Halloween is almost here, and there’s mischief in the air. The parties, the costumes, the children trick ‘r treating. And of course that one ritual that never dies no matter your age: horror movies. October is the month to unapologetically gorge on the disturbing and the macabre. A masked killer here, a zombie there; it is all in service of getting truly scared. And yet, what the best of them do is more than chill: They crawl up your spine and dig into your very soul with the sights and sounds of the truly damnable. And the best of them do that with just a simple musical cue.
More than any other genre, horror is very much beholden to a good score. A composer (and sound editors and mixers) who knows when to say boo on the strings or horns is as important as knowing when to be as silent as the grave.
Yet, some films have dared to go further by leaving a truly haunting signifier—something that will linger in your head during the many sleepless nights awakened by the harmonious bumps and dancing shadows that play a chorus in your mind’s eye. These are the rare musical pieces that are just as scary, or moreso, than the images they accompany.
13. Friday the 13th (1980)
Written by Harry Manfredini
The movie about a masked killer drew liberally from other murderous themes. But what it lacked in originality it made up for with one of the best “applause” hooks in genre history. “Ch-ch-ch ha-ha-ha.” It is a simple little sound that could almost be mistaken for whispered baby garble, yet there is something unnatural about the cue.
Originally intended to be the voice of Jason Voorhees’ ghost speaking to his mother (the original film’s killer) by stating, “Kill, kill, kill, mom, mom, mom” it became merely the sound of inescapable doom when Jason Voorhees would unleash his machete in future films. Not only is it Jason’s calling card, it a silent chant that lives in his un-beating heart, one that is literally laughing at the dead and dying. Even if his movies aren’t scary, this theme surely is.
12. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Written by Charles Bernstein
Following the guttural sounds of other 1980s horror themes, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s score is about eerie atmosphere. But like its subject matter, it blurs the line of banal slasher movie clichés. If Freddy Krueger is a departure from the silent, hulking, and boring, his theme is likewise deliriously surreal. The ultimate boogeyman, Krueger is a dream demon who comes for teenagers in their sleep. As several suburban kids hold out against him by staying awake, the boundaries separating reality and dreamscapes blur with each passing sleepless night…but eventually they all end up in Freddy’s world.
The theme has the creepy touch of a nursery rhyme, but in Freddy’s school it’s always naptime. There is no way to keep these teens safe, and the music is the marriage of the innocent and the nihilistic, increasing the goosebumps for the longer you listen.
11. The Omen (1976)
Written by Jerry Goldsmith
It is hard to get scarier than the devil, especially when he comes in the shape of a little demon spawn who makes death eyes at every adult he meets, usually as a prelude to a grisly decapitation or dismemberment. But the scariest thing about The Omen is that primal choral music pounding against one’s soul and sanity.
Channeled through a contrabass and the Choir From Hell, Jerry Goldsmith’s “Ave Satani” (“Hail Satan”) theme is a reverent ode to the most malevolent force in the world as it heralds the birth and rise of the Anti-Christ. The actual Latin chants translate to “We drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan.” Talk about a pick-me-up.
10. Carrie (1976)
Written by Pino Donaggio
Never one to miss a chance to borrow from Hitchcock, Brian De Palma even had his composer Pino Donaggio on the case with the score to this 1976 classic. Literally the antithesis of Cinderella, Carrie is still timeless in its sense of high school tragedy and horror over 40 years later. This actual theme, when it isn’t deceivingly hopeful and comforting, is almost more of a riff played during Carrie’s mass slaughter of her teenage peers and teachers, a nightmare that has become all too real in subsequent decades.
But after a full film of seeing the torment she suffers at home and school, it is an uneasy question if we should sympathize with her justifiable rage or the countless victims burning to death (among other atrocities) around her. Either way, when those doors slam shut and the violin strings screech, the blood runs cold every time, especially as it contrasts the lovely starry eyed ‘70s sweetness Donaggio had layered the scene with only moments ago. Is it derivative of Bernard Hermann? Of course! But it won’t be the only horror theme on this list that sounds suspiciously familiar, and Carrie does it with raging intensity and hopelessly earnest longing.
Written by Charlie Clouser
While overused after a parade of mediocre sequels, this theme still sends tingles rushing down one’s nervous system, if only for its ability to remind the viewer of that still jaw-dropping twist from the original Saw. Prior to that moment, Saw had been a terrific “whodunit” performed by two actors practically on a stage. But after this musical cue and twist, Saw was instantly iconic as viewers could witness in real time the birth of a whole new subgenre: torture porn.
This epic piece by Charlie Clouser is a stunning embrace of total despair and horror when one of the lead characters realizes that his murderer had been hiding on the floor in front of him for hours. This epic crescendo is still a kick to the gut nearly 10 years later with accompanying cries of doom by Adam still echoing from the industrial abyss.
8. The Wolf Man (1941)
Written by Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Never scary, The Wolf Man is the quintessential pulpy tragedy about a good man who turns into a beast, not unlike the “Good Germans” Jewish screenwriter Curt Siodmak knew in his homeland before relocating to Hollywood. This movie is ultimately a cinematic tear for “bad things happening to good people.” One such undeservedly damned soul is Lawrence Talbot who over the course of the film’s 70 minutes transforms from smiling, easy-going American to cursed and guilt-ridden freak…when he’s not growing fur and ripping throats out.
Despite being essentially a B-movie for Universal Pictures, who had left the glory days of James Whale and Tod Browning behind them, The Wolf Man still featured A-list talent from Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Raines leading its cast to Jack Pierce behind the iconic make-up chair, all the way down to Charles Previn, Hans Salter, and Frank Skinner’s score. With little budget or time, The Wolf Man creates a piece of music that is both mournful and exciting. An ode to a spiritually condemned man, and a rousing crowd-pleasing exclamation mark on an adventure of mysticism and death. Also, if you listen to the whole score, you can hear what might be the inspiration for Danny Elfman’s Batman theme.
7. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Written by Franz Waxman
Again, this classic Universal horror may not be primarily scary, but this time it was never meant to be. As much a dark comedy as a horror movie, Bride of Frankenstein is James Whale’s judging smirk to all the things that drive society mad: Hatred, otherness, religion, and simple ambition.
But it is also a great comedy of manners when the monster (Boris Karloff) decides it deserves a mate and gets one after a long build-up of blackmail and homoerotic undertones between the good doctor (Colin Clive) and one Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Two men come together and create a woman without the need of one on their staff? How very strange, indeed. The two make an intended lover for the monster, and Waxman makes a brilliant love theme that is truly haunting in just how bizarre the whole enterprise is. And so began Universal’s bizarre cinematic timeline.
6. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Written by Wojciech Kilar
Debatably the best Dracula movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an eerie cinematic magic trick executed with ancient stagecraft and hypnotically weird visuals, particularly in the costume department. But one of the most arresting and beguiling aspects of the vampire flick is its majestic score.
At once spooky and seductive, it has several themes encompassed in the above end credits, which build an ever-mounting sense of dread with almost as much tension as its “Brides” segue that acts as the audible scream of Victorian hysteria against the forces of wantonness and eroticism. It’s lustfully repellant, kind of like Coppola’s cinematic dose of absinthe itself.
5. Candyman (1992)
Written by Phillip Glass
As much about an acceptance of oblivion on a primal level as it is about the movie playing in front of you, Phillip Glass’ mini piano concerto is beyond nihilistic. It is an intoxicating surrender to the beauty of annihilation and the immortality inherent in death. Written for Helen (Virginia Madsen) giving in to the Candyman’s (Tony Todd) persistent offer of “Be my victim,” there is something wondrous in the melancholy of ceasing to be, particularly if one is canonized as an urban legend…even if only in a tower high rise in the Chicago projects.
Candyman is an exceedingly dense fable about the myths we tell ourselves and why they may be more important than actual reality (if there is such a thing) and Glass’s exquisite piano ballad, aided by a transcendent chorus, speaks to the core about the happiness in existential hopelessness.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Written by Mike Oldfield
Kicking off what is arguably the scariest movie ever made, the opening title track to The Exorcist is a combination of haunting tubular bells (chimes), piano and a bass guitar that still sends shivers down the spine of any person who has ever watched the movie and had even a passing acquaintance with religion as a child. Hitting people where it hurt, the film was a phenomenon that became the first horror movie ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and remains the single most theatrically watched R-rated picture ever released when adjusted for inflation.
And under it all is that haunting “Tubular Bells” that is played several times in the picture. Sounding almost like an urgent prayer invoked by a church’s flock, its juxtaposition of the Devil consuming the innocence of a 12 year old girl is still horrifying to this day. How surprising it is for many to learn that it was a track recorded by New Age artist Mike Oldfield; it’s even considered one of the forebearers of that genre. For New Age fans, I’m sure it is. But for the millions more who saw The Exorcist first, it will always remain one of the most terrifying compositions ever recorded.
3. Psycho (1960)
Written by Bernard Hermann
So ubiquitous in the culture, this piece of music can often be overlooked by those for its truly freakish quality. When audiences lined up in 1960 to see the Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh movie, all they knew was that if they were more than 10 minutes late, they couldn’t get in. Beyond simply just accomplishing the greatest bait-and-switch trick in movie history, as well as birthing the slasher subgenre, Hitchcock also was changing the way audiences attended movies.
For those who met his demands and settled in for a road movie about a greedy blonde, the rug was likely pulled harder than it ever had been or will be again when she was gutted like a fish by the 30-minute mark at the hands of a cross-dressing serial killer (though at the time, it appears to be his mother). Likely the greatest “scare” in movie history, the scene is punctuated with the deafening sounds of Hermann’s burning score stopping dead in its tracks by the sound of repeated violin screeches. Screeches may not even be the right word; the score screamed. Audiences, feeling almost as violated as Leigh’s bloodied and dying character, let their preconceptions wash away with the shower’s blood and the lowering cellos.
2. Jaws (1975)
Written by John Williams
I’m not even sure if Jaws fully counts as a horror movie, but I dare you to name more than a few horror movies themes that have had a more bloodcurdling effect. The movie that still keeps large swaths of every generation out of the water, Jaws is one of the finest pieces of musical terrorism ever composed thanks largely to its simplicity. Beginning as an insidious contrabass, the theme never graduates past its two-notes as it encompasses the entire thought process of its Great White leviathan. In other words, it’s, “Eat, eat, eat, and eat.”
There is something primordial about this melody that taps into the most basic survival instinct of every animal: The fear of being gobbled up by an incomprehensible beast that might as well be Lovecraftian in nature. And it is the fear of nature it instills in every viewer or courageous shoreside bather.
1. Halloween (1978)
Written by John Carpenter
If Jaws tapped into something elemental in our nature, Halloween embodies something far more sinister. Halloween is a movie about evil, plain and simple. In writer-director-composer John Carpenter’s world, evil is made flesh by one Michael Myers. It is beyond human understanding to know why, nor does it truly matter. Evil can get you, even in your suburban neighborhood, and for no other reason than you crossed its path. Originally about three babysitters nominated for ritualistic slaughter by an escaped psych patient who, one Halloween night 20 years earlier, silently and emotionlessly murdered his older sister when he was only 8-years-old, Halloween is chilling in its unknowable malevolence. And that Other, a masked enigma, is only better represented by its even more inexplicable score.
Written by its director at a time when John Williams had brought symphonic soundtracks back, Halloween is a simple piano and synthesizer melody constantly repeated in a 10/8 (or complex “5/4”) meter throughout the picture. It represents the banality of evil and stalks your mind and your dreams like a knife hunts for meat. It may owe a little bit to The Exorcist, but besides being written specifically for this film, it broadens that piano menace to an entire score. From beginning to end, Halloween hisses calculated wickedness to the audience. And it hums there still long after the final credits have rolled. That makes it the scariest, and the best, horror movie theme of all time.
So that’s our list. What’s yours?