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The Most Terrifying Movie of the Year, Hereditary, Has Colin Stetson to Thank

Hereditary is so scary that working on the film’s score gave Colin Stetson the willies. “Where I am is very secluded, out in the mountainous forest,” the saxophonist and composer explains by phone from his Vermont studio, situated in the attic of a 19th-century farmhouse. “There were some nights where I’d be working on it and I’d find myself listening to sounds in the house in a different way than I had been. I felt a palpable discomfort and was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Then I realized I’d been in Hereditary world every day.”

And “Hereditary world,” besides sounding like a terrible idea for a “Westworld” theme park, is not a fun place to visit. Perhaps you’ve read about how the trailer for filmmaker Ari Aster’s astonishing and traumatic debut film scared the bejesus out of an Australian theater full of children settling in for a lighthearted viewing of Peter Rabbit. Such stories aren’t foreign when it comes to hyping up the latest scream-fest, but Hereditary is far from typical horror fare.

Without giving too much away (the first act is filled with unexpected plot twists), Hereditary focuses on an artist named Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her family as they struggle with bereavement—and violent supernatural forces—following the loss of Annie’s mother. Along with an award-worthy performance from Collette, Aster’s script and stylish direction blends terror with impossible-to-shake familial trauma, equally reminiscent of Todd Field’s grief-drenched classic In the Bedroom as it is The Exorcist. Instead of in-the-moment jump-scares, Hereditary hits you with waves of unceasing dread that continue to crash against the shore well after the credits roll.

The sonic backdrop Stetson has crafted for the film is practically inextricable from the images it soundtracks, as every low hum, saxophone key slap, and droning swarm courses through frame after frame like warm blood. It undoubtedly stands as one of the most immersive film scores in recent memory—and a harrowing listen on headphones to boot. I must admit that listening to Stetson’s score post-screening was something I chose to put off as long as possible—not for reasons of quality, but because the idea of revisiting the hellscape that is Hereditary was something I dreaded doing even in broad daylight. When I tell Stetson this, he laughs with a measure of sympathy. “It’s very subtly disturbing—the kind of emotional horror that’s hard to pull off,” he adds.

Ahead of the release of Hereditary (and its soundtrack) on June 8, I chatted with Stetson—who’s been scoring for film and TV for the last decade now—about the terror of silence, making audience members pass out, and why there’s nothing scarier to him than “Little House on the Prairie.”

Pitchfork: Your score fuses with the imagery of Hereditary to the point where they seem inextricable. What was it like to view the cut of the film without music?

Colin Stetson: It was almost like I was writing the final character in the film. Ari and I spoke very specifically about what the music’s role was. We were going to avoid sentimentality entirely. His directions to me were as simple as, “You are going to embody a spectre of evil.” I had to make that happen in a way that didn’t sound like I was going for cheap horror tropes and melodrama, but something that paced exactly with how all the secrets in the film are revealed.

It was complicated, but I completely intertwined the music with the film to the point where there was a profound lack of conventional thematic material [in the score]. Every time I gravitated towards a memorable hook, it drew too much attention to itself. I wanted the character the score represented to hide in plain sight. If you go back and rewatch to hear what the music is doing in most of the scenes, there are things sewn into the film that I haven’t seen done before.

Were there any specific sounds or influences you were consciously trying to avoid?

Anything to do with strings and synths—the two things that are used exclusively for every horror score in existence. [Laughs] I had to get the job done, but I wanted to do so in a way that wasn’t recognizable, so I tried to achieve certain effects you’d traditionally get with a string ensemble, but using nontraditional instruments to do so. I went pretty hard into clarinets. When the PR team wrote a press release for the score, they made a note saying that we relied on a massive string ensemble, which I thought was funny—all of it is me playing and layering enormous amounts of clarinet.

I used my voice, too. All of the percussion in the score is based on the way I record key sounds for solo recordings, and the majority of the sound in the cues are clearly me singing, or chanting, or being recorded through my throat mic. Ari and I both liked the idea of approaching the score from a place that was based on how I create my solo recordings. He’d been writing [the script] to my solo music, and much of the inspiration for the film was coming from listening to the sounds I make. It was a near-perfect scenario where I got to score how I like to score.

Sometimes, I’ve found your solo recordings kind of scary to listen to. Do you think you make scary music?

I try to be affecting. I always see each solo record I make as standalone narratives. There might be specific tracks that are aggressive or disturbing, but by and large I don’t think I make scary music. If my intention is to project loss or longing, I try to make every inch of that song conveying that. But there are those moments where I really want to affect listeners and make them uncomfortable, so I can more easily facilitate an emotional response in the backend.

I’ve heard from people that they can’t listen to my music because my breathing makes them claustrophobic, and I’ve had audience members pass out consistently over the years. I’m trying to establish a footing so that people are raw in a way that they’ll be more receptive to trickier and potentially deeper emotions. Some people might find what I do terrifying, but that’s because I’m trying to create an idea of imbalance.

So you’re saying that you’re not as scary as people think you are.

[Laughs] No—just manipulative.

Lots of tracks featured in the score end abruptly, to the point where it can be jarring to listen to.

There aren’t really any jump scares in the film, but there are several moments where we built them [into the score]—where we’d be like, “All the sound has to stop at this moment to crank the tension and have some release.” It’s tough when you’re trying to repackage it as a standalone score.

Are there any scores that you took inspiration from while working on this?

I don’t listen to a ton of scores, but my friend Greg Fox gave me the omnibus of Grant Morrison’s [comic book series] The Invisibles. I’m a creature of habit, so when I come back from tour, I’ll spend a couple of hours after dinner with a cup of tea, digesting that book and listening to a score I haven’t heard before. It’s like education, and it’s surprising where inspirations come from. Out here, there’s a lot of nature, so inspiration came from the sound of water and animals while walking around in pitch-black night—when sounds become all encompassing.

There are very few times where I’ve been really scared in life. I was once in Mali getting marched through a dark alley with a military guy pointing a machine gun at my back. That was very scary. [Laughs] I didn’t know how that was going to play out. Most days, though, you don’t conjure up too much fear—but when I first started going for nighttime and early morning walks, I found that to be terrifying. You know rationally that there’s no fear, but that connection to the ancestral and the eternal switches on that irrational fear. I tried to bring that minutiae to the foreground in the score—to turn up the silence to the point where it’s not quiet anymore.

Are there any sounds, as a musician or a listener, that you associate with terror in your day-to-day life?

[Laughs] The sound I hate the most is a mosquito as it buzzes by your ear. If it happens enough times, you hear it in its absence—the idea being that something can be so disturbing, it infects your conscious experience so that you hear it when it’s not apparent. When you experience something harsh, for some reason your mind latches on to those experiences instead of the beautiful things you see on a sunny day. The thing that replays in your mind is the road rage-y bullshit you experienced on the way to work, and that becomes the background for the rest of your day.

What was the first thing that ever gave you nightmares?

An episode of “Little House on the Prairie.” I was five or six years old, and it was about rape. I remember there was some strange, robed farmer who was a rapist and a pedophile, and he’d dress up in this ridiculous, horrible mask with a black robe and a pitchfork. That image, and the idea of sex offense and not knowing what it meant, was so fucking terrifying. I kept it with me forever.

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