clear that the information, rather than being regulated by a standard code of ethics was subject to the exchange system where level of fame gained correlates to level of privacy lost.   His place in the public eye is what cost him his standard right to privacy, he was simply too famous for this information not to enter the public sphere.

‘Get them while they’re hot’

Arguably the most sensitive time in any person’s life, public or otherwise in during the bereavement process.  Here is   space where journalists earn their ‘hack’ badges, or manage to hold on to their credibility.  Should the press have door stopped the family of a child, unknown to the public having passed away from cot death, public opinion would rally in anger at what they would understand to be, ‘an unjust invasion of privacy’. If you were to take the coverage of a figure in the public eye however you would note a major difference in the reaction. Peaches Geldof’s recent passing has been turned into a media spectacle.  The ability to construct a narrative, shock toxicology reports and a pretty face to boot have given the media a story which carries all the necessary ‘Galtung-istic and Ruge-ian’ factors needed to construct an edible news entrée.[6]   Death does not discriminate on the grounds of wealth or fame, so why the public might need to know that they are ‘very much akin in their death as well their personal lives (as David Archard had claimed when justifying the Theory of Social responsibility) is beyond defending.

Editors claim that there is a practical and social function to be played by intruding on the privacy of the bereaved, “many details of a person’s life can only be known by their closest family, particularly where that person is not a public figure”.[7] The wording suggests a passive take on the exchange of family privacy in relation to the media, as if it were offering a service, should it be the proactive choice of the family to disclose such personal information following the death of a family member. Of course as we understand it this is not the case, “generally, journalists approach those who have been in a situation involving death during the first two stages of the grieving process – a state of shock or disbelief, and a state of emotional release…”[8] While attempting to build a code of practice in relation to the grieving process, no attempt is ever made to totally veto the media’s coverage of celebrity deaths. Privacy is again exchanged for fame or notoriety, with the level of privacy disclosed directly relating to the fame of the individual.

There are cases in which this trade between privacy and notoriety can have a positive effect. ‘Stephens Story’, the Twitter account used by terminally ill teenager Stephen Sutton has managed to raise over 3 million pounds for charity.[9]  By disclosing the most personal information of Stephen’s battle with cancer he has managed to manipulate this privacy/power dichotomy for a social good, and most notably had done so by bypassing traditional media forums. The citizen journalism/activism function of social media sites like Twitter, has allowed Stephen to create a media narrative without the aid of the often complex media filter.  By giving up his own privacy Stephen has entered into the public eye and as a result has proactively aided the ‘Public Good’. Maybe therein lies the answer to the question of balance, that information at least in areas of such sensitivity should only be volunteered to the public. When it comes to the powerful and the political maybe the ‘Public Good’ would benefit from allowing them to disclose matters of such intimate privacy within their own time.  Allow the media to become a tool, in such circumstances to be used by the family rather than one which they would battle against.

Privacy and Children

Following the story, covered by all Irish Media agencies surrounding the false charges of kidnapping against a Roma family last year the question of ethical boundaries into personal privacy has highlighted a great caveat in the power/privacy dichotomy.  Charlie Flanagan wrote, in an article which appeared in the Irish Times that the images of the Roma children which circulated in the Irish media, while taken with the consent of the parents, remained outside the boundaries of ethical journalism, “I fail to see what public interest is served by splashing images of innocent children across the news media in a way that not only discloses their identity but places them under spotlight and scrutiny”.[10] While the Irish media operated within the boundaries of the code of practices, as outlined by the Irish Press Council, the level of Privacy taken from the children, consent or no consent, went beyond what is ethically acceptable.

This begs the question, where within our theory of power and privacy does this stand? Children, the elderly and the sick, those who do not have the choice to trade their privacy for power fall on the opposite side of the spectrum to politicians and bankers. They are unable to control information about themselves and in that becomes apparent the injustice that was the coverage of the Roma children.

It is this informational exchange system which balances the public’s right to information, against public figures right to privacy. The manner in which the media acts is not regulated by a vehemently held code of ethics. For those within the public sphere privacy is, at least in the most basic sense a given. By succeeding and entering the public eye that privacy is relinquished. This social contract allows society to self-regulate, it begs questions of the powerful and pushes issues into the public discourse. However it would seem more often than not the public discourse finds itself asking questions of the media, rather than of the powerful. So long as Editors are willing to push boundaries, so long as traditional media feels threatened, and so long as journalists have the power to shape the public conversation there can be no standardised method to balance the right to information against a person’s right to privacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Frost, Chris Media Ethics and self-regulation, Person Education Limited , Essex (2000)

Jensen, J. Vernon Ethical issues in the communication Process, Laurence Erlbaum Associates      Publishers, New Jersey (1997)

McGregor, Judy Restating news values: contemporary criteria for selecting the news , Massey   University, In J. McGregor and M. Comrie (Eds)  ‘What’s news? Reclaiming journalism in New     Zealand’. (2002)

Richards, Ian Quagmires and Quandaries Exploring Journalism Ethics, University of New South Whales                 Press LTD, Sydney (2005)

Tulloch, John “What Moral Universe are you from?” Everyday tragedies and the ethics of press intrusion into grief, ‘Communication Ethics Today’, Ed. Richard Keeble, Troubadour                 Publishing Ltd, Leicester (2005)

Internet sites Cited –

Roy Greenslade, The Guardian, Differences in defining the public interest, Thursday 26 July 2007              07.17 BST

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-27192089

http://umassjournalismethics.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/the-ethics-of-the-medias-coverage-of-roma-families/

 

 

 

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Revolution? In ‘Homage to Catalonia’

George-Orwell-001Revolution exists only as an ideal in Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’, true revolution of a Socialist nature that Orwell idealizes exists only in the slogans and banners which Orwell describes in the romantic opening of the first chapter. There are three variants of the word ‘revolution’ in this book, the Socialist revolution, the Fascist revolution of Franco, and finally the communist revolution within the ranks of the socialist government, none of which are synonymous with Orwell’s idealised version. Revolution to Orwell was black and white ,good versus evil,  a revolution of, “The New Statesman version of war, as the defence of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler”(197), and one which Orwell himself admits in his reflection as being ignorant of the true politics of the situation.

The first form of revolution, the Socialist revolution was one which really only existed through informalities and propaganda, which could as Orwell himself admits only exist in a time of war. This revolution was the ideal of Orwell, the POUM and the anarchists forming a political zeitgeist which represented the egalitarian society that the bearded fruit juice drinkers could only dream of existing in. This revolution logistically, was how one may have imagined such an idealistic movement to be, ill equipped with ancient rifles and bombs which were so rusted that they would be given nicknames after being fired from one side to the other without ever exploding. One could argue that this combination of idealization and dysfunction could be surmised in the paradoxical anger of an officer towards a soldier who had just called him ‘senor’, “Are we not all comrades?”(8), a scene which gives an almost ‘Dad’s Army’ feel to the shabby war machine of the socialists.

The standing government of Spain at the time had entered into the Socialist faze of a pendulum form of politics, which would swing in favour of conservative government should support from the major cities of Spain commanded it. In resistance to a revolution led by Franco the country-side Fascists were pitted against the city dwelling socialists who, this essay would imagine fought on either side only by geographical placement. Orwell describes the blurred lines of the revolution of the Spanish people against the Fascists as deserters would ‘trickle’ across the lines, hearing the calls of propaganda, “why fight against your own class”(45). Orwell also describes the again strange calls of “Buttered Toast” which were used to coax the opposing fighters, a tactic which not only must have had genuine but slightly humorous effect on the Fascist fighters but one which exemplifies the true nature of the war. It was not a socialist revolution but rather a scarring civil war which left the Spanish people themselves hungry and dying.

The Fascist revolution as a result was clearly one facet of a proxy war between the powers of Italy, Germany and Russia. Franco’s army propped up by Italian and German support was not a revolution of the people, rather, “His revolution was a military mutiny backed up by the aristocracy and the Church….it was not so much an attempt to impose Fascism as to restore feudalism”.(199) Orwell here understands more-so than before the political realities of the ‘Fascist revolution’, namely that is not a real revolution, as it would imply a movement led by the people, rather as a military coup d’états.

This contrasts greatly with Orwell’s almost boyish fantasy of ‘killing his first Fascist’, a view which is humanised following his sprint after a soldier who, comically to Orwell manages to stay out of reach of his bayonet. The attack of chapter six exemplifies this almost foolhardy hunger for gunfire which Orwell longed for in the boredom of inter-battle periods, but this can almost be understood. Orwell was not baying for human blood, rather he was looking for a physical attack on the ideals of this ‘Fascist Revolution’ a black-shirt scalp which would make him feel like that the misery of the trench was worth it. We however now understand that even as Orwell was chasing a fleeing man around with a pointed gun blade, a revolution of different sorts was occurring in the cities of Spain.

The Communist revolution was a reaction to the aforementioned proxy war, with Soviet and Stalinist control being asserted upon the previously independent fractions which had been united in the ‘Orwellian’ version of socialist revolution. Soviet and Russian control had propped up the otherwise weak cities of Spain against the tide of Fascist dissent coming from the east, and now it had begun to sanitize and regulate the previously disorganised Leftist government. Andrés Nin the POUM leader had been arrested on the 15th June that year, militia men of the POUM were being arrested and control was being asserted from Moscow onto the ranks of the Independent socialists and anarchists. Orwell at the time says, “But it is a different matter to send men into battle and not even tell them that behind their backs their party is being supressed, their leaders accused of treachery, and their friends and relatives thrown into prison”(170). Here we see Orwell’s dream handshake with the Italian anarchist fade, one revolution is being usurped for another. The Comrades of the trenches; POUM, anarchist, PSUC, FAI, CNT, UGT etc. all of whom had been brothers in arms had now become fractured acronyms, either you were aligned with Stalinist or a “Spanish Trotskyists [plotting] With Franco”(244), as one newspaper headline read.

Thus we can see that no real revolution existed, not in the Orwellian sense, only an air of it was carried through the songs and flags of the POUM. The communist usurping of the genuine left had been supressed in order to make way for a revolution which mirrored the Fascist totalitarianism, the Fascist revolution was merely military muscle flexing of the darker sides of European totalitarianism, and the great socialist revolution that Orwell had come to Spain in search of was only brief handshake which had left him with a hole in his neck.

Did the Italian Fascist party rule by consent or coercion?

Hitler_and_Mussolini_June_1940“Others will conquer with sword and fire, perhaps, but certainly not with consent as I did…I have made a dictatorship noble” – Mussolini(230-231 salome)

The question of whether Mussolini’s fascist party ruled by either consent or coercion is one which cannot be answered with an outright conclusion. The question addresses one of the most debated areas of the Italian historiography on Fascism. It implications reach deeper than an analysis of the Fascist party itself, instead it burrows deep into the heart of the Italian people. Ultimately the question is asked in order to gauge the moral culpability of the Italian people, asking how heavy should history weigh the evils of fascism on its people? Could it be said that they were consenting in the actions and evils propagated by their Totalitarian state or was it the case that they had been manipulated, threatened and coerced into accepting their despotic fate? This essay will attempt to look at a variety of periods of this nation’s history, and its relationship with fascism; from unification in 1870 until the liberation of Rome in 1944, if only to examine an the intricacies of Italian pre-fascism socio-political  structures which, when understood would help to our explain the rise and fall of fascism The time period is vast but we hope to focus our greatest attention on the period between 1922 beginning with the march on Rome and ending in 1943with the death of Mussolini.

This essay will look at Gramaci’s theory on Hegemony which outlines how the Fascism believed it could transcend party, state and culture in a dictatorship of ideas, rather than violence, noting that in order to so consent would have to be achieved. We also be addressing areas contested areas in relation to the consent or coercion of the Italian peoples; such as the failure of the left, Fascist youth groups, the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes, the cult of the Duce and finally, public guilt and the political vacuum left after the fall of fascism.

The failure of the left

Following Versailles Italian politics was in the doldrums, a power vacuum had been created after the collapse of faith in the Risorgimento government and it was widely accepted that the socialist left were going to step in and take power, “This was diciannovesimo, a pre-revolutionary yearning for change and a utopian faith in a better world, to be born”(511 watson). However the left failed to seize the moment, the air of passivism that surrounded Italy’s socialists condemned itself to impotence, forfeiting a chance to take reign of the country. Leftist ostracisation of the returning soldiers due to a combination of elitism by the petty-bourgeoisie (which made up the majority of the left) and their reactionary condemnation of the any nationalist leanings saw the left shunning the very people which could have brought about the realisation of their socialist republic. It is within this small space that Mussolini and the Fasci de Combattimento marched on Rome in 1922 and met with little resistance one could claim that consent, if not sheer indifference of the Italian people allowed Mussolini take reign of the country.

That’s not to say that Fascism had come completely out of the blue, Gabrielle d’Annumnzio’s occupation of Fiume acted as the litmus test for Fascist rhetoric and ideology, both influencing and confirming Mussolini’s own belief that the Italian people were ‘yearning’ for a drastic shift in the political landscape, “Fascism had come out of the social conditions established under the previous regime. It did not come out of nowhere.”(236 rome fascist capital).  Following the emasculation and perceived injustice as regards Italy’s rights to lands in Africa and Yugoslavia, grand political gestures, jingoistic in nature were the allures which bred the Italian people’s acceptance of Mussolini’s Fascist party. As a result when attempting to analyse the question of consent or coercion it is important to note that the apathy, or non-intervention displayed by the Italian people is indicative of their attitudes to the fascist party throughout its entire twenty year governance, a societal conditional acceptance, or rather, ‘conditional consent’. It is this culture of ‘conditional consent’ which gave way to the popularly uncontested rise of Mussolini and his party, and which allowed the Fascist party to create a ‘political’ hegemony in Italy.

Conditions had been similar in pre-Nazi Germany with a very real power struggle being fought on the streets, The Spartacus uprising of the left and the reactionary right wing suppression of it by the Freikorps displayed in violent carnage the ideological battle being fought on the ground. In pre-Fascist Italy however the political environment was very different. One only has to examine Mussolini’s own involvement with the socialist newspapers Avanti, as well as the relatively peaceful strikes of the time to understand that the political ‘warzone’ of Germany was one which was being forged through violent conflict, while Italy’s politics was being debated in the chambers of the Intellectuals. The Fascist party had simply been the party which chose to act quickest and with the most amount of aggression, opportunism

Fascist Youth and Covert Coercion

The political hegemony, as recounted by Gramasci was the very embodiment of the Fascist youth groups. Fascist ideology believed in the ‘consent’ of the people, as the epigraph to this essay would suggest, Mussolini in his deluded narcissism genuinely believed in the full consent of the Italian people, thinking that they too had been moved by the same hyperbolic hero-rhetoric which he himself so deeply believed. The truth lies in the cultural and societal manipulation by the Fascist youth groups. This is what one could call, ‘covert coercion’, the creation of a political and socio-economic landscape where favour was given to both children and families who had signed up as members, without eliciting direct threat or violence against those who joined, “Membership was not obligatory until 1939 but in practice social and political pressure pushed the children in the direction of conformity and not resistance, belonging and not separateness”(96 koon).

Rather the direct and tangible violence which would usually suggest coercion, a quasi-cultural or economic hegemony was being created by the party. Membership of the Fascist youth would have determined, or even been a necessity for Italian children’s access to viable careers, especially in the civil service. The Fascist party had sought about creating and moulding a state where socio-political decisions were based on party membership, coercing the Italian middle class into becoming party members. However this does differ greatly from violent or threatening coercion as can be seen with the introduction of ‘mandatory membership’ in 1939, a fact which is symptomatic of the falling numbers of member attendance nearing the latter half of their reign. In fact many Italians of the South had passively resisted party membership by joining the remaining right wing parties of the time in order to meekly resist Fascist control.

The educational system which had under the authority of Gentile attempted to further homogenise the Italian youth by increasing drilling and military standardisation in place of academic works, expanding the bellicose agenda of the fascist party. The failure of the gentile reforms are exemplary of such a political landscape, in which ‘conditional consent’ or even ‘covert coercion’ existed, “As the years past, [Gentile] realised that the fascist regime had failed in the task and that the national consensus, if broad, as also superficial-motivated by opportunism and not faith”(93 koon). The ideological delusion that total political and cultural homogeny could be achieved through ‘consent’ is what left the almost half-hearted ‘coercion’ of both education and culture void of any real impact.

The Pontine Marshes

As part of the cultural reimaging of Italy, socially and structurally the Fascist party had hoped to augment and finely tune its population and its landscape in order to complement its cultural and political hegemony. Bound to this concept the fascist party began attempting to reclaim land for its citizen by draining the marshes of Lazio in central Italy, believing that the ‘decline’ in birth rates was as a result of couples not being able to afford the enough children in the confines of the industrialised north. The forced migration of tens of thousands from the north to the reclaimed land is outlined by Caprotti as being an example of the hybrid form of ‘consent’ and ‘coercion’, and which creates an impasse for those attempting to give a static answer to the question proposed. Capprotti notes, “potential colonists were meant to migrate voluntarily”, however as a result forced migration had to be implemented. They attempted the olive branch, then used the sword, failing a consensual migration the Italian northerners were then coerced into occupying these ‘newly reclaimed marshes’( Caprotti 21).

 

Sound Effects are a Universal Language

eggs funny gamesSound Effects are a Universal Language

`Sound effects are the sonic language of our world; they communicate to us the speed of a train, the force of a kick or simply the presence of another around us. Anthropologically sound acted as the feelers used by humans in attempting to navigate the unknown. It is the intention of this essay to show how sound effects pray on that very same sonic-safety mechanism which gave us the ability to survive. The genre of Horror uses sound effects greater than any other genre. It does this by infiltrating the emotional response systems of the viewer, engaging on both a conscious and subconscious level. Sound effects are used in horror to; 1) establish the reality of the world in order to consciously infiltrate our psyche,  2) manipulate our emotions, 3)  pander to the darkest part of our imagination and finally 4) subvert the way in which we sonically understand and navigate the world.

Establishing reality in Horror

In Tobe Hooper’s 1974 ‘Slasher’ film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the infamous sound of the chainsaw is a reality that immediately strikes fear into the listener, be in wielded by the monstrous Leatherface, or by a landscape gardener, the effect of such a loud dangerous machine is one which we instinctively identify as being something to fear. As Jerry (Allan Danziger) enters the parameter of the house the drone of the engine powering the electricity tells us some reasonably obvious information, namely that the house is occupied and, given that it is still running and that they have gas that the protagonists need. Thus this sound effect drives the plot using ‘localizable’ sound which, “shares with the un-identifiable noises the quality of bringing the material aspects of reality into focus”.(Kracaucer,124) However as he enters the house the sound of pig screams over the din of the machine indicates to us an element of danger is clearly beyond the door. The sound of the engine is later mimicked by the roar of Leatherface’s chainsaw as Sally (Marilyn Burns) is chased through the woods. The sound effect has sonically engaged us literally, carrying the narration, giving reason for Jerry to have entered the house, but it has also engaged is on an animalistic level. We now associate the sound of the engine with danger, the sound of the house with danger and very obviously, (unless one is emotionally stunted) the sound of Leatherface’s chainsaw, with danger.

The Emotional Level

Sound effects do not simply speak to us in a narrative manor by establishing certain realities they also have the ability to engage us emotionally. Walter Murch in his rule of six identifies emotion as the paramount criteria in editing, and in horror no effect speaks to our subconscious with the same depth as the language of sound effects. Take the speech by the two eerie twins of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as the camera follows the push cart of Danny ,the words resonates with our subconscious when they are said in unison carrying more weight than any scream can, toppling the clichéd scream as the classic sonic indicator of danger. Here it is not the dialogue which makes us shudder but rather the combination of cuts between the images of the butchered girl, mimicking the uniformed speech of the two. This is what Siegfried Kracaucer called ‘pure dialogue’, when dialogue is removed from having simply a narrative effect (Kracaucer, 107). We can see the diegetic presence of their voices carrying the shot, as the non-diegetic soundtrack as well the camera shots take their lead from the sound effects.

Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man also makes use of diegetic sound in the same way, with the on screen sound dictating the shot. As Edward Woodward sings his prayers inside the bowls of the human effigy, the conflict between his own fear and fruitless defiance is drowned out by the song of the pagan villagers. The scene’s harrowing final shot as the camera pans to the setting sun shows us that the song of the villagers has won. This terrifying scene relies totally on the sound effect of the singing villagers whose celebration not only acts as a sound effect but also as the soundtrack to the scene, where one can only look on in helpless terror as Woodward is sacrificed for the crop. Emotionally it is hard for any film of any genre to live up to that level of emotional engagement, as the sound effects of the voices create a harrowing realisation that our hero will not be saved.

Fearing What We Cannot See

To return to the anthropological understanding of sound, fear of the unseen or un-known will all ways resonate louder with our subconscious than any on screen effect, we will all ways fear what we cannot see. As a result where eyesight fails, our hearing then acts as our tool of navigation when assessing danger. Daniel Myrick’s horror film The Blair Witch Project uses an acute understanding of these animalistic truths about our own ability to sense danger. The sound effects used by Myrick in the ‘found footage’ style were used knowing that the power of our own imagination can never be surpassed by special effects, and rather than focus on the visceral violence of previous ‘found footage’ films such as Cannibal holocaust, the films directors knew that the most eloquent language of horror was to avoid such blatant depictions of horror and to allow the language of the sound effects narrate the terror. It plays on a kind of ‘individualistic nightmare’ which only we ourselves can conjure; the effects merely act as a trigger to that nightmare. The final scene, as we hear the crew screaming in terror to one another never shows us the root of the terror but allows our imagination and our empathy for the screaming crew to create the nightmare.

How Horror’s Sonic Language Subverts

Thus far this essay has shown how the universal language of sound effects can be used to manipulate our understanding of the world, our emotions and our imagination. We have however yet to come to what this essays believes to be the most interesting function of sound effect in Horror, i.e. its ability to subvert our animalistic understanding of the world. In no film does the language of sound effects manipulate such understanding as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. The sparse if not absent use of non-diegetic sound, other than possibly the opening soundtrack leaves a void of space to be filled by Haneke in order for the audience to navigate, empathise and imagine the horror that falls upon the family at the hands of ‘Beavis’ and ‘Butthead’. The dropping of the eggs scene turns what would have been simply a narrative sound effect into what could be argued to be one of the scariest sound effects used in the film. Not only does the crack indicate an ambiguous refusal of the killer to leave but also mimics the crack heard as the father is rendered incapacitated. Here is a language we are not familiar with, a sound effect which not simply drives narrative but which is a precursor to the violence we are about to witness.

The same could also be said about the rolling of the golf-ball which signals the killers return to the house with the wife captive, or even the drone of the television as their decapitated son lies dead. These sound are not the traditional sounds with which we could understand the world, but in the ‘ultra-violence’ of Haneke’s world, these have become the new scream, the new rustle of leaves subverting everything we knew about the sonic language of sound effects.

The language of Sound Effects is universal, and each category we have discussed only acts as a microcosm of the overall effect sound effects have upon an audience. In particular, as this essay has chosen to focus purely on sound effect’s ability to engage our fears we understand that we have not been able to show how sound effects can evoke feelings of joy, of ecstasy or of love, but in the genre of Horror sound effects affect our most basic level instinct, survival. Thus we would believe that we have shown how sound effects play the greatest role in a horror films ; narrative, in establishing its emotional engagement, in evoking the demons of our imagination and by subverting what we once thought to be safe.

Works Cited

Ed. Cook, Pam The Cinema Book 3rd ed. British Film Institute ( London, 2007)

Boggs, Joseph Petrie, Dennis The Art of Watching Films (McGraw-Hill Education, 2011)

Kracaucer, Siegfried Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality Princeton Paperback (Oxford 1997)

Funny Games Dir. Haneke, Michael , Film Fonds Wien .1997. Film

The Blair Witch Project Dir. Myrick, Daniel Sanchez, Eduardo. Haxon. 1999. Film

The Shinning Dir. Kubrick, Stanley, Writ. King, Stephen. Warner Bros, Hawks Films. 1980. Film

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Dir. Hooper, Tobe. Vortex. 1975. Film

The Wicker Man Dir. Hardy, Robin. British Lion Film Corp. 1973. Film