What makes a horror movie truly incredible? The same thing that makes any movie incredible—excellent writing, nuanced acting, gorgeous artistic design, daring cinematography, visionary directing, and a killer score.
Film and music go hand in hand. So many of the greatest films, horror or not, are inseparable from their scores. A film’s musical score cannot be underrated, since sound is just as important to the human brain as visual information. Visuals pull you into a film, but music transcends your rational thought and hits you in your gut. Done well, a film score manipulates and exploits hardwired reactions. Done poorly, a score can ruin a film, or at least drastically alter the intended tone. To see what I’m talking about, check out this Frozen trailer, cut to horror-movie music.
(This video is also a lesson in how cutting a trailer can totally change your expectations for a film.)
In the oldest, most primitive parts of our brains, a loud thudding beat can sound like a huge, approaching predator. A high-pitch screech can sound like a cry of help or the wail of a dying animal. Music can increase an audience’s anxiety and apprehension, enhance the horror of a scene, and fill in parts of the story missing from the visuals on screen.
Recently, I’ve really enjoyed the Neon Demon soundtrack, featuring a dazzling score by Cliff Martinez. A veteran collaborator with Nicolas Winding Refn, Martinez is very good at crafting a sound that compliments and intensifies Refn’s oftentimes cryptic films. While I personally found The Neon Demon to be extremely disappointing as a film, I LOVED the soundtrack. It made me feel like I was in the middle of a cool, stylish, cutthroat fashion underworld where bad people lurked around every corner and something bad was sure to happen.
I have also had the pleasure to enjoy Netflix’s latest original series Stranger Things. If you haven’t had a chance to watch it, you really should make time for it. The show combines all the most fun and creepiest parts of those 80s movies everyone loved as a kid—E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, Stand By Me—with heavy doses of Stephen King, The X-Files, and dashes of everything from Twin Peaks to Alien. It’s so, so good. And large part of its success as a show built upon nostalgia and suspense is the score, composed by Austin band S U R V I V E. The main theme amps up the nostalgia but also creates a dark atmosphere of mystery and dread, setting the mood for the whole series.
I’ve enjoyed these scores so much I decided to share 10 of my favorites horror movie scores with you, going into why they work and why I love them. I also included links to the albums on Spotify! If you think I missed any good ones, let me know in the comments!
- Psycho (1960) – Bernard Hermann
Where would this list be without Psycho’s dramatic and nightmare-inducing score? An iconic score from the very first screening of the film, Bernard Hermann’s work has been copied, referenced, and parodied ever since. With good reason! Hitchcock himself was so pleased with the score that he declared, “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.”
Psycho’s score starts off as fairly standard film music filler but then takes a hard turn into the shrieking and disturbing. Not only does the music amplify the terrifying experience of the film, it also mirrors one of Hitchcock’s favorite storytelling strategies—he loved to lure an audience into complicity with mundane scenes, gently turning up the heat until shit gets real. You thought this was going to be a nice movie about a pretty lady embezzler and then WAM! That nice, shy, vaguely handsome young man starts killing women while dressed up like his dead mother.
The violins are the real MVP of this film. They are responsible for one of the most savage scenes in all of horror film. It’s funny when you think about it, since violins are thought of as such romantic instruments perfect for creating beautifully expressive music. But in this scene, the screeching strings really do sound like a bloodcurdling scream for help.
I think too, like in The Shining (below), Psycho’s score is very effective when balanced against silence. Whole scenes are scoreless, where dialogue is the only sound. It’s almost too quiet. The audience can’t readily tune out, so its forced to pay rapt attention to the creepiest of scenes.
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Kryzysztof Komeda
There is a lot that can be said about the music in this film. That haunting lullaby. That weird jazzy score. I appreciate how the Komeda sourced unconventional music to use in a horror movie. Komeda made an inspired creative decision there, almost as inspired as using Mia Farrow’s vocals for the lullaby (but more on that in a minute).
Honestly, Rosemary’s Baby was the first time I’d heard jazz used in a horror film. At first, it seems like an odd choice to use jazz, since it isn’t known for inspiring apprehension or fear. But jazz is a good fit for horror, when done well.
In this scene, upon Rosemary’s horrific realization about her child, a wailing, mewling horn bursts through the silence. As the scene progresses, the music rises and collapses in brash cacophony. It’s jarring and shocking and renders Rosemary’s emotions with clarity.
But let’s be honest, the lullaby is the real star. It’s not creepy on its own, which I feel was a very conscious choice. When we first hear the lullaby over the opening credits, the song itself isn’t creepy. The opening credits aren’t particularly dark or foreboding. The audience simply doesn’t have any expectation for this piece of music above and beyond a simple lullaby, sung by some sweet, attentive mother.
It’s only at the end of the movie, after Rosemary decides to become a sweet, attentive mother to her antichrist baby, that the sing-song tune takes on a sinister meaning. The bonds of motherhood are so strong that not even giving birth to the antichrist can dissolve them. I think it’s a great example of how a film and its score enhance each other. Usually the score adds nuance to the film, but here the film completely altered a piece of music.
- Jaws (1975) – John Williams
Jaws is one of my favorites because it does so much to exploit our basest human fears. It is one of the most famous film scores in history because it hits a nerve that everyone feels. Even Steven Spielberg has admitted that Williams’ score is responsible for “half the success” of his picture.
This entry is different from others on this list, since Williams used a full orchestra for his score in an era when many major films had abandoned the use of orchestras. This allowed Williams to create a very rich sound. And yet, while some of the entries on this list are dynamic pieces of music, the Jaws score succeeds due to its simplicity. It relies on a musical concept known as ostinato, which is two-note repeating musical motif.
It has intense psychological effects. Human beings associate deep, methodic sounds with approaching danger. It’s an old reaction, but the score taps into something that we’ve carried in our reptilian brain since time immemorial. Williams knew this and was smart enough to compose a score that sounded as threatening as a real life predatory animal. When his score was coupled with the frightening shark-point-of-view shots, the music became the shark’s presence.
I don’t know about you, but the deep dun-dun sure reminds me of a huge predator, lurking, hunting, stalking. *shudder*
- The Omen (1977) – Jerry Goldsmith
There’s nothing quite like a majestic choir. All music can provoke powerful emotional responses, but the human voice can really move a person. A chorus of bold, furious human voices can bypass all rational thought and go straight for the heart. Especially when they sound as threatening as the choir in The Omen.
Ah, The Omen: the movie that ruined Gregorian chants for all of us!
The genius of the main theme is how, like Rosemary’s Baby, the score subverts the audience’s expectations for a piece of music. Granted, this works better for those who were raised in the Catholic faith, but most everyone knows that singing in Latin happens at a Catholic mass. The theme starts off as such, or so you think, until the thunderous chorus pours forth and the strings reach a fever pitch. If you know any Latin, you’ll know something is wrong right away, since the lyrics unabashedly pervert the communion ritual:
“Sanguis bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani”
“We drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan”
Nope nope nope!
Of course, I don’t need to know Latin or have been raised Catholic to hear the dark intent in the chanting.
Whenever the audience hears this music, it’s a sure bet that something creepy or bloody will happen. It becomes a signal to the audience, especially when a scene uses violent, fast-tempo music with tumultuous voices, like in the scene where evil forces terrorize and murder Father Brennan. Within the context of the film, the chanting is literally the devil’s entrance music, as if all his evil worshippers were invoking his presence with multiple black masses that happen off-screen.
By introducing a human component into what would normally have been purely instrumental, the music feels intentional, purposeful, as if it enacts its will on the events in the film. The chanting herald’s the devil’s presence and it marks every horrible, gory death. The music is potent and powerful enough to conjure up all our worst fears about black magic and the devil without having to visually convey that information. With such an effective score, the film doesn’t need drawn-out deaths. A brutal and short death scene is much more jarring and horrifying to witness, especially when it comes with no warning but ominous whisperings. But by then, the audience knows it’s too late.
NOPE NOPE NOPE A THOUSAND TIMES NOPE!
- Suspiria (1977) – Goblin
When I was a girl, I had a thing for music boxes. Big or small, fancy or simple, music boxes were my jam. I found them really comforting for reasons I can quite explain. It seemed like whenever something bad happened to me, I could always count on the sweet melody of a music box to comfort me.
And that’s probably why I am both drawn to and repulsed by Goblin’s genius use of the music box motif throughout this iconic Italian giallo horror film. Everything starts off innocent, but then the ominous guitar strings slice through that sweet melody, followed by a creepy, raspy voice doing a bad but terrifying imitation of the lullaby from Rosemary’s baby. Like the main character’s own sense of innocence and purity, the music box theme is overwhelmed by dark forces. The score builds layer after layer until it all swirls together, heightening the audiences’ apprehension and priming it for the horrors to follow.
Take this scene, where the tinkling theme is gradually drowned out by fast and harsh sounds, until music sounds warped and frantic. The music reaches a fever pitch just as Suzy arrives at the ballet school. After hearing that lush, complicated, frenetic score, you just know something bad is going to happen.
- Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter
Another classic! So moody! So Ominious!
I think this score is really effective at creating a sense of dread and impending violence through its relatively unimposing presence for large parts of the film. The staccato piano melody and high-pitched synthesizer is a study in how to do this. The music establishes a baseline, so that whenever it changes dramatically or goes silent, the audience knows something is bout to happen. Halloween was always more about the moments of terror before the realization of horror, so it’s perfectly in keeping with John Carpenter’s goal to broadcast a change before it occurs. He knows what kind of reaction this will produce in his audience.
John Carpenter loves to tease his audience before he scares the bejesus out of it. So he conditions his audience, using the music to put it on edge anytime the audience hears it. This is an especially effective technique once the scare is delayed, because the audience really doesn’t know what to expect now. The rules have changed and no one knows what to expect. Some would call that cruel. I call it genius.
And then there’s this scene, where a single long note underscores one of the best jump scares, only to go silent so we are sure not to miss a single one of her gasps. Again, Carpenter is careful to balance silence and music to highlight the horror of Annie’s murder. He forces the audience to experience her death without a score to remind us that this is only a movie. The score returns to herald her death as she takes her final gasp.
- The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick, Gordon Stainforth, Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind, Krzysztof Penderecki
I really love how The Shining’s score plays off the visual events depicted on screen. The music almost does the opposite of what the images are doing, intense during a pursuit but soft during a horrifying scene, like the climatic “Here’s Johnny” scene. It seems like an easy choice to go for a dramatic swell in the music when Jack Nicholson breaks the door down. I don’t think it would have been wrong to compose loud bursts of violins or drums every time his ax hits the door.
Instead, the music is very quiet in this scene. The shrill sound of strings really only the star as Jack pursues Wendy, but once the confrontation begins and the human drama has escalated, the music takes a back seat. This really emphasizes the sound of the ax splitting the door and Wendy’s screams, much to the audience’s horror.
In other scenes is more of a droning sound, establishing a baseline, a recurring motif. It’s the same music heard throughout the whole movie, even when things were quiet and Jack hadn’t totally lost his mind. Only now, the music sounds a little more shrill, a little bit more like wailing. This way, we don’t miss any of the terrible verbal abuse Jack hurls nor any of Wendy’s sobs, but that music is still there to heighten the tension.
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – Wojciech Kilar
I love this movie. I love how grand and dramatic it is. Both the novel and the movie are over-the-top and decadent in the grand tradition of Victorian gothic literature. In keeping with the spirit of the novel, the score is especially epic and operatic, with romantic melodies, thundering choruses, and melancholy refrains. As Roger Ebert put it, this movie is “an exercise in feverish excess.”
In this scene, notice how the score makes effective use of a lonely female voice, echoing the despair Dracula experiences upon finding his beloved’s corpse. It’s sorrowful and evocative, doing a lot of work to emotionally connect the audience to Dracula. But then, Dracula absolutely loses his shit! The music changes to emphasize his freak-out, increasing tempo, summoning percussion, and dispensing with the beautiful female voice for a threatening chorus. (Seriously, why are Gregorian chants so creepy?)
Not only does the music convey Dracula’s seismic emotional shift, it also works to broadcast an ominous development. Of course, once Dracula commits to multiple desecrations and sacrileges, the chanting becomes more pronounced, echoing the sinister ritual Dracula performs to gain eternal life.
I mean, if you’re going to renounce God like this, what score could be more appropriate?
- 28 Days Later (2002) – John Murphy
Oh, I love love LOVE this score. It’s emotional and beautiful and scared me in the best ways. Murphy composed a score spanning the emotional range that a person could experience during a zombie apocalypse: shock, despair, rage, terror, existential crisis, and the occasional glimmer of hope.
Soundtrack provided an important counterbalance to the images on screen—while certain scenes depicted horrific events, the music did not always use the same shrill strings or pulsing drums. Rather, the score used softer melodies to pull out the human tragedy in many scenes. The emotional resonance becomes overwhelming and adds to the overall horror of the scene.
Here, the visuals focus more on the horror of realizing a man has transformed into a raving, mindless zombie. He looks vicious, bloodthirsty, and terrifying, ready to maim his daughter. But the music reminds us that this man had family and friends. He was loved and trusted. And now he’s gone. The music forces the audience to reconcile these two competing depictions.
In scenes like this one, where zombies attack, the music flips from melodic strings to a hard, digital, discordant rock music. It creates anxiety and, partnered with the footage of a zombie attack, makes it easy for the audience to imagine being attacked. You can feel the adrenalin coursing through your veins, your heart beating a mile a minute. And the best part about this music is that when the soundtrack goes silent, the weight of the attack sets in. The truth falls heavy on everyone, and the only sounds are Selena’s authoritative questions and Mark’s screams as her machete finds its target.
There is no music needed for those moments.
- It Follows (2014) – Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace
An instant classic, the soundtrack to It Follows makes use of the best parts of vintage horror scores and modern technology, combining eerie strings with jarring electronic distorted sounds. Together, this technical achievement works overtime to keep the audience on the edge of its collective seat. The horror on screen is amplified tenfold by the screeching and pounding score, keeping the tension high going before ratcheting it up even more.
My favorite part about this score was the focus on the pounding beat because it reminds me not only of my thudding heart but the measured, constant, unstoppable footsteps of the monster, slowly but surely coming after its victims. Some layers of the film can oscillate between calm and frantic, but that underlying beat is still there, languid, unstoppable.
Composer Rich Vreeland said he really “tried to complement the understated tone of the film by creating a really bombastic score and playing up the director’s emotional intent.” Specifically, he believes in using synthesizers to mimic certain sounds and manipulate an audience. “I tried to mimic the setting of many scenes, creating sounds that turn into car engines, or the sound of crickets from hell. Those are quite fun to try and design. I also created a special kind of rumble that is used throughout the film that has a warm, distorted noisy quality to it.”
Thanks for stopping by!