The sound of horror: the enduring power of John Carpenter’s Halloween score

Analysing the Halloween mastermind’s tones of terror...

Horror cinema has a proud history of excellent soundtracks, but when it comes to recognisable themes there are two that loom over all others. One is Jaws; John Williams’ simple, iconic dun-dun… dun-dun… dun-dun-dun-dun… instantly conjures images of grey-finned terror and is arguably one of the most famous pieces of film music in any genre.

The other is more spinetingling, but carries a similar sense of lurking dread: John Carpenter’s own score for his 1978 slasher classic Halloween. With Carpenter returning to compose the music for this year’s sequel, we decided to look back at the original film’s hugely-influential score and the impact that it has had over the last 40 years.

Under the influence

Halloween was Carpenter’s third feature and, as with his first two, he elected to compose the music himself. This was as much a practicality as a stylistic choice. As Carpenter quips on his website, “I was the fastest and cheapest I could get.”

His major influence on the sound of the film were two of the undoubted heavyweights in cinema scoring: Bernard Hermann and Ennio Morricone.

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Hermann’s resume is intimidating to say the least: Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, Twisted Nerve and the original Cape Fear are just four of the highlights in a career that saw him work with the likes of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese.

Morricone, meanwhile, is best known for his iconic spaghetti western scores on films like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West, but he has an equally diverse discography. He’s also an enormous influence on many contemporary bands, including Radiohead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Incidentally, Morricone would go on to work with Carpenter on The Thing, composing a score that, ironically, owed more of a debt to Carpenter’s music than his own back catalogue.

Carpenter’s influences come across loud and clear in his Halloween score. He captures both Morricone’s sense of grandeur and Hermann’s lurking menace. At the same time, it never feels derivative. And while Halloween is a relatively grounded slasher – there are none of the magical elements that came in the later (now overwritten) sequels and the kill count is comparatively low – he creates a sense of almost supernatural evil around Michael Myers through the eeriness of the music.

Making history

The main theme was the first piece to be recorded, with Carpenter later claiming that it took an hour-or-so to compose. While that may seem unbelievable, it could well be true: musically, it’s a simple enough piece, a repeating piano line based on an exercise his father had shown him on the bongos, simply tapping out the rhythm of 5-4 time. It’s underpinned by a fidgety beat and some deep, brooding synthesiser basslines.

The whole score was completed in just a couple of weeks, despite some inconveniences. Today, most scores are recorded ‘to picture’ – that is, the composer can watch the scenes they are scoring while recording the music, making it much easier to match the sound with the visuals. That wasn’t the case for Halloween, however. Recorded in LA’s Sound Arts Studios, Carpenter recalls that “We were working in what I call the “double-blind” mode in 1978, which simply means that the music was composed and performed in the studio, on the spot, without reference or synchronisation to the actual picture.”

Precisely what instruments he used on the score, however, is hard to say with any certainty. While Carpenter loves making electronic music, he’s never been much of a gear-head and has either brushed off questions about how the tracks were made or said that he doesn’t recall which synths he used. That said, it’s very likely that either (or both) of the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and Prophet-10 synthesisers, both known to be in his gear collection at the time, were used on the Halloween score, as well as the (now very rare) Elka Synthex – likely the source of that throbbing bassline.

A legacy of fear

While his scores were a product of the times and limited resources, they have also aged remarkably well and have proven hugely influential on other musicians and filmmakers.

Partly that’s because of Carpenter’s skill and innate good-taste – these are well-composed pieces of music – and partly it’s because this particular sound is very fashionable right now. Late 70s/early 80s synths have become a go-to resource for anyone hoping to add a dash of retro ambience to their film or TV show.

Take Stranger Things, for example. The hit Netflix show already looked like a combination of Carpenter and another master of horror, Stephen King, but it needed a suitable theme. Enter Survive, the American electronic duo who composed its simple, striking and sinister opening music. The title sequence instantly recalls Carpenter’s musical trademarks with its high arpeggiated synthline and deep, rumbling bass.

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It’s not just soundtrack composers referencing him either. Outside of the cinema, hip electronica producers like Pye Corner Audio, Umberto, Xander Harris and Pentagram Home Video all have a strong trace of Carpenter in their musical DNA, while French duo Zombie Zombie went so far as to make an entire record of covers of his themes. Carpenter, for his part, has released three studio albums of new music in the last few years.

Return of the king

This year’s Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green, is a direct sequel to the 1978 original. A dedicated fan of the original, Green understands the elements that made it such a ferociously frightening film – including the music. For that reason, there really was only one person he could turn to to compose it: the master himself.

Helping Carpenter out are his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, son of The Kinks’s Dave Davies. While we’ve yet to hear the new score, Carpenter has described recording it as a “transforming” experience. “It was not a movie I directed, so I had a lot of freedom in creating the score and getting into the director’s head.” The new music is thought to honour the original while adding some modern touches – much like Green’s film in general. We can’t wait to hear that chilling 5-4 piano one more time…

Halloween arrives in UK cinemas on October 19th. Find out more about Laurie Strode’s eagerly-awaited return here.