A horror movie has one main job to do: to scare its audience. To accomplish this, it has a multitude of tactics in its arsenal. One cannot be scared by the plot or loud noises alone (okay, maybe some can). Yes, a killer is coming toward the main character, but what’s going on in the background? Do we hear the whoosh of the knife being raised? Screaming? Is it ever silent? Given that we haven’t had silent films in decades, it often isn’t. To keep from feeling that emptiness, most films use music. And with the right music at the right moment, a scary scene can elevate a movie to pure terror (you can read more about the science behind scary music from the blog we posted earlier this month).
When it comes to soundtracks, they’re all a little different. Some are full of songs that are all used in the film. Some are full of songs that may not feature in the film but fit the movie’s mood. And some just hold a bunch of covers by hit artists with only a few being used in the film. Whichever route is chosen, one thing is always true. They serve as a representation of the movie. Whether the songs are instrumental or full of meaningful lyrics, the songs serve a purpose. When it comes to horror films, many tend to follow what I think of as the blockbuster model, which is basically a mix of instrumentals and vocalized songs. We’ve seen lately that modern horror movies often use existing music to bring an unsettling mood (you can read all about normal songs ruined by horror on our blog here), while others expertly curate original songs made specifically for their movie. Whichever route is done, a great and memorable soundtrack can make an ordinary movie into something larger than life.
Would Michael Myers be as terrifying without his accompanying synthesizer warning music? Would Freddy Krueger’s presence be as full of dread without his theme music? While there are hundreds of amazing horror movies out there, not every soundtrack gets remembered for decades after its release. So, to share in the Halloween spirit with all of you (AKA my favorite time of the year) I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite horror movies that I feel are elevated by their killer soundtrack.
You knew this was coming. I mean, how could I talk about a killer soundtrack without bringing up the quintessential horror soundtrack master John Carpenter? While he’s worked in a variety of genres, John Carpenter is most associated with horror and is known as one of the greatest masters of the horror genre. Creating the soundtrack for both the original 1978 Halloween and the 2018 remake, even a lot of the general public can identify the iconic Halloween theme. It’s played everywhere around this time of year (not that I’m complaining).
To create this soundtrack, Carpenter used what is now considered his signature synth piano and organ tones to create some of the most haunting moods for this movie. Carpenter’s soundtrack has a way of bringing the characters and set pieces to life, just by the sheer energy and ambiance it produces. Interestingly enough, it didn’t take Carpenter more than three days to create the soundtrack, and while it’s a rather simple score, it’s a very effective one. The rhythm for the now iconic theme was inspired by an exercise his father taught him on the bongos in 1961, the beating out of 5-4 time.
But it’s not just the well-known theme playing when Michael Myers stalks babysitters that makes this soundtrack iconic. Every single track has a purpose and creates an unsettling tone throughout the entire film. The movie may not have been the hit it became without the genius soundtrack crafted by John Carpenter. What’s so interesting to me is that in keeping the score “simple,” it adds to the creep factor. The soundtrack was primarily created using synthesizers, but they were emulating traditional instruments such as piano sounds, harpsichord sounds, strings, brass, and bass. This was done for budget reasons, but it wound up working well for the movie.
We get to hear the theme throughout the film with the tick-tock, clock-like nature of the electronic percussive sound unrelenting in our ears as we see that Michael’s drive to kill will not end either. But we also have iconic melodies such as “Michael Kills Judith”, “Myers’ House,” and we can’t forget “Laurie’s Theme” that plays when she’s walking home at the beginning of the film.
This movie would not be as iconic without John Carpenter’s soundtrack. It’s a horror soundtrack I can put on and feel spooky vibes from start to finish. Here are some great examples of the soundtrack being put to use to add tension and dread.
2) A Nightmare On Elm Street
I’m not ashamed to say that I listen to the soundtrack for A Nightmare On Elm Street year-round. It just has an ambiance that resonates with me. And despite only becoming a big fan of the franchise in the last couple of years, the music makes me feel nostalgic for a time that I wasn’t even alive for.
Charles Bernstein wrote, performed, and recorded all instruments in the score of A Nightmare On Elm Street including bass, synths, guitar, and percussion in 1984. The music in a movie, according to Bernstein, is “half of what makes us feel.” What’s interesting is that Bernstein didn’t have much experience with making horror scores, so he wrote with the state of mind: of “well, this would scare me.” Another interesting part of the process was that Bernstein had seen an early version of the scene with Nancy on the phone when Freddy’s tongue comes out of it, and Bernstein thought, “No way is this going into theaters...so I felt emboldened to do whatever I wanted because I was sure no one would ever hear the music.”
The score, especially for the theme is basically melody, chord, and a coloration that includes Bernstein’s voice edited in falsetto. There’s a lot of pitch bending and taking real instruments and then distorting them. Berstein has said that he wanted to create an environment that creates uncertainty, where the audience doesn’t know when something will happen but still have a sense of anxiety knowing something is coming.
If you’re interested, check out clips of the composer talking about writing the score!
Another well-remembered song in the movie is “Freddy's Theme Song”, sung by the jump-rope children throughout the series and based on "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe". It was already written and included in the script when Bernstein started writing the soundtrack. The melody was actually by Heather Langenkamp's boyfriend and soon-to-be husband at the time, Alan Pasqua, who was a musician himself. Bernstein integrated Pasqua's contribution into his soundtrack as he saw fit. Fun fact: One of the three girls who recorded the vocal part of the theme was the film’s producer Robert Shaye's then 14-year-old daughter.
Without the score, there’s a chance that A Nightmare On Elm Street would have fallen under the radar. It’s the iconic music paired with a terrifying killer with knives for fingers that made this movie the popular phenomenon we know and love.
Suspiria wouldn’t be Suspiria without its music. Taking away the music is like taking away a person’s leg in the middle of a marathon. Suspiria is about a young girl Suzy (Jessica Harper), who travels to Germany to study at a prestigious ballet school. Upon arrival, ominous sightings and mysterious deaths occur around her. Before long, Suzy uncovers the shocking secret history behind the school.
There’s a type of horror movie that has developed a cult following since its original release. The giallo. Giallo (translating to "yellow" in Italian) is a term used to describe mystery fiction and thrillers. The word giallo derives from a series of cheap paperback mystery and crime thriller novels with yellow covers that were popular in Italy. In the context of 20th-century films, English speakers and non-Italians use the term giallo to describe the Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective themes and often contains slasher or psychological thriller elements. The genre developed in the mid-to-late 1960s peaked in popularity during the 1970s and subsequently declined in commercial mainstream filmmaking over the next few decades. Despite this, the American slasher genre was heavily inspired by these films.
Directed by Dario Argento, Suspiria is a 1977 horror movie that falls into the giallo category. And the music absolutely elevates that movie. Music is a key to the genre's unique character. One of the distinguishing factors when watching a giallo is the mind-bending music hanging over nearly every scene. Writer Anne Billson explains, "The Giallo Sound is typically an intoxicating mix of groovy lounge music, nerve-jangling discord, and the sort of soothing lyricism that belies the fact that it's actually accompanying, say, a slow-motion decapitation" (Source).
For Suspiria, most of the film’s score was composed by the Italian progressive rock band Goblin. Collaborating with Argento himself, the band worked multiple times with the director, scoring Argento’s earlier film Deep Red as well as several films following Suspiria. Goblin's score for Suspiria was created before the film was shot. Interestingly enough, the score has been reused in multiple Hong Kong films, including Yuen Woo-ping's martial arts film Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979) and Tsui Hark's horror-comedy We're Going to Eat You (1980).
The main title theme was named as one of the best songs released between 1977 and 1979 in the book The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present. And for good reason. Suspiria was one of my first giallo movies and one of the first things that stuck out to me from watching the opening credits was the music. The soundtrack begins with chimes that come from an ancient musical instrument called the Music Box. This beautifully haunting piece is paired with a thunderstorm. The sounds of the chimes and the downpour of rain become so entangled that it’s unclear what sound is the rain and what is the instrument.
Melissa Rose Cusano describes the music use best, saying, “Suspiria delves into the supernatural world, and the music of Goblin uses instruments to highlight this: electric guitars, violins, and the tabla, an instrument from India covered with goatskin heads. A church organ would enlist a gothic sense to the scenes. They also employed the Mellotron and synthesizer. However, it was the employment of the Moog synthesizer that would allow the uniqueness of their sound to spring forth. The deep pulsating drones and screeching soundscapes... This style of Jazz, Funk, and indeed the way the vocals are heard in a creepy wordless manner of chants and screams are the hallmarks of their creation.” (Source)
Something interesting I discovered in my research was that Argento would play Goblin’s music to scare the actors between takes and before filming even began because he knew the music would instill fear even if nothing scary was happening visually. While Suspiria has plenty of haunting images and moments of shocking gore, these moments are elevated by the score. It makes these moments even scarier thanks to the droning score accompanying these moments. You can see an example of the movie’s clever use of music in the opening scene below.
4) Under the Skin
This movie is such a unique and interesting one. Released by A24, Under the Skin follows Scarlett Johansson playing an unnamed woman of unknown origin who drives the roads searching for isolated men she can pick up to seduce and use for mysterious purposes. The twist was ruined for me, so I won’t do that to you. The score in this film is mesmerizing, unsettling, and if you’ll forgive the play on words, gets “under your skin.”
The soundtrack was composed by Mica Levi and produced by Peter Raeburn over 10 months. It was created with a dark ambiance to it full of varying altered pitches so that listeners can “feel uncomfortable." The score features various instruments including viola and percussion. It’s the score’s minimalist style that I think makes it so brilliant. It’s simple yet gets the point across.
When putting the film together, writer and director Jonathan Glazer wanted the music to express the protagonist's feelings as she experienced things for the first time. When working with Levi, he would give him prompts like, "What does it sound like to be on fire?" or "Imagine when you tell somebody a joke and it’s not very good and their reaction’s a bit stilted" (Source).
It’s interesting to look at Levi’s inspiration for the score which includes people such as Giacinto Scelsi, and Iannis Xenakis, as well as music played in strip clubs. To fit the film’s theme, they looked for "identifiably human" sounds in instruments, then altered the pitch or tempo of their recordings to make them feel "uncomfortable.” The score “brings together strings, percussion, distortions in speed and clashing microphones to create sounds that are seductive, perverted and compassionate.” (Source)
Levi said to Pitchfork in an interview about the Under the Skin soundtrack, "We had a lot of discussions about what sounds might work and what wouldn’t, and when we heard the ones that sounded right, they became the language for the film. All those bendy and stretched notes just felt correct. It came half from the heart, half from the head."
It’s hard to put into words what the music is truly like, but I know I’ll never get the chilling music playing every time she traps an unknowing victim out of my head anytime soon. You can hear some of it for yourself below. I couldn’t find a good scene on YouTube, but you can at least get a taste of it in the trailer.