Sunday, July 1, 2012

The impact of The Tell-Tale Heart

The impact of Edgar Allan Poe's works within the world of fiction cannot be underestimated and it doesn't matter what genre we're talking about. All fiction was affected by his works in some way shape or form, purely because he described and revealed a whole section of humanity's core being. He didn't focus on the individual so much as the deeper psychology of all humans.

But in amongst all his works in one piece that's impact has echoed in the strangest of ways for a written work. And that is The Tell-Tale Heart. The central focus of the story is the fear induced by the imagined sound of a heart beating. Guilt and despair plague the murderer even as he fails to escape his own mind's imaginings.

But it wasn't the exploration of the guilt a murderer might feel that stayed with us and impacted upon fiction the most. No, it was the sound of the tell-tale heart itself. That thumping echo of something horrible that happened and it is sometimes used to indicate guilt or horror but also to sound a death knell, to echo into the underworld as a sign of passing or to distill a life into a moment. The sound itself became something completely that exists outside of the written world and now has conventions all its own. 

The sound of the tell-tale heart has become a convention used in the movie making industry but one almost exclusively utilised by sound producers. The sound itself is no-longer the sound of a heart but rather the sound of something significant and dreadful happening over and over again. Anything from the smack of a shovel over a person's head, the steady sound of water dripping in a water torture scene through to the thumping of a hanged man's feet against a wall. Ghostly noises gain more impact if they reflect the manner of the person's death and sound at the same time during the day or night (usually night) that the death occurred. The ever-repeating echo of an event is what the sound of the tell-tale heart has become.

A person no-longer needs to be guilty, a murderer or even related to the original incident at all to hear this sound. They need only be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Horror, of course, has been the genre most affected by the sound of the tell-tale heart but it does appear in many other genres as it in now a convention all of its own, and an extremely powerful one at that. Just hearing any sound that is related to this convention pinpoints it and the incident it is related to as the central point or thesis of the story.

Anyone viewing a movie nowadays is either completely aware of such a convention or unconsciously responds to it. It is the unconscious response that is so interesting though. The reason for such a response is the recognition that the event is important through the sheer shock of its occurrence. As, even if guilt is no-longer directly related to the sound of the tell-tale heart shock and fear still are. The use of the repeated sound highlights and lengthens the moment of shock into one of significance. Even as it repeats we recognise and re-recognise the sound and the moment it is related to.

This recognition can be used in reverse though as a way of building the tension brought on by encountering the unknown or hearing something (often spooky) without being able to identify what it is. The flip side of fearing what you know but can't believe to be true is to fear the unknown but to know it is happening despite your efforts to negate it. Both apply when it comes to the use of the tell-tale heart sound. In fact, many of the most spooky ghost movies use this but such a usage does occur as the scratching of an unknown creature, for instance.

No matter how it is used though, the sound of the tell-tale heart is here to stay and there are few conventions in sound production to rival with it. All from a short story written in 1843. Now that's powerful writing.

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