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)