In the history of movie gimmickry, which includes The Tingler Electroshock, Smellovision and 3-D, Sensurround is by no means the least effective or the most offensive. Like its predecessors, it was seriously defined as an attempt to break through film's customary sensory limits. More honestly, it was a means of luring the credulous into paying good money for a bad picture. Sensurround consisted of nothing more than a bank of woofers that emit low-pitched rumbling sounds, causing the theater to vibrate in a mildly alarming manner whenever earth tremors are seen to move, shake and ultimately destroy Los Angeles.(click on the above image to get an idea of what viewing a Sensurround film looked like. Enough to give you a headache eh?)
Sensurround was Universal Studios proprietary system that premiered with the 1974 film EARTHQUAKE. The system did not fair well. During its initial release, with the film Earthquake, theater owners were subjected to a $500.00 a week rental fee plus they has the dubious honor of being guinea pigs in a grand experiment. The low frequency signal produced by the system could not be contained within the theater. During this time many older theaters had been remodeled and it was common for a single screen theater to be split into two theaters. That split meant there were side by side theaters with a common wall. That common wall could never contain the fury that was Sensurround. The Godfather II was released at the same time and was booked into the same houses as Earthquake. The vibration was so distracting that theater owners were forced to make a decision and it was not in favor of the $500.00 a week fee. Theater owners who stuck it out had other problems too. The Gruaman's Chinese Theater had to install a net below the ceiling to ensure bits of the old plaster and woodwork did not rattle loose and fall on patrons. Several theater adjacent stores reported damage from the system. A mall pet store reported that mall bound theater system killed its goldfish. It was a disaster tailor-made to accompany a disaster.

Here is a section taken directly from the Sensurround sound installation manual:
"The Sensurround Model II system developed by MCA Universal brings a new dimension to the motion picture theatre. It is designed to generate special audible and sub audible effects not yet possible to reproduce on presently available systems. The audience will actually be participating in the film. The torso will vibrate. So will the diaphragm. Flesh and auditory nerves will receive the sensations one might feel while experiencing the event depicted on the screen. Rather than the structure-shaking resulting from a natural disaster, this vibrating movement is actually airborne. Although some vibration can be felt - on thin wall surfaces, the amplitude is so small that no appreciable displacement can be measured. Also, the Sensurround effects will not cause hearing damage. The system is composed of high-level electro-acoustic with solid-state power amplifiers capable of up to 1000 watts of audio power. The system develops 100 to 120 dB sound pressure level (SPL) on the "C" scale in the theatre. "

Universal made sure the system would work no matter what type of film you were projecting. 70mm magnetic or 35mm optical, Sensurround worked. It took its cues from markers on the film.

It was a system that could awe but it had its flaws. One man suffered a cracked rib from the system. Other people fell ill. Nausea and vomiting were common.
Also... it seemed that the Sensurround system, if it were on a musical scale, emitted "the brown note." It could rattle your bowels clean. Yet another reason why theater owners frowned on the system.

It was used on only four films Earthquake (which won an Oscar for sound) Midway, Rollercoaster and, its last gasp, Battlestar Galactica.

The only two surviving Sensurround systems are currently at Dolby Laboratories.

They Always Come Back:
There will always be some sort of gimmick added to films. Ride the current 3-d wave if you must. If you want good old fashioned shaky gut rumbles buy the EARTHQUAKE DVD (The one released 2006) and enjoy its SENSURROUND 3.1 technology. You can also check the store for Sensurround products.


Luke said...

When I go to action movies, I simulate sensurround for my neighbors by beating on their chairs. Most people appreciate it so much that they return the favor! Strangely, they usually miss my chair and end up beating my face, but it works!

Ladron de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Ironically I bought my Earthquake DVD the same time I bought one of William Castle trailers. Earthquake was, I guess, considered a bit more of an A-list trailer. I always marvelled at the seeming "moral logic" of disaster movies of who was killed and who was spared. Usually anyone who'd just had sex was a prime target.

Salty Miss Jill said...

A tab of acid might also do just the trick, if one is so inclined.

Ms. Bizarro said...

I finally went to Disneyworld when I was 25. The first ride of the day was the Earthquake ride, which consisted of a demo and lecture on the special effects for that movie, followed by a terrifying simulation of being in a subway during an earthquake. I just about crapped my pants/had a seizure/tossed my cookies all at the same time. It was terrifying. 'Xplosions and fire and a bus hurtling toward us, the "subway cars" at all kinds of f'ed up angles, and of course lots and LOTS of shaking and quaking. It almost ruined the rest of the day.

Anonymous said...

I can still to this day feel the deep reverb of Earthquake (1974), three times at 79p.

ABC Westover road screen # 1Bournemouth Dorset, United Kingdom

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