Castle Thunder

Hollywood Lost and Found

Sound Effects

Castle Thunder

Castle Thunder could easily be called "the thunderclap heard around the world." Originally recorded for "Frankenstein" in 1931, it has gone on to be featured in countless films and TV shows since, becoming the definitive movie thunderclap. Until around the late '80s, whenever you heard a thunderclap in a movie, it was probably Castle Thunder.

It's unofficial name comes from having usually been heard while illuminating an evil castle or haunted house on a dark and stormy night, starting with its first appearance in "Frankenstein." But, to be fair, it has also been heard in triumphant, uplifting moments - such as when it zapped the time traveling DeLorean with 1.21 jigowatts of energy so that Marty McFly could travel "Back to the Future."

It may be impossible to keep track of the many films this distinctive thunderclap has been heard in. The list would include "Citizen Kane," "Cleopatra," "The Hindenberg," "Ghostbusters," "Murder by Death," "Twilight Zone - The Movie," "Clue," "Big Trouble in Little China," "Trading Places," "The Monster Squad," "Death Becomes Her," and (of course) "Young Frankenstein" - just to name a few. It can also be found in several Disney films, such as "Bambi," "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Great Mouse Detective."

Speaking of Disney, Castle Thunder can be heard every day at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, in my favorite attraction - The Haunted Mansion. It is featured in a few places there, including when the Ghost Host (voiced by Paul Frees) suggests "a way out" of the stretching portrait gallery.

Sound Editor Mark Mangini ("Gremlins," "Aladdin," "The Green Mile" and the upcoming remake of "The Time Machine") is astounded that 70 year old Castle Thunder is still in use. "It's such a stupid thunder, it's been so over used - but it says 'haunted house.'" He suggests that sometimes Castle Thunder is useful if there is a film within the film - if the characters are watching an old monster movie on TV, perhaps.

It has also been used as an element in other sounds, such as the Enterprise's warp acceleration in "Star Trek - The Motion Picture," and on the flash of a laser bolt in "Star Wars" as we follow the point-of-view of an X-Wing fighter into the Death Star's trench.

But more often than not, it's still used as a real thunderclap - even in contemporary horror films. "There are still guys doing it - when they do a modern day ghost story, they still use Castle Thunder," Mangini says.

He adds that it's been used so often, everyone's copy of the recording is so many generations away from the original sound, that its quality has deteriorated considerably. "It's such a low fidelity recording. It was recorded on optical film with all the crackles and pops, and transferred to mag, and they've got it fifteen generations away - because they copied it from somebody else, who copied it from somebody else. So, before you know it, the band width is like one-thousand hertz to one-thousand and one hertz - one cycle of frequency response!"

Although the quality of the sound may not be quite as bad as Mangini jokes it is, it has suffered enough that its resolution doesn't stand up well in today's soundtracks. Most sound editors now have new digitally recorded thunderclaps that are much more impressive. Even so, Castle Thunder's resume is probably already longer than any other sound effect could ever achieve.

- Steve Lee
(Updated 27 May 2001)

Castle Thunder

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