Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

4 posts categorized "Gothic"

30 October 2020

Going batty for Halloween

Bats have a long association with Halloween. The most obvious reason for this emerges when we look at another classic character for this time of year, the vampire. As with vampires, bats are creatures of the night, only leaving their roosts after the last rays of sunlight have faded for the day. The majority of bats are also hunters and a few species even drink the blood of other animals.

Illustration of a Vampire bat

Bats also have a lot to thank Bram Stoker for. Though earlier authors and artists had already begun drawing parallels between vampires and bats, it was Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel, Dracula, which cemented this association in popular culture. At several points during the novel a bat is seen flapping against a closed window, however we have to wait until Chapter 18 before Van Helsing confirms the link between animal and vampire:

'He can be as bat, as Madam Mina saw him on the window at Whitby, and as friend John saw him fly from this so house, and as my friend Quincey saw him at the window of Miss Lucy.'

A much more ancient relationship between bats and Halloween can be found within the rituals of Samhain, the Celtic pagan festival celebrated from 31 October to 1 November. Huge bonfires with cleansing and protective properties were lit to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The glow of the fire would attract nearby insects and these would be followed closely by bats looking for an easy meal. Given that the invisible boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead was believed to be at its thinnest during Samhain, it’s easy to understand how the silent, black silhouettes of bats darting around the flames could be construed as having supernatural meaning.

Selection of bat illustrations selected from the British Library's Flickr collection

Though Halloween is full of many ghoulish and spine-tingling sounds, the calls of bats aren't one of them. The answer to this may seem obvious enough - most bats communicate and echolocate at frequencies above the human hearing range - but that doesn't mean we can't spend a little bit of time enjoying the many weird and wonderful, yet normally hidden bat sounds that still fill the night sky at this time of year. 

Common Pipistrelle echolocation & social calls. Recorded in West Sussex, England on 11 September 2014 by Phil Riddett (ref 222208) 

Greater Horseshoe Bat echolocation. Recorded in Wiltshire, England on 14 July 1985 by William Seale (ref 17018)

Noctule echolocation. Recorded in Kent, England on 26 June 1986 by Richard Ranft (ref 18530) 

Though these recordings are actually kind of cute, there are many other legitimately spooky sounds within the sound archive's wildlife collection. Screaming foxes, howling wolves, cawing crows, rumbling thunder, lashing rain and lots of other examples can be found. A number of these recordings were compiled for the 2014 Off the Map videogame competition which challenged higher education students to create videogames inspired by some of the British Library’s gothic-related collection items. Students were encouraged to incorporate these sounds into their games and this was done to great effect, particularly when it came to the second place winning entry ‘Whitby’.

All recordings are still available on the British Library’s Soundcloud account under Creative Commons licenses so do check out the Off the Map Gothic playlist. Be sure to also visit the Digital Scholarship blog to find out more about other gothic-themed events held at the library over the past few years. And if that wasn't enough, there's also an excellent album of free to reuse ghostly and macabre images available through our Flickr collection.

Over the past few weeks the UK Web Archive has been busy researching the changing popularity of terms such as Halloween and Bonfire Night. Head on over to their blog to read more about these changes and, while you’re there, why not try out some searches of your own using the big data Shine tool. Their website also has a dedicated Festivals section and now would be the perfect time to nominate some of your favourite Halloween-related UK sites.

Throughout today we’ll be sharing some special video animations, images and sounds that have a distinctly creepy vibe. So follow our Wildlife, Digital Scholarship and Web Archive Twitter accounts to see all of these. And however you choose to spend your Halloween, we hope you have a fang-tastic time!

16 May 2019

Mother Carey's Chickens

Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds writes:

In 19th century coastal folklore, the harsh and unforgiving nature of the sea was often personified by the cruel sea witch Mother Carey.

Carey was said to wreak havoc on the ocean waves, conjuring up devastating storms that would destroy any vessel unlucky enough to be caught in her sights. The ship’s crew would be sent to their deaths so that Carey and her partner, Davy Jones, could feast upon their rotting bodies.

She’s the mother o’ the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms, or sleets or snows;
The noise of the wind’s her screamin’
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed yound seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine.’

(Extract from John Masefield's poem 'Mother Carey (as told me by the bo'sun)' published in 1902)

Mother Carey didn’t travel the open ocean alone though. Like any villain worth their salt, Carey was accompanied by her very own entourage, which, in this case, happened to be a flock of Storm Petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus). Dubbed Mother Carey's Chickens, these little seabirds were thought to signal the imminent arrival of the dreaded sea witch. 

Mother Carey and her chickens, painted by J. G. Keulemans in 1877Mother Carey and her chickens by J. G. Keulemans, 1877 (Biodiversity Heritage Library via Wikipedia)

As far as accuracy goes, Storm Petrels are a pretty good choice. Not because there's anything sinister about them, but because they're most at home on the open sea and can easily cope with the severest of weather conditions. While many other birds would be caught short in the middle of a tempest, Storm Petrels just take it all in their stride.

What you wouldn’t hear was their voice. For Storm Petrels are generally silent at sea (not a great trait for heralds of doom, but there you go). The complete opposite can be found at their breeding colonies however. Here individuals engage in sustained vocal activity, producing far-carrying purring calls from their burrows. The following extract, taken from a longer recording made by Alan Burbidge on Skokholm Island in 1998, is a great example of this.

Storm Petrel purring calls from burrow (BL ref 145176)

Harbingers of death should, at least in my mind, be loud. Very loud. Terrifying too. But our Storm Petrels are anything but that. Rather selfishly, they save their spine-chilling voices for when they're off duty. So if I was Mother Carey, I'd feel a little short-changed.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

03 October 2014

It's all in the Howl

A few years ago, sound recordings of wolf howls were provided to Holly Root-Gutteridge, a PhD student at Nottingham Trent University who investigated whether wolves could be identified by their voices alone. For the opening of the British Library's exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, we invited Holly to write a piece about her research into these hair-raising sounds.

“Listen to them – children of the night. What music they make.”

Words written to send a shiver down the spine, inspiring primeval terror in those that hear the wolves howling in the dark forest.  Bram Stoker wrote those words more than a hundred years ago for Count Dracula and there are few more famous or haunting sounds than the howl of a wolf. It is familiar from a thousand scary films and it is enough to conjure up nightmares. It is fear itself.


Cover artwork for the thirteenth edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1919)

Grey Wolf pack calling Algonquin Provincial Park Canada (Tom Cosburn_69787)

To the wolves themselves though, it has a very different meaning. To them, it is a jubilation, a song, even a choir raising their voices in joy at their togetherness.  Their howls are calls to each other, saying, “I am here, find me, come back to me” to a separated pack-mate, or meant to bind together a pack and raise their awareness of each other before they hunt. Even the pups raise their squeaky voices, faltering and breaking like choirboys on the brink of adulthood, to join their parents’ howl.

To me, there is a spine-tingling beauty in that howl. That was nevermore true than when I first heard them, standing on a mountain in Italy under a shadowy new moon. I listened and asked myself, “What information might be carried in a wolf’s howl?” After that night, I spent four years listening to and analysing howls for my PhD.

Tala howling in field 2
Tala (UK Wolf Conservation Trust)

I wanted to see whether wolves, like humans, had voices specific to themselves, so that each individual could be identified by their howl alone. There is huge interest in knowing how many wolves there are in an area, if they are the same wolves from year to year and whether they associate with the same pack-mates. It is important to know this because wolves have a profound effect on their environment. They prey on deer and elk, and so control their numbers; they scare off other smaller predators; and they even accidentally provision other species like ravens by tearing up carcasses so that they can feed too. Governments and farmers invest in protection schemes to keep their livestock safe and the cost of predation can be high. Therefore, knowing population size is essential to being able to assess the wolves’ effect.

For my results to have any statistical significance, I needed a lot of howls from as many individuals as possible. For my thesis, I analysed over 700 solo howls and collected many more. I recorded wolf howls in the wild and in zoos. I tracked down other people’s recordings through sound libraries like that of the British Library and Macaulay Library, through direct contact with other researchers, and even through TV production companies. The British Library was the first one I visited and recordings obtained from the archive were accompanied by field notes. My favourite notes however, came from the Macaulay Library and were penned by William W.H. Gunn, a naturalist and wildlife sound enthusiast active in the 1960s. It described how he was so determined to keep recording a wolf howling that he stood in a leaking canoe until it sank. At the end, he was left holding his microphone above his head to keep it dry and still recording. The lapping of the waves can still be heard on the recording. Another recording was from a TV documentary, which featured Timothy Dalton howling to wild Arctic wolves. When a slim and elegant female replied to him, I had a Bond girl in my collection.

Grey Wolf adult male Algonquin Provincial Park Canada (Tom Cosburn_69790)

Torak howling 7 pat melton
Torak (Pat Melton)

My analysis focused on the qualities of the howl. There are two essential components to sound – the note played, known as the frequency, and how loud it is played, known as the amplitude. In humans, we can easily hear these differences and have no problem distinguishing Timothy Dalton’s ‘Bond, James Bond’ from Sean Connery’s delivery of the same line. The study focused on whether we could do the same with wolf howls, distinguishing individuals from one another.

Nuka howling 2012 Jason Siddall (1)
Nuka (Jason Siddall)

Until recently, most attention has been paid to the frequency, with amplitude considered to be of less use. My study used both qualities and my team developed a computer code that could extract both from recordings. It would turn a spectrogram into a series of numbers I could then group using special classification analysis called Discriminant Function Analysis or DFA for short. This DFA groups data by the biggest differences between each sample, so if you have fifteen red balls and fifteen blue balls, it will use colour as the most important variable for grouping rather than shape and correctly divide the balls by it. However, if you have ten red balls, five red cubes, five blue balls and ten blue cubes, DFA will sort it by shape, so all the balls together, and then by colour, only then splitting red and blue. So you may still end up with two groups of the right shapes, but they will be a mix of colours. This is a very simple example of how it works – I used twenty-seven variables to do the same analysis with howls.

For the classification to work, the largest differences needed to be between individuals, not between individual howls. The characteristics that defined the voice needed to be stable and distinguishable. If a wolf howled slightly differently every time, as if singing a different tune but still had the same voice in essence, the DFA would still be able to separate individuals. My results showed that wolves did indeed have their own voice, distinctive to them. In fact, the analysis worked so well that I could distinguish between the wolves with up to 100% accuracy. Furthermore, like Connery and Dalton, there appeared to be geographic differences in how they sounded, with North American wolf howls quite distinct from European wolves.

So that spine-tingling howl carries more than fear on the air, it carries the identity of the howling wolf to all that know to listen.

Oh, and Hollywood may need to change those famous howls, as too often film soundtracks are haunted by an American Grey Wolf in London.


Full details  can be found in Root-Gutteridge, H. (2013). Improving Individual Identification of Wolves (Canis lupus) using the Fundamental Frequency and Amplitude of their Howls: A New Survey Method. Ph.D. Thesis. Nottingham Trent University: U.K.

Many thanks to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust for supplying images used in this post.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination opens today and runs until 20th January 2015.

Gothic was also the theme for this year's Off The Map student videogame design competition, details of which can be found here.


03 June 2014

Gothic Adventures in Sound

Thunder. Crashing waves. Eerie screams and cries. These are just a few of the natural sounds that have been provided to students participating in this year's Off the Map competition. The competition, organised by the British Library, GameCity and Crytek, challenges videogame design students to create 3D explorable environments, using Crytek's CRYENGINE software, inspired by digital content from across the Library's collections.

Rolling thunder - recorded by Eric & May Nobles

A gothic theme was specifically chosen for this year's challenge to tie in with the Library's upcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: the gothic imagination. Maps, images, texts, architectural plans and, for the first time, sound recordings  were selected by curators across the library in response to the following subthemes: the gothic splendour of Fonthill Abbey, the coastal town of Whitby with its links to Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death.

A view of the coast by Whitby. By Francis Jukes, 1811 (c) British Library Board

A view of the coast by Whitby. By Francis Jukes, 1811 (c) British Library Board

Waves - recorded by Paul Duck

A show and tell event, held at the Library earlier in the year, gave students the opportunity to explore additional collection items, learn about issues surrounding audio copyright, ask questions and meet the teams behind the competition.


Students viewing collection items at the Off the Map Gothic show & tell event

A few months later, our student teams are beginning to show the fruits of their labours, with a series of blogs, renders and flythroughs that are absolutely fascinating to follow. The sheer amount of effort that is being expended in their entries is fantastic and, for curators such as myself, who scoured the Library's collections for suitable content, to see the material being used is incredibly exciting.

The Flying Buttress is just one of our teams, comprising second year game design students from De Monfort University. The team have made good use of the assets provided, incorporating several British Library sounds into the soundtrack of their Whitby inspired level. One such sound was a woodland atmosphere, recorded in the dead of winter, by British wildlife sound recordist Richard Margoschis. A blustery wind, gusting through trees, accompanied by the harsh cries of Carrion Crows, produced a suitably bleak ambience. Team member Ben Mowson describes how he combined this raw recording with other assets to create the level's outdoor atmosphere:

In the first area, what you can hear is an excerpt from Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, Mvt 1. It's in the public domain, and I really like the discordant, mournful start the piece has. I took the first 20 or so seconds, slowed it down by around 120% and lowered the pitch, to give it a more ambient and subtle effect. This was then mixed into various sound effects from, and a few tracks from The British Library website. The overall effect was to have the classical piece be blown to the player by the wind.

Woodland in winter - recorded by Richard Margoschis

Whitby Abbey outside ambience - Ben Mowson

The level flythrough, combining both visuals and sound, demonstrates just how effective a carefully thought out soundtrack can be when trying to evoke a certain mood.


Whitby Abbey flythrough - The Flying Buttress

Other student teams working on the challenge include the aptly-named The Poefessionals who have built a level based around a manor house full of references to gothic literature, and Owls in Towels who have created a rainswept, clifftop environment.




Renders from The Poefessionals gothic-themed manor house


On the Rocks flythrough - Owls in Towels

Getting the sound right is crucial when trying to create a specific atmosphere. Remove the soundtrack and, though the visuals clearly help set the scene, the overall impact would undoubtedly lessen. The immersive nature of sound facilitates the generation of a tension necessary to acquire the full attention of the user and from what I've seen so far, our student teams have embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly.


The winning entry will be announced at the GameCity9 festival in October

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