Sonic Ownership: A Quiet Place

The 2018 film A Quiet Place was a film with a difference. Most horror films are visual spectacles, all blood and gore propelled across the screen, guts dripping in front of our faces. A Quite Place (dir. John Krasinski) is a sonic horror film. Instead of being driven by visual shocks, the film is led by sound. The tagline to the film is “If They Hear You, They Hunt You”, this instantly sets up the premise that this will be an aural horror. The story centres around one family which have to operate in complete silence due to the creatures which have become the top predator. When the film joins the family the area, and presumably, the country have been dominated and largely wiped out by the creatures. Only a few survivors remain.

The film begins with the characters looking around an abandoned grocery store in bare feet gathering medical supplies. The family conduct their affairs in complete silence, the only sounds you hear are the minimal ones they make, the padding of their feet on the floor or the containers of things they slowly move and pick up. The first hint of the aural horror to come happens when the youngest boy (played by Cade Woodward) of the family starts to walk towards his father (played by John Krasinski) The family immediately pause and react like the child is holding a bomb as he takes a space shuttle toy from the child and carefully removes the batteries and gently places them on the counter. He then signs to the young boy explaining that this toy would make too much noise. This child has the equivalent of a bomb, to the child it is still a toy, but it is also an aural weapon. His deaf older sister (played by Millicent Simmonds) takes pity on him and gives him the toy but without the deadly addition of the batteries. However, the boy picks up the batteries and the family continue on their journey. When they approach the bridge to their home, the family hear the loud buzzing and beeping of the toy. This sound is the loudest of the film so far. The family freeze and turn around as the father sprints towards the child, looking as a mostly unseen creature moves through the trees. The creature snatches the child and kills him. These are the opening scenes of A Quiet Place. This world of aural horror that the family occupy in the post-apocalyptic western hemisphere is one where a simple child’s toy, a space shuttle which is supposed to create imaginative play and dreams of escapism, is now a bringer of death.

One possible reason why the family have been able to survive for so long into the silent post-apocalyptic world is due to the fact that the daughter is deaf and therefore the family are well equipped with their knowledge of sign language, so that they can still communicate whilst remaining hidden from the acute aural perception that the creatures possess. Millicent Simmonds who plays the daughter in the film is herself deaf. To cast a deaf actress in a role where the character is deaf, in a film which is all about perceptions of sound is vital. This creates a multi-layered interpretation of sound. A common thought is that to be deaf means to have no relationship to sound, or that it is a negative relationship to sound by the fact that it is not present. However, if like the daughter in A Quiet Place, there is a hearing aid, there is a, what is deemed, common relationship with sound: processed through the ear. If there is no cochlear implant or other form of aid, however, there is still a relationship with sound. In the right atmosphere, the objects can become haptic hearing aids, with vibrations from the sound passing through the air and colliding with objects to create a more physical sense of sound. It’s not wholly clear how hypersensitive the creatures’ hearing is. They might be able to hear in our standard way, but as well as this they might be able to use the world around them to pick up additional vibrations as sound interacts with the atmosphere and objects.

Another reason why the family have survived is that the father possessed the technical wizardry to hook up their land with cameras and is able to work on, fix and produce new hearing aids for his daughter. He regularly operates a radio system to try and contact any additional people that may be able to come a rescue them.

Ultimately this film is about who sound belongs to. The creatures have taken over, become top predators and decimated the human population by claiming something that is intrinsic to human daily existence. It is almost impossible to live without making sound. This was made painfully obvious to any cinemagoer to see the film. Not only are they made aware of the sounds that are made through the danger that the family face in making a constant effort to be quiet, but the film sound is also painfully quiet, without a score for most of the time. Therefore, anyone sitting and watching* A Quiet Place is made wholly conscious of every sound they make during the film. There were comments made on social media around the time of the film’s release about this, including some that were compiled into a Twitter moment. Several of them stated how painfully aware they were of every sound they made, including if they brought food or drink into the auditorium

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018)
John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018) Photo by Photo Credit: Jonny Cournoyer – © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Part of the film focuses on the relationship between father and daughter and the perceived blame that the daughter thinks she has for her brother’s death. This comes to a crux within a signed conversation between father and daughter, when he gives her a mended hearing aid, which she rejects. In this moment she rejects (temporarily) technically aided cochlear hearing in favour of the world of silence, or at least powerful vibrational sound and silence. The creatures have forced humans to partially enter the daughter’s world of signing and silence. They have effectively had their voices stripped from them, it’s speak and die, make sound and die. Here, the film recalls the myth of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Echo was a very chatty nymph who tricked the Goddess Juno, who then curses Echo so that she can only repeat back what was said to her. Echo can hear, but she does not possess her own voice, it is taken from her. In this respect, all humans have had the power of their voice stripped from them in order to survive. In A Quiet Place, the cinemagoer does not hear the daughter speak, we hear the other characters at various points, but not the daughter. In the exchange with her father, it is clear that she does not feel that sound belongs to her. However, throughout the course of the film, it becomes clear that she holds the key to unlocking the creatures’ weakness, something her father was trying to work on until his death. The myth of Echo is often used as an analogy for female roles in film, for example in Echo and Narcissus: Women’s Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema written by Amy Lawrence. A female speaking character does not possess her own voice, she is merely there to be aurally subservient to a male leading role. Not only does A Quiet Place flip this notion by disabling the voices of everyone on screen, but it gives strong female characters and gives the power to the daughter by enabling her to have the ability to disarm and harm the creatures.

The stereotypical female character in a horror film is the shrieking and running live bait, eye candy for audience and horrific killer alike. A Quiet Place gives the audience two strong female characters. The mother, played by Emily Blunt, is strong enough so that when she impales her foot on a nail and has to give birth with a creature in her prowling nearby, she is able to stay quiet. In The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, Kaja Silverman writes that the voice of a woman is considered to be less than her looks. Women are restricted to the role of Echo, only repeating or speaking from the place of the sexual other. As previously mentioned, this is often the case within horror films. Female characters exist to be sexual objects, splattered with blood, to utter a final hysterical scream** and then to depart the storyline.

Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place (2018)
Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place (2018) Photo by Photo Credit: Jonny Cournoyer – © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Within A Quiet Place there is a reclaiming of sound, not just the human race taking back the dominance of sound from the creatures, but also female characters claiming sound to be their own space within a horror film. The daughter holds the key to defeating the creatures, or at least identifying their weakness. In the latter stages of the film, when the creatures are prowling the farm and the family are in grave danger there are two instances which indicate that she might hold the key. A creature approaches her from behind to attack her, she is unaware, however her hearing aid starts to give feedback hurting her ear and the creatures, forcing it to flee. The same thing happens when the girl and her surviving brother are in the silo. This leads to an interesting climax within the film when the family, now consisting of girl, brother and mother. The girl realises her hearing aid hurts the creature by interacting with it in some way and causing feedback, she turns up the dial on her father’s radio equipment and presses the hearing aid to it, causing an immense amount of feedback, which visibly causes the creature pain. Throughout the film the creatures have made noises which sound like a form of echolocation, with various clicks and chirps. In this scene the creature, now in pain makes these noises, but the cinemagoer now sees its head move and shake due to the feedback. The creature’s head is shaped like the inside of a giant ear, comprised of fleshy tunnels. It is this giant ear/head that makes the creature such a fierce predator and a dominant sonic being. It’s entire head is a receiver for sound. This is why it creates harsh feedback with the girl’s hearing aid and why it reacts painfully to loud feedback.

One could argue here that this scene, using a sonic weapon to destroy the creature is how the film needed to end. These are sonic beings and they should be killed by sound, not just weakened by it. It’s the ending a sonic horror film should have. However, this film is produced by Michael Bay and it’s right at the end that his influence has perhaps affected the film. Emily Blunt, the mother, armed with a gun shoots the creature, finishing it off. Cue “cool” scene with a female character striking a pose with a gun. Now this is no bad thing, a maternal female character being badass and protecting her children by shooting unknown horrific creature in the head. However, this moment felt unnecessary. It would have been a more powerful message if the deaf character in the film had finished the sonic creature off by harnessing sound for herself. There really was no need for the gun.

That being said, the film still does end with a deaf character, played by a deaf actress, using the power of sound to kill the creature. She harnesses the possibility of a sonic weapon, a notion had killed her brother in the opening scenes, and now turned it against the creatures that had supposedly taken sound over. This film is about the power that sound can play in a film, and takes the horror genre away from being a purely visual being. It’s also about the reclaiming of sound and notions about who does sound belong to. Sound, whether heard through the ear or through bodily vibrations is claimed back in this film for the female characters.

*participating in audiovision (the lack of common terminology for speaking about going to a film that doesn’t refer to a solely visual encounter, means that I annoyingly wrote watching here. Refer to Michel Chion and audiovision could be used and become popularised.

**The women’s scream requires a whole other essay to unpack as to why it is satisfying to hear from a sexual object but also has the potential to be a space of resistance.

Jesc Bunyard

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