HORROR / Utter abandonment: Hallowe'en is traditionally a day for screaming. Kevin Jackson lets out an involuntary howl on the moments when words aren't enough

Stephen King, who ought to know about such matters, proposes the following little experiment in elementary psychology. Find yourself a multiplex cinema which is showing a notoriously frightening horror movie and a hit comedy on the same evening. Linger outside the entrance to each screening and listen to the sounds made by the audience. You will rapidly discover, he maintains, that they are virtually indistinguishable.

King does not enter into any very profound theoretical discussion of this curiosity, but some of its implications are clear enough. Pornography aside, the schools of cinema which have the most dramatic physical effects on their audience are comedy and horror, and the bodily convulsions they induce are, if not precisely identical, then at least closely related. You might say, that is, that both types of movie are essentially machines designed to produce reflex shrieks, yells, yawps, cries, wails, howls and bellows - in a word, screams.

Now, the justice of King's observation must owe something to fact that the yelps provoked by horror movies tend to be swiftly followed by nervous or relieved laughter, and especially so when it is just one lonely member of the crowd who has succumbed to terror. (Memorable instance: the poor woman in a screening of Poltergeist who became the butt of the whole cinema's laughter when she squealed loudly as a skeletal hand shot out of the haunted television screen). But King's point makes more general sense, too - the sense implicitly acknowledged by publicity blurbs when they boast that such and such a film is 'screamingly funny'.

Over the centuries, artists, critics and theorists have made any number of sorties into the area of art and the emotions, many of them vastly more subtle than Stephen King's. The directors and theorists of the early Soviet cinema, for example, pointed out that an isolated frame of a film showing a man with his mouth wide open might be expressing joy, terror, anger or grief; only its context in a montage of images could define it. The advent of talking pictures qualified this proposition a little, but, as the King test shows, the sounds of vocal eruptions can be every bit as hard to interpret as their sights.

It might seem odd that, after all these intricate debates, King's humble test should still have a mild air of novelty. Part of the reason for this is that all those analyses, from Aristotle to Bergson, have focused on just about every other bodily expression of emotion - laughter, tears, even blushing - except the scream. Such biological snobbery, and the strangeness of our appetite for the kinds of spectacle that can put our lungs into unelected spasms, are topics well worth pondering, especially on the day which gives a special place to the spooky entertainments.

We tend to think of the arts as trading exclusively in the more refined sentiments - finely modulated irony, nostalgia, piety, love and embarrassment - or, at any rate, to assume that the degree to which a work of art can encompass and induce such feelings is the best index of its standing as high or popular culture. Appropriate physical responses to such works are the smile, the gentle sigh, the nod, and perhaps the odd discreet tear. To react more violently than this is to risk charges of vulgarity, or worse. Tragedy might involve the representation of pity and terror, but anyone who persisted in screaming through, say, a production of King Lear would probably be thrown out of the Barbican, unless it were staged in the 'Theatre of Cruelty' manner once favoured by Peter Brook.

Follow this line of thought and you might well conclude that one defining quality of high culture is an asymmetrical relationship with its audience when it comes to noisy displays. Aeschylus's Agamemnon has a great death shriek on- stage (or, in pedantic productions, from immediately off-stage), whereas The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a kind of cinematic mirror in which all the on- screen yelling is designed to be echoed by howls from the back rows. In the theatre, screams should command awed silence; in the multiplex, screams command more screams.

There is a good deal of truth in this maxim. And yet the hunger for raw and powerful emotions isn't confined to the gore-hounds who flock to Psycho Dementoid Zombie Nightmare Part 35; nor does high art always disdain the scream. Any director of Tartuffe or The Alchemist or Much Ado would be delighted to hear howls coming from the auditorium. Moreover, when adjectives such as 'visceral', 'shattering' or 'overwhelming' are among the stand-bys of many a theatre or opera critic's vocabulary of praise, why should directors and performers disdain the involuntary tribute of a shriek?

Indeed, artists should surely feel themselves considerably more flattered by screams than by applause. Even someone who has been bored to death all evening can generally make a pretty good show of clapping and cheering when the curtain falls, but a scream is much harder to fake. Hence the main conceit of Brian De Palma's Blow Out, which stars John Travolta as a sound recordist who specialises in dubbing cheap horror movies, but who never manages to contrive a chilling enough scream until he records the death anguish of the woman he loves.

Moreover, artists who feel that there is something intrinsically crass about audiences screaming, even in approval, as though it were the sonic equivalent of vomiting, should reflect for a moment on the range of strong emotions which the noise can express when it is represented on stage, screen or record. Long before the glory days of The Beatles, singers and musicians recognised the sexual content of the noises which gushed from thousands of young girls' throats, and the amusing scene from When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan fakes a loud orgasm is just one of a thousand cinematic moments which admit the similarity between the yodels of erotic ecstacy and of fright.

Screams may also express rage, often of the comic variety. (Two main categories: the involuntary bellow, of which Steve Martin is the present-day master, or the delayed outburst, as in the scene from Drop Dead Fred in which Carrie Fisher politely asks to be excused, walks out of a meeting, yells, and calmly returns.) They may express delight, as for example in the wild keening with which Mary Steenburgen celebrates winning a game show in Melvin and Howard.

They may express existential despair, as in Marlon Brando's dreadful wail in Last Tango in Paris - one of the many moments which have driven film critics to invoke Edvard Munch's painting The Scream (which, according to Dame Edna Everage, whose son Kenny designed a dress for her with a Munch pattern, depicts a Sydney housewife whose supply of Valium has been cut off). They may express bohemian joie de vivre, as in Liza Minnelli's game of shrieking under the Subway in Cabaret. They may even express petulance, as as in Violet Elizabeth Bott's habitual threat that she will thcream and thcream until she is thick.

Above all, screams may be the most adequate expression of that overwhelming sense of grief and devastion which, on many accounts, defines the experience of tragedy. One of the legendary moments of 20th-century theatre was the scream uttered by Helene Weigel in the Berliner Ensemble production of Mother Courage - a scream all the more harrowing because, as anyone old enough to have seen that production or curious enough to have read George Steiner's rhapsodical account of it in The Death of Tragedy will know, it was entirely silent.

Brecht may seem to be cultural light years away from Stephen King, and no one could reasonably wish to argue that the experience of watching Mother Courage is not on quite another plane from watching The Tingler (a gimmicky B- movie which urged its patrons to yell their lungs out so as to scare off the beastie which had somehow escaped from the screen and was at large among the stalls). What might be said, though, is that there is at least one respect in which tragedies and horror movies are as unexpectedly similar as those noises in the multiplex hall.

Screams are our species' earliest form of expression as well as its most urgent, and you do not need to be a follower of Dr Arthur Janov's The Primal Scream, or an admirer of John Lennon's Janov-inspired albums, to recognise that screaming is an act of infantile regression, or that the sight and sound of another person screaming derives its often overwhelming power from buried recollections of babyhood.

Silly monster films tap into this emotional source so clumsily that they cancel its power, but the more cunning examples of the genre can by-pass the defences of the adult mind and go straight back to the crib, in much the same way that the greatest dramas can engage the nervous system as well as the higher brain centres. Why is this? Because even in the most nihilistic horror movie, the screams of prospective victims are above everything else screams for help. They are wordless pleas for rescue; implicitly, that is, they imply a craving for the comfort of parents and society.

Which is why some of the most terrifying moments in the genre are precisely about the inability to make such childlike cries. In Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase, the heroine is rendered peculiarly vulnerable by the fact that she is mute. In Joe Dante's 'It's a Good Life', a segment of Twilight Zone - The Movie, by far the most appalling sight is that of a young girl whose mouth has been supernaturally removed by her demonic brother because she simply would not stop howling. And the feeling of terrible loneliness this incapacity creates - the feeling of being in a social as well as physical vacuum, and far beyond anyone's earshot - was most memorably caught in the catchline for Alien: In space, no one can hear you scream.

Ten great screams

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN: Possibly the greatest scream of the silent cinema may be found in the famous Odessa Steps sequence; it's a close-up of one of the civilian victims of the massacre which followed the 1905 revolution. Another contender:

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: When Mary Philbin recoils from Lon Chaney Sr's hideously disfigured face.

KING KONG: Starring the quintessential victim of the quintessential amorous monster, Fay Wray, who shrieks with unremitting force and dedication.

PSYCHO: What else? The shower sequence, in which Janet Leigh's shrieks are first picked up by and then blend into the jabbing chords of Bernard Herrmann's score. Note, too, the duplication of Leigh's screaming mouth in the later shot of her sister (Vera Miles) after she discovers the corpse of Mrs Bates.

PEEPING TOM: Michael Powell's film about a murderous voyeur who is the product of his father's evil experiments in fear, begins with some of the most unbearable shrieking ever committed to celluloid, as a prostitute is murdered.

CARRIE: One of the most delicious of horror film screams: not only does Amy Irvine howl like a stuck pig as she starts from a nightmare (Carrie's hand bursts out of the grave), but the yells from the audience almost drown her out.

TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: Tobe Hooper's harrowing shocker contains the most relentless exhibition of screaming - courtesy of Marilyn Burns - since King Kong. (Incidentally, the scripts for horror films are sometimes referred to in the trade as 'screamplays'.)

THE ELEPHANT MAN: An unsually poignant scream is uttered here when Michael Elphick, the night- watchman of the hospital, which houses John Merrick, drags a young prostitute into his room. By this stage, the audience is so sympathetic to Merrick that they silently beg her not to scream and hurt his delicate feelings. But she does.

ET THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL: Drew Barrymore's shriek of childish terror at meeting the alien is matched by his own peculiar cry of distress.

RAISING ARIZONA: The most visually spectacular of all movie screams occurs in the Coen brother's free- wheeling comedy. When John Goodman gives vent to a mighty wail, the camera zooms in on his mouth so suddenly and so violently that he appears to swallow it.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam