Sonic Ectoplasm: The Music of The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House

John Hough’s British horror film The Legend of Hell House (1973) concerns the attempt of a small group of psychics and parapsychologists to exorcise the spooks of a notorious haunted house, using the latest scientific equipment. The summoning of ghosts via scientific analysis and electronic equipment could stand as a reasonable description of the activities of the film’s composer, Delia Derbyshire (yes, and Brian Hodgson, but I think by now it is fairly safe to say that in most cases where we see both names credited, it’s Delia’s work that will be making our jaws drop).

By the time Hodgson and Derbyshire left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they had already collaborated on a number of other projects, moonlighting under the pseudonyms Nikki St. George and Li De La Russe. It was under these names that the pair worked on the first White Noise album (which shares with the Hell House soundtrack a tendency towards orgasmic breathiness) and on the Standard Music Library album that would later provide most of the music for ITV’s The Tomorrow People. But this was the first thing they worked on under their own names, and at Hodgson’s own Covent Garden studio, Electrophon.

Back at the Workshop, Derbyshire was known to have had a particular lampshade, favoured for its peculiar sonic properties. I don’t know whether she was able to take it with her when she left (in lieu, perhaps, of a gold watch) or if she found some sort of replacement, but one of the most uncanny sounds to be heard in The Legend of Hell House is distinctly reminiscent of those she found by removing the attack velocities from that lampshade (in the manner of Pierre Schaeffer’s cloche coupée) and leaving the dreamy susurrus of plaintively modulating noise to drift on in its wake. This sound, usually heard first pitched down then pitched up, is probably the film’s most common leitmotiv, acting almost like punctuation, denoting time passing, a sonic ellipsis.

Throughout the film, there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between music and sound effects. Even the ostensible theme tune opens with a plangent woodwind motif that echoes the squeak of a rusty gate. This little trill acts like the opening to another world, welcoming in a stuttering electronic rhythm, pulsing with tribal energy, its ons and its offs never entirely stable. An organ stabs out its chords somewhere in the background, more wood wind floats in with a vaguely jazzy sensibility, only serving to destabilise the tonality even further.

The Legend of Hell House was released in the same year as Nigel Kneale’s TV movie, The Stone Tape, similarly about an attempt to apply scientific method to an apparently haunted house and scored by Derbyshire and Hodgson’s old boss at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Desmond Briscoe. But whereas The Stone Tape is rallied around a certain blokey rationalism, Hough’s film is always escaping the bonds of its thin veneer of scientific reason, suffused with a barely suppressed sexuality that seeps out in physical manifestations of ectoplasm and the rhythmic throbbing, the electric murmuration of Derbyshire’s music. It was those same sounds that led to an electronic signature tune Derbyshire composed for a BBC sex education programme a few years earlier being rejected as ‘too lascivious’.

Robert Barry