The 30 Best Horror Movie Soundtracks of All Time
Composer: John Williams
Two notes. Two notes is all John Williams needed to create the theme of one of the greatest movie monsters of all time. People to this day still associate their fear of going in the water partly because of Jaws, and John Williams’ theme is the one that’s always sung by someone anytime they want to joke at the other person’s expense.
It’s Suspense Music 101. Just those two notes (E and F, or F and F sharp—take your pick) create tension by starting at piano level dynamics, only to accelerate ever so slightly each time in pace and rhythm, until finally before you know it…you’re dead. Williams’ choice of instruments to play certain parts is also of note.
Cellos play the “dun-dun dun-dun” motif while a tuba actually plays the higher register melody, and it’s accelerating pace makes it feel like something is stalking you, and then finally chasing you for the kill.This music was built for the sea. The music that frames the first death in the movie is a great example (“Chrissie’s Death”).
When you see the shark’s-eye-view looking up at the girl swimming from underneath the water, there’s a harp that plays in the background that mimics the ripples of water, and perfectly represents the quietness of the deep blue. Across the rest of the album the music recalls the vibe of sea shanties and pirates, a perfect match for Quint, Brody & Hooper as they go out “Sharkin’ “. And that music during the infamous Indianapolis scene…chills.
14. Nightmare on Elm Street
Composer: Charles Bernstein
Bernstein had composed music for mostly documentaries and eventually nabbed an Academy award for the score of “Czechoslovokia 1968” (which is preserved in the US National Film Registry in the Library of Congress) before working on bigger films for Hollywood.
Later, he scored a few horror titles under his belt (Cujo, April Fools Day, The Entity and Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend) before finally culminating into writing the iconic musical backdrop for Freddy Kruger.
The all electronic score is absolute vintage 80s horror. Largely synth driven, the scary soundscapes he creates add to the surreal-ness of all the dream sequences, and there’s a certain playfulness to the music during the scenes where Freddy attacks his victims, making it all the more freaky and fun to watch.
The voices & whispers you hear peppered throughout are Bernstein himself running his voice through effects pedals. A great companion to a 1980’s popcorn horror classic.
Also check out: Cujo
13. Carnival of Souls
Composer: Gene Moore
“Carnival Of Souls” is a diamond-in-the-rough that all horror fiends eventually stumble upon, and Gene Moore’s unsettling fever-dream of a score is what frames it all. Composed mostly on organ with a little string section, it’s full of ethereal and ghostly sounds sitting nicely alongside church hymnal and circus-y organ compositions, two tunes from a small jazz combo, and bits of dialogue from the movie.
The organ pieces are of their own character, and play the part of the sounds of what either is an evil force pulling the strings of the main character, or what might be the torment and madness going on inside her head.
For instance, the scene where she plays the organ in the church; she starts off with nice, divine melodies, that slowly, bit by bit, fall apart into layers among layers of atonal clusters, as if there is a demon forcing her to play profane and sacrilegious sounds.
Composer: Howard Shore
Howard Shore’s music to David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror masterpiece is unique to the film by way of how it was made. Shore composed music for a full orchestra, but programmed it into a Synclavier II, a device that was popular in the 80s that worked as a digital synth and a sampler. Then the score was given to a small-scale string ensemble to play along to.
Shore recorded them playing along to the Synclavier version of the score, and then he took both recordings and spliced them together, resulting in a blur between what’s human and what’s machine. It’s a very unsettling score with blips, bleeps and glitchy sounding voices that mirror the concept of the entire film.
In the same way that Cronenberg uses body horror and surrealism to promote the idea that man and their machinery are becoming of one mind, Howard Shore’s score does the same with music and to crazy freakish results.
11. Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Composer: Tobe Hooper & Wayne Bell
The original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has a very dirty, grimy feel to it. It manages to be a gross out movie without having to actually show that much in terms of gore, yet there’s plenty of things about it that manages to provide a real icky experience. This soundtrack, largely out of print, is a great example of Musique Concrete—a collage of sounds.
Performed by director Tobe Hooper and his friend Wayne Bell, you hear the scraping of metal, radio broadcasts, squealing pigs, clucking chickens, the banging of heavy machinery and various percussion items, and of course, a chainsaw, all coming in and out at various points. And it all clocks in at a short but anxiety-inducing 15 minutes.
Many music listening folk would listen to genres like this and dismiss it as ‘just noise’, which it totally is. But each sound has different frequencies to them and are sure to mess with your brain in some way, and putting these noises to film give it a whole new depth.
Case in point, the screeching metal sound that opens the movie, is put over camera flashes showing up close shots of decomposing bodies, one of them being a view of a skull’s set of teeth. The combo of image and sound bring about a subtle thought of the metal grinding against your teeth. Another way sound is important to this movie: when Leatherface first reveals himself and bludgeons the first victim in the face with a mallet…that “SPLAT” sound…blegh!!!
10. The Beyond
Composer: Fabio Frizzi
The mellotron, a keyboard in which the sound is created by a bank of tape loops, became popular in the 60’s and 70’s when groups like the Beatles, King Crimson, and many other of the progressive rock ilk started to make use of them on their albums.
Each loop of tape would have a sample of various instruments, a choir of voices for example, and you were able to reproduce the sounds in any chord or key. Yet they didn’t last long because due to various factors, they would go out of tune real easily and eventually companies stopped producing them. But during it’s tenure, many musicians made great use of the instrument, and Fabio Frizzi is no exception.
For one thing, the tapes that would go out of tune were embraced by many for how EVIL the notes sounded, as evidenced on the main theme for Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie”. As for Fulci’s epic supernatural story “The Beyond”, the instrument makes a few appearances, most notably on “Voci dal Nulla”, a slow, ambient dirge of a tune that is very operatic in scope, presenting the opening of the gates of hell in music form, before breaking down into a heavenly utopia of piano and flute.
It serves as a quick escape for the listener, as if to present a vivid picture of beauty in front of their eyes, only to have it taken away before plunging them back into the dark domain. Pretty sight isn’t it? Enjoy hell! Other noted standouts on the record are “Sequenza Ritmica E Tema”.
It’s a supremely funky track, with heavily syncopated drums, mixed with dark chord sequences and sinister sounding Jaco Pastorious inspired bass-lines, you’d think the inferno of eternal blackness had it’s own fusion band. It’s an intense piece of music. In the film it serves as the song for the most cruel and punishing scenes, and rightly so.
The soundtrack to “The Beyond” is a work of very diverse music that stands on it’s own legs, performed by stellar musicians, and creates a very doom-laden atmosphere that complements the film extremely well.
Also check out: City of The Living Dead
Composer: David Lynch, Alan R. Splet & Fats Waller
David Lynch, while not a full out “horror” director, manages to bring out his own meaning of the word in all of his films, paintings, and whatever else he does (and all thanks to Transcendental Meditation too!).
“Eraserhead” is definitely weird, cerebral horror at it’s most uncomfortable, and that certainly is due to it being what he claims is his most personal film.Part of his influence for “Eraserhead” came from his dread of living in Philadelphia at the time, so it makes sense that Lynch himself made “music” to compliment his surroundings.
Sound design plays a pretty integral part in everyone of Lynch’s movies, but this one in particular is a doozy. It’s an abstract mixture of sounds that dips in and out of various motifs including industrial noise, ambient drones, creepy out-of-tune organ passages and choking, crying and other repulsive, primordial oozy sounds from the mouth of…something.
Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet created all these sounds using leftover sound stock reels that were thrown away by sound editors at Warner Bros. studios. The way the story goes, Lynch and Splet basically raided the trash bins there (thanks to a connection they had at AFI), Splet had a degausser and erased what was on the reels so they could create the experimental soundscapes as you hear them now.
WHAT they did to make these sounds come to life is still a bit of a mystery.As abstract as all these sounds are, they fit every scene in the film perfectly. The crying of the “baby” (though they’re still not sure it IS a baby!), the hissing that seems to reflect what hidden turmoil there is inside main character Henry’s head; your nerves and senses only get more unnerved when you watch the film in a darkened theater. The sound literally engulfs you.
The apex of the album is the song “In Heaven” sung by the film’s own Lady In The Radiator character, and especially if you know the scene in the film that proceeds afterward, the song becomes all the more troubling to hear. An instrumental recording by jazz composer/singer/pianist Fats Waller is used in a way that seems like it’s the only bit of ‘happiness’ one can find in the bizarre landscape that is Lynch’s world. This soundtrack itself is indeed, like the movie, full of dark and troubling things.
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
This is the score that just about every other scary movie for decades has tried to imitate. It features what is quite possibly the most famous musical cue in movie history. What better to accentuate someone being stabbed to death in the shower then close-miked screeching violins? It’s said that originally,
Hitchcock didn’t want any music for that scene at all, but changed his mind once Herrmann showed him what the scene looked like with the cue. Not only that, but he originally wanted a more jazzy, big band oriented score, but Herrmann stood his ground, ultimately proving that you don’t mess with the composer’s vision.
As much as the shower scene cue is talked about, the slower, more brooding pieces of the score stand out just as much. For example, the way the music frames the scene in which we see the slow descent up the stairs while we hear Norman talking to his mother is nothing short of chilling.
Just like the movie itself, Herrmann’s score is written with an elegance and class that many others of this caliber have replicated a million times over, but have yet to come close to. It definitely stands on it’s own legs with some of the greatest classical suites ever written.
Also check out: Cape Fear