Hear, Hear, Hear: Possibilities, Scopes and the Spectrum of Audible Horror in Select Stories of Sunday Suspense
By Aritra Basu
A common understanding of horror often brings with it the element of the visual. Descriptions of hideous, scary, and visibly disturbing elements of horror abound in books of this genre. Horror films rely significantly on the visual portrayal of ghosts, spirits, and zombies. Even when it comes to animated horror elements, be it Ryuk in Death Note, the zombies in the fifth episode of What If…, and others the tradition goes on. However, in addition to the arguably cliché element of the visual, horror stories also include an audible element in them, made relevant through the jump scare scenes, unnerving chiming of the keys, the wind blowing at an unnecessarily fast pace, and so on. In this paper, I wish to enquire how these audible elements would work to produce horror effects in an exclusively audio platform, like the one provided by Sunday Suspense, a decade-long audio story programme made in Bengali by Radio Mirchi (Bangla) 98.3 FM.
An exclusively audio platform, while taking away some key elements of horror, also adds certain new elements to it. When a visual engagement is imagined, there would be a minimum amount of light emitting from the screen on which the content is being consumed. In many cases, the viewers keep the light on just to minimise the element of fear. While listening to an audio rendition, one can keep their eyes closed, irrespective of the amount of light in the room, and that only allows for a more vivid imagination of the ongoing scenario that is being narrated to the listener. If one assumes the usage of headphones or earphones, then the intimacy with which such type of content is consumed increases manifold. Though it is possible to use earphones while consuming visual media as well, due to its engagement of multiple senses, it allows for an element of distraction to be figured in the experience.
The usage of foley becomes very pertinent in this context. If one takes the example of Bhog by Aveek Sarkar, aired on 11th August 2019 on the YouTube Channel of Mirchi Bangla, then this could be explained more clearly. The story starts with the instance of the protagonist, Atin buying an apparently harmless idol from his friend. Following that, he is stopped on the road while driving by a homeless woman, seeking shelter. This instance is informed by a slow, reverbing, eerie sound, along with the unstopping sound of the mundane rainfall. During the dream sequences in the narrative, the background score is almost inaudible for someone using a default speaker of their devices, but for someone who has plugged their earphones in, a thin, shrill, unsettling sound makes its way to the ears. Horror makes its way directly to the brain through the sound waves which make the listener feel uncomfortable. This approach has been backed by Game Studies’ approach to understand how sound can affect our fear. In the article “Auditory Hallucination: Audiological Perspective for Horror Games”, the authors argue in these very lines, establishing how the sound effects are used to instill fear in the minds of the gameplayers (Demarque and de Lima, 20-22). However, this element of transmitting horror through an auditory medium is not a novel approach undertaken by Sunday Suspense, either in the domain of audio stories, or in the overall spectrum of the spread of oral literature in and around Bengal.
In the realm of Bengali Children’s Literature, narrating ghost/horror stories is often seen as a common practice. Stalwart storytellers like Tenida, Ghonada, or Tarini Khuro have all been known to narrate ghost stories, either on an off-chance, or in regular intervals like the latter, in stories like ‘The Duel at Lucknow’, ‘The Man-eater of Duminigarh’, and so on. There is also the character of the thakuma from Thakumar Jhuli (by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar) who narrates stories of horror (in addition to moralistic, or didactic tales resembling the fables from Aesop). In most of these cases, though, the listeners are children or young adults, with the sole exception of Ghonada, whose listeners are full-fledged adults living their lives in an independent mess. It is probably due to that reason that the horror tales of Ghonada do not instigate as much fear in the minds of the reader as do the tales of Thakuma or Tarini Khuro. Another important anecdote in this context is that all these stories are told in the daytime, which is not true of Sunday Suspense. In addition to being aired on Sundays at 1 pm, it also has a repeat broadcast at 11 pm on Sundays. The listeners could also stream it on YouTube or Spotify at a time of their convenience. Thus, the spooky air that a dark, silent room brings can be concocted while one consumes episodes of Sunday Suspense, which becomes difficult while reading the stories of Thakumar Jhuli, Tarini Khuro or others. One of the main reasons behind this is that reading any form of literature, whether from a physical or a digital book, requires the presence of some amount of light (external for a physical book, and from the screen for an e-book). Though Thakumar Jhuli also had a visual version (animated cartoon), it aired on Sunday mornings at 10 am. In young adult stories, the transition from a morning show time to a more silent, dark hour of the day also has psychoanalytic implications. According to Sigmund Freud in Psychopathology of Everyday Life, darkness correlates to “an unknown psychic force”, that could cause “exhaustion, circulatory disturbances, and intoxication” (12). These changes and effects are more clearly seen in young adults as compared to children.
When it comes to Sunday Suspense, horror is often meant only for the adult audience. In stories like “Bhog”, there is a disclaimer with which the story begins. The essence of this disclaimer is that ‘[T]his story is only suitable for the adults’. When an audio story is narrated, there comes the aspect of the passive listener. Sunday Suspense, as we know, is primarily a radio programme. Therefore, even if an adult is listening to it, there always remains the opportunity for someone to overhear it. This puts forward the question, how should audio horror stories be consumed? If one listens to them on a radio, then the subtle foley details that the members of the team like DJ Richard and Pradyut (who are in charge of audio arrangements) would probably be lost to them. If one listens to it on a smartphone or some other smart device, then the very essence of it being a radio programme, where people are expected to tune in to their radios at a particular time, would be lost. Although a significant portion of Mirchi Bangla’s audience and fan-following has been built using social media like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, their most popular programmes are still aired first on radio, and then streamed on YouTube. For instance, one of their most successful stories in the recent past, The Count of Monte Cristo, was broadcast on the radio on two successive weekends. However, it came on YouTube as a consolidated video only after the entire programme had aired on the radio.
These anecdotes become interesting in the context of horror. In the narratives of Taranath Tantrik chosen by Sunday Suspense, horror creeps in like an unwelcome guest, stays for a sojourn, but leaves an aftertaste of blank, rabid fear in the ears of the listeners. Here comes a character, who like most of the listeners is a Bengali, but has achieved extra spiritual knowledge through his flaneur-like nature. In such stories, the audience is not so much scared of those incidents happening in their lives as they are scared for the characters in the story. In the story Pasang Maara, the audience is introduced to a desolate jungle, where horror declares its entry in broad daylight. This is a very rare instance. The song with which the Pasang Maara (local, evil spirit) announces its distaste for the encroachers upon its land is melodious, catchy and not at all scary when decontextualised. However, the workers who had arrived there to set up a factory literally run for their lives after hearing the song. The horror here is not something unknown, but rather a very known tune that declares the arrival of an ill omen. The death of birds in and around the area where these events take place also adds to the eerie air. Therefore, such a narrative would probably be best suited for an audio platform. It could be argued that in a film both the song and the dead birds could be better shown and heard, but the way in which Sunday Suspense tells this story is nothing short of brilliant.
These instances open up a wide range of possibilities not only for the audience in general but also for a very specific kind of audience: the visually challenged. The visually challenged audience does not have access to either the written stories of horror or their visual manifestations. Therefore, the only medium left for them to consume the story (except braille books) is through an audio rendition. Sunday Suspense goes a step ahead of other auditory platforms like Audible or Storytel by adding cinematic elements of background music, and a variety of voice actors paired with stalwarts of the field like Mir Afsar Ali and Deepanjan Ghosh. Making the horror story experience a holistic and wholesome one, especially with a playing field as restricted as audio, is an uphill task that Sunday Suspense takes upon its brave shoulders for the last eleven years. Especially in the genre of horror the task becomes even more difficult, as the purpose is not only to narrate, but also to instill a sense of fear in the minds of the listeners.
Therefore, the spectrum and possibility of understanding horror narratives could be expanded in manifold ways upon looking into the depths of auditory platforms like Sunday Suspense and their methodology of presenting the tales with an admittable number of restrictions. One of the many possible avenues it opens up is by considering an audio story a full-fledged text, independent of its written/published version. This allows the reader or the interpreter to move freely in the open space provided by such an assumption. Horror, just like any other genre, has its set of motifs and themes that allow it to be distinguished from other genres of literature. The way in which one can identify a horror story on an auditory platform by simply listening to the background music or the foley sounds incorporated, could not be possibly incorporated in a silent reading of the story, especially the beginning or other areas where the element of horror is absent.
It can be said, therefore, that such a presentation of audio stories by platforms like Sunday Suspense opens up the question: what is the ideal mode of consumption of horror stories? If it is indeed the audio platform, then how would it incorporate the elements that require visual effects, like VFX? If it is the video platform, then how would it take into consideration the limitations of the visually challenged? These limitations account for the simultaneous and peaceful co-existence of both these platforms, making them partially dependent on the other for a thoroughly immersive experience. Therefore, the multiplicity of platforms across which horror stories are told in the mainstream media allows for variety and inclusivity. In the film Baishey Shrabon, one of the characters had mentioned to Surjo Sinha (played by Abir) that people like to be scared. They watch horror films from the gaps of their fingers, because being scared makes us feel like we are alive. In both films and audio stories, it becomes significant to understand and identify the elements of horror. In an attempt to classify the several genres of audio stories, Nehory Carmi and others had identified elements like “the long-drawn pauses of the horror genre”, which would allow one to identify it by simply locating the parameters. This classification is applicable to not only to horror/audio stories but can be extended to be made applicable to genre or sub-genre classifications in general.
Listening to audio stories also allows us to feel humane, which we often forget due to our anthropocentric tendencies. Horror stories often also go beyond the anthropocene, which is best established by audio stories. Seeing something in front of us automatically decreases the amount of alienation (and by extension, fear) we feel from that being. However, if the outlook of an alien, a ghost or anything posthuman is left to the human imagination, then automatically it becomes way scarier than it actually is. Due to these reasons, auditory platforms and their renditions of horror stories might outlive the movies in which such tales are narrated.
The importance of both these platforms are paramount, and one cannot be said to outdo the other. The relationship that sound effects have with audio stories of horror is also existent in the domain of films and shows that deal with the horror element. However, as has been argued in this paper, the visual medium offers distractions galore for the viewer, which arguably alleviates the element of fear in the narratives. In the domain of audio stories, the sound effects create an ambience that is unsettling, bothersome and scary. Therefore, the impact of creating fear is arguably more in them, especially when it is done with deft and diligence, like in the case of Sunday Suspense. This, however, cannot rule out the aspects and horizons that the visual tale brings to the table. It can thus be said that horror stories shall live on, in one form or the other.
Demarque, Thainá Cristina and Edirlei Soares de Lima. “Auditory Hallucination: Audiological Perspective for Horror Games”. Art and Design Track – Full Paper: SBC – Proceedings of SBGames 2013. October 2013, pp 190-26.
Freud, Sigmund. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Translated by Anthea Bell. Penguin Books, 2003.
Carmi, Nehory et al. A Storyteller’s tale: Literature audiobooks Genre classification using CNN and RNN architectures. INTERSPEECH, 2019. pp 3387-3390.
Aritra Basu is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Centre for Distance and Online Education, Rabindra Bharati University. He completed his MPhil from the Department of English, University of Delhi, working on the translatability of riddles in Feluda. He has published papers in journals published by Jadavpur University, The University of Calcutta, The University of North Bengal, and Scottish Church College along with publications in journals like Muse India and Asian Quarterly. He has presented papers at conferences organised by the University of Birmingham, Johns Hopkins University, University of Nevada, Lancaster University and several others. He is also a creative writer and a slam poet, and he enjoys public speaking on both academic and non-academic platforms.
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