If ever there’s a movie that cries out for peace and quiet while watching, it’s. So I’m watching it in a room scientifically designed to nullify all sound, only to discover that even perfect silence is far from quiet when your own ears are screaming at you.
The acclaimed horror movie, directed by and starring John Krasinski, is set in a world where hypersensitive monsters zero in on any sound. Most of the film plays out in dead silence, much to the bemusement of audience members trying to snaffle their cinema snacks. It’s out now for digital download and arrives on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD on 13 August.
Today, I’ve been invited by the film’s PR team to watch a clip of the movie in some very appropriate surroundings: an anechoic chamber. For those of you who aren’t acoustic engineers, that’s a room designed to absorb all sound so you can experience perfect silence. The silence is so complete that some people can only stand to be inside an anechoic chamber for a short time.
Walking up to the engineering department of University College London, where this anechoic room is located, I begin to notice the level of everyday noise city dwellers block out without realising. Traffic roars dully on the nearby Euston Road. Sirens and horns add piercing top notes. Building sites on every street provide their own cacophony of clanging metal, jarring shouts and stuttering tools.
The noise continues as a dull background thrum even in the midst of the university campus, where the anechoic chamber looks like a small shed jammed between the academic buildings. I hesitate while stepping inside the chamber: it’s a very small space, and every surface is covered in intimidating wedges pointing into the room. It doesn’t help that the chamber is lit only by a red light bulb, echoing scenes from the film and turning it into a nightmarish dungeon of spikes and shadows and dread.
As I step on a metal grate just about big enough for a battered armchair, I take note that the ceiling, walls and even the floor are full of pointy things. “Don’t touch the walls,” intones technician Andrew Clark as he shuts me in. For a moment I have a vision of reaching out a trembling hand and then being absorbed into the walls to forever silently scream along with the souls of anyone else who dared to mess with Andrew’s acoustics. But then he explains he just doesn’t want me to get glass fibers on my hands, because it’d hurt. Fair enough.
The door closes, sealing me in.
The chamber is actually a sound-absorbing box within another box, so the Euston Road traffic and sirens and building sites could be on another world. And the glass fibre wedges absorb sound completely by bouncing any soundwaves into each other, so when I click my fingers and clap my hands there’s no echo.
I’m on my own.
Sounds of silence
Later, back in the hustle and bustle and noise of the city, I sat down with John Drever, an expert in acoustic ecology and sound art, to discuss what I’d just experienced. He pointed out that hearing is crucial from an extremely early point in our lives — before we’re born, in fact. “In the fluid in the womb you’re in this world of vibration, with your mother’s voice reverberating into this watery world that you live in. So even as an embryo, you already have this rich sonic experience of touch and vibration.”
Inside the anechoic chamber I watched A Quiet Place’s opening scene, in which our heroes creep around in near-silence. The enormously atmospheric movie is a triumph of sound design, taking us into the heads of the characters and wringing unbearable tension by taking away the information we’re used to getting from our hearing.
“In cinematic sound design the tiniest sound can be superpowerful, used in the right way,” explains Drever. A Quiet Place is a perfect example of how nuanced our hearing — and our reactions to what we hear — can be. “The natural response to a loud sound is fight or flight. It’s a hormonal response. But in relative silence you’re listening for tiny signs,” says Drever. As an example, he recalls how the tiniest creak of a floorboard could wake his sleeping kids as he crept past. “How does the baby know at that age that they’re being abandoned,” he ponders, “or think they’re being abandoned?”
Inside the anechoic chamber it’s the absence of sounds around you that can be alarming. The chamber was originally built as a fancy recording studio for capturing perfectly clear speech, but it’s now used for acoustic experiments including measuring head-related transfer functions — the scientific name for how our ears, sinuses and other facial furniture affect our perception of sound.
The positioning of our ears on either side of our head, and the echoes we hear help us get a sense of the size of the space around us. Without this information about our environment, Drever points out, absolute silence can, instead of soothing us, make us hypervigilant while we hunt for signals. Indeed, cut off from the clues my ears usually give about what’s behind me, I found myself glancing over my shoulder to check visually instead.
After I was done snapping my fingers, clapping, and talking out loud to hear how it sounded without an echo, I settled into the silence. I hoped I could enjoy some meditative retreat from the cacophony of the city outside.
And I did find it fairly soothing at first. After a while, however, I started to notice a strange whistling. There was a slight rhythmic pulse to it, which must have been my heartbeat. With no other sounds to distract me or mask this odd noise, which I’ve never noticed before, I began to focus on it. The slight pulsing reminded me of the metallic howl-around you get from speaker feedback.
The longer I sat there, the louder this high-pitched noise seemed to get. And the louder it got, the more unpleasant it was.
So this is what tinnitus sounds like.
Fortunately, as the whistling noise built to a screaming in my ears, the movie started. After watching the clip I left the chamber to chat to Drever, where the soft cacophony of the city once again masked what I now realise is hearing damage.
As Drever points out, tinnitus can be more than just a mild irritation. “Hearing is very closely connected to the limbic system, which is about emotion,” he explains. “So you find that when people suffer from tinnitus their limbic system is continuously stressed — they’re in a perpetual state of anxiety, and that can be quite traumatic.”
It’s almost certainly my own fault. I watch a lot of live music: I’ve dived into mosh pits at punk shows and hung out right next to the speakers at metal gigs hundreds of times since I was 17 years old. And I’ve never once worn earplugs.
Sitting in the anechoic chamber listening to my ears silently screaming at me, I wondered if it was time I invested in a pair.
“Our hearing is quite extraordinary,” Drever said as we parted. “We’re lucky that we’ve got this amazing tool, which is really subtle and nuanced and sophisticated. We mustn’t damage it.”
I hear that.
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