Apart from the occasional Blair Witch Project, scary movies need scary scores. But much like making a genuinely scary movie, composing genuinely scary music becomes more of a challenge all the time. By now, even the most timid moviegoers among us have surely grown inured to the throbbing bass, the tense strings, and all the other standard, increasingly clichéd instrumental techniques used to generate a sense of ominousness. Given the ever-growing pressure to come up with more effectively dread-inducing music, the invention of the Apprehension Engine was surely inevitable. A part of the studio of film composer Mark Korven, it looks unlike any other musical instrument in existence, and sounds even more so.
With a normal instrument, says Korven in the Great Big Story Video above, “you’re expecting it to have a sound that is pleasing.” But with the Apprehension Engine, “the goal is to just produce sounds that, in this case, are disturbing.” What we hear is less music than a sonic approximation of the abyss itself, which somehow emerges from his manipulation of a variety of strings, bars, wheels, and bows attached to a wooden box — as analog a device as one would ever encounter in the 21st century. “I originally commissioned the Apprehension Engine because I was tired of the same digital samples, which resulted in a lot of sameness,” says Korven. “I was looking for something more experimental, more acoustic, that would give me a little more of an original sound.”
Luthier Tony Duggan-Smith rose to the challenge of crafting the Apprehension Engine. “You’re dealing with things that stir primal emotions and feelings,” says Duggan-Smith of the sound of the instrument. Korven thinks of it as “not music in the traditional sense at all,” but “it definitely evokes emotion, so I would call it music.” In a composition career more than three decades long, Korven has learned a thing or two about how to evoke emotion with sound. His best-known work so far is the score of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which no less a horror and suspense connoisseur than Stephen King has named as one of his favorite movies of all time. “The Witch scared the hell out of me,” King tweeted. “And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.” And as the guitar-playing, music-loving King understands, we react to nothing more viscerally than that which we hear.
Though the first Apprehension Engine was built by its very nature as a unique instrument, it hasn’t remained a one-off. The first Apprehension Engine begat an improved second version, or “V2,” and now, according to the instrument’s official site, “there is an official V2+ model which we are ready to produce in small numbers.” Upgrades include custom magnetic pickups, a “Hurdy Gurdy mechanism,” and your choice of two different mounting locations for the reverb tank. A handmade Apprehension Engine of your own won’t come cheap, and all production runs will no doubt sell out as quickly as the first one did, but if you need to strike true horror into the hearts of your listeners, can you afford not to consider what Brian Eno, no stranger to the outer limits of sonic possibility, has called “the most terrifying musical instrument of all time”?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.