CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

The 11 Worst Sounds in the World

Getty Images
Getty Images

Scientists agree that unpleasant sounds fall into two distinct categories: first, annoying sounds like incessant car alarms and snoring, because they are intrusive and disrupt our thought process (or sleep). And second, noises that trigger an immediate negative visceral reaction, like nails on a chalkboard or squeaking Styrofoam. The items below are ranked in order of “cringe-worthiness” according to an ongoing study by Professor Trevor Cox of Britain’s Salford University.

1. Vomiting

Maybe it was the additional sound effects touch of canned baked beans plopping into a bucket that made the gagging and retching sound number one on the list (skeptics have stated that in this case it’s not the actual sound, but rather the mental picture, that disgusts listeners), but I must state that I simply cannot be within earshot of a puking person, otherwise my own gag reflex involuntarily gets triggered.

(For the cast-iron stomached among you, here’s the sound clip used in the test.)

2. Microphone Feedback

As a rule, this one often is physically painful, so I’m not surprised it placed so high on the list.

3. Baby Crying

Interestingly enough, when Prof. Cox broke down the results of the responses into different demographic groups, it was the male contingent that boosted the sound of a baby’s wailing into the number three spot. That’s not to say that women aren’t equally upset by the sound—they’re just maternally conditioned not to complain about it as much.

4. Train Scraping on Tracks

Even if you don’t live in an area with regular rail transport (subway, passenger train), I’m sure the sound of metal-on-metal grinding—however it’s caused—still raises a hackle or two.

5. A Squeaky Wheel that Needs Some Grease

Whether it was a teeter-totter, a door hinge, or some other constantly moving part that is in serious need of lubrication, that constant whiny squeak sound irritated enough people to rank at number five.

6. Poorly Played Violin

Getty Images

One of my favorite bands of all time, Sparks, had a great line in their song “Amateur Hour”: “It’s a lot like playing the violin, you cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin.” Apparently they were right—very bad scraping on the ol’ violin strings sets a lot of people’s teeth on edge.

7. Flatulence

It took us this long to get back to bodily noises? Not surprisingly, while it was men that found the sound of a crying baby irritating, women overwhelmingly voted for the sound of … gastritis (as Archie Bunker called it) as being upsetting.

8. People Arguing

Psychologists would probably trace the high placement of this sound to people’s childhoods and possibly their memories of cringing in the closet with their hands over their ears as their parents fought.

9. Mains Hum

Getty Images

That annoying buzz you occasionally hear through speakers…for the audiophiles in the audience, it occurs at 50Hz in the UK and 60Hz in the US.

10. Person Chewing Food with an Open Mouth

An apple was the most-mentioned annoying open-mouthed munching sound, but I’m sure you can think of grosser sounds coming from a dining partner who inadvertently invites you to view and listen to his meal via his (or her) gaping maw. (And for the record, I have since curbed my movie theater popcorn-eating noises thanks to constructive criticism from my patient spouse.)

11. Fingernails on a Chalkboard

Perhaps it’s because so many schools now use whiteboards instead of chalkboards that this once classic example of an annoying sound ranked so low on the list. (Maybe it deserves a place in the Obsolete Sounds graveyard?) But those of us old enough to remember the hair-raising squeak of nails accidentally scraped on slate in elementary school still cringe at the memory.

These additional items are culled from other studies:

Dental Drill

Dr. Cox found that certain sounds skewed very differently according to geography. In all of the South American countries that responded to his survey, the high-pitched whine of a dentist’s drill was the number one sound that made folks shudder. When asked in an interview what sound was his personal bugaboo, Cox (who resides in Manchester, England) admitted that he was likewise squicked out by the dental drill.

Knife against Glass Bottle

Scientists at Newcastle University conducted a very precise study in 2012 concentrating on the sounds that registered in the super-sensitive sound frequency range of 2,000 to 5,000 hz. They played a variety of painful noises, including chalk squeaking on a blackboard and a fork scratching a drinking glass, but according to the MRI scans of their volunteers a knife scraping against a bottle was the most excruciating.

Squealing Bicycle Brakes

Michael Oehler and Christoph Reuter of the University of Vienna added a twist when they conducted their 2011 study. Prior to playing an assortment of unpleasant sounds to one test group, they informed the volunteers that they would be hearing portions of a performance art piece, while the second group was told the actual source of each sound. Each group was asked to rate their discomfort on a scale of one to six, and the folks who thought they were listening to avant garde music gave slightly lower marks to each sound. Squeaky bike brakes scored high on the list along with the usual suspects (nails on a chalkboard, natch).

* * *

So what sound absolutely makes you cringe? Or repulses you to the point where you can’t bear to hear it? As a kid I could always make my mom run away in horror by squeaking a piece of Styrofoam against cardboard.

Portions of this post appeared in 2012.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Disney/Marvel
arrow
entertainment
The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain
arrow
Weird
9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
iStock

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
iStock

Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
iStock

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios