The 30 Best Horror Movie Soundtracks of All Time
7. Nosferatu: The Vampyre
Composer: Popol Vuh
From the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu, you are treated to images in a dark cave of mummified bodies frozen into position, their mouths agape in terror. And Popol Vuh’s music seemingly gives you the impression that coming from said mouths are the dark, Gregorian-chants of the undead. These shots alone are enough to keep you up at night and give you absolutely demented dreams.
Popol Vuh, which in Quiche language means “Book Of the People”, provides absolutely breathtaking music for Herzog’s film, from the ghostly choral chanting of “Brüder des Schattens”, to the harmonically complex Euro-classical sounds of “Das Schloss des Irrtums” and “Die Umkehr”, to the theremin-lead spookiness of “Die Nacht der Himmel”.
Popol Vuh’s music frames Herzog’s film with the perfect amounts of gothic dreariness and romantic tension that provides it’s core, and it’s compiled largely of music that band leader Florian Fricke had composed many years prior. Due to the very spiritual and atmospheric vibe of the songs, the soundtrack works as great traveling music too, for the right pieces were added to complement the shots of the stunning locations of where the movie was filmed (the Netherlands and Czechoslovokia, respectively).
For a deeper listening of Popol Vuh’s work, check out their soundtrack to Herzog’s “Herz aus Glas”, and their album “Einsjäger und Siebenjäger”, which is kraut rock at it’s finest. Either way, “Nosferatu: The Vampyre” as a soundtrack is an outstanding listen.
Also check out: “Auguirre”, “Einsjäger und Siebenjäger”
6. The Exorcist
Composer: Mike Oldfield, Krzysztof Penderecki, George Crumb, Anton Webern, etc.
This and the next entry on this list, while they do contain original pieces of music, are by and large great examples of compiled scores. Even after 40 years of existence, The Exorcist still retains the ability to shock, frighten and disturb audiences to this day.
The subject matter, the cinematography, the execution, the subtleties, the ballsiness to keep making scene after scene more intense than the last, and the rare instance in a scary movie where you actually care about the characters; it’s a beast to top.
Before anything even remotely crazy happens, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” sets the tone of what’s to come later in the film. The mixture of the pagan-esque minor piano melody, the 15/8 time signature, and the way the dynamics of the song change as more instruments are added, you’re treated to a truly haunting listening experience.
You first hear it played when you see Ellen Burstyn’s character walking down the street on a beautiful fall afternoon, framing the feeble state of mind she is currently in and at the same time foreshadowing the anguish and pain she’ll have to go through dealing with the demonic possession of her daughter.
But while Oldfield’s eerie theme serves as creepy foreshadowing, it’s the compositions from avant garde composers Krzysztof Penderecki, George Crumb, Anton Webern and a few others that serves as the actual horror taking place. On pieces like Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” & “Kanon for Orchestra and Tape”, extended avant garde techniques are used such as the string players tapping on their strings with things like thimbles, their fingertips, bows and other various objects.
Add to that, dynamics that range from being well paced to drastically changing and you have a completely unpredictable and jarring listening experience, as they are used to emphasize scenes in the movie like Regan’s infamous “Spider Walk” down the stairs.
On George Crumb’s “Night of The Electric Insects”, the string players (2 violins, a viola and a cello) test your constitution by finding pitches and notes that shake you to your absolute core. In case you haven’t figured it out, this isn’t music to make you feel safe.
5. The Shining
Composer: Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind, Bela Bartok, Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti
Again, some may consider it to be cheating to put a compiled soundtrack on a list of mostly original works, but there’s no denying that not only are “The Exorcist” and “The Shining” both important viewings that should be in every horror fan’s collection, but also the music provided helps drive the narrative and the scares of the films.
Word has it that regular Kubrick collaborator Wendy Carlos along with Rachel Elkind composed a bunch of music for the film, but most of it was turned down by Kubrick and his editor in favor of the selected works that make up the soundtrack/movie. The pieces by Carols & Elkind that did make it are great though.
The first being their absolutely bone-chilling take on “Dies Irae”, a Latin hymn meaning “Day Of Wrath”, normally attributed to the rituals and masses of Roman Catholicism. What follows is “Rocky Mountains”, a series of trance-like tones from what sounds like a Moog synthesizer that recalls Wendy Carlos’ “Switched On Bach” days (when she was known as “Walter”). The only other piece of Carlos & Elkind’s that made it anywhere else is in the trailer for the movie.
Though there aren’t any overarching themes or subtext about religion in the film, pieces of music like Penderecki’s “The Awakening of Jacob” and “Utrenja” are based off of particular parts of biblical stories, and there are some strange parallels that occur. “The Awakening of Jacob”, for instance, is used during the scene where Wendy wakes up Jack from a dream he had where he killed Wendy & Danny with an axe.
It’s pretty eerie considering some of the lines from the story of Jacob of which Penderecki took the title—“And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not; And he was afraid, and said ‘How dreadful is this place!'”—it makes one wonder about the psychotic attention to detail Kubrick had for his movies.
Other pieces of music like Bartok’s “Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta” work as perfect companions to scenes like when Wendy discovers that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. To cap off the hellish nightmare of music you’re put through, “Home” by old-timey british big band leader Henry Hall ends the film on one of the spookiest and ambiguous endings in movie history.
4. The Thing
Composer: Ennio Morricone & John Carpenter (co-collaborator)
You couldn’t ask for a more perfect mix: a master of DIY filmmaking and a maestro of film music. When they worked together, Carpenter couldn’t speak Italian and Morricone couldn’t speak English, so they had to result in communicating through playing notes until somebody nodded their head in agreement or disapproval. The outcome is a creepy, lurking, minimalist soundtrack with cold textures that give the listener a feeling of isolation and abandonment that you certainly feel while watching the movie.
The instrumentation on this album is particularly of interest, blending old “haunted house” sounds with at the time synth-scapes and bare bones strings. An example of the latter, “Contamination” starts with an upright bass plucking one note at a time seemingly at random, and before you know it, a whole orchestra of strings slithers in giving the listener the impression that something is crawling under their skin.
This and pieces like “Bestiality” perfectly complement the goriest scenes of the film when The Thing is at it’s most rampant. The main theme is a slow burner of a song, building with creeping intensity with just two simple bass notes, while a steady syncopated rhythm slowly and quietly worms it’s way in, deceptively tricking the listener into not knowing where the rhythm starts and ends.
The gothic organ that comes in a third of the way through only adds more unease, taking it’s sweet time until the dynamics drastically change, thus heightening your paranoia tenfold.
Also check out: They Live, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York
3. Rosemary’s Baby
Composer: Krzysztof Komeda
Krzysztof Komeda was one of the most respected Polish jazz musicians/composers of his time, and his lyrical style landed him the gig of scoring a few of Roman Polanski’s films including “Knife In The Water”, “Fearless Vampire Killers”, and “Cul-De-Sac.”
Krzysztof Komeda’s music for “Rosemary’s Baby” masterfully reflects themes that run through the film such as the feeling of loneliness and not being able to trust anyone around you, even the ones you love and care for; the sense of dread a mother must feel when trying to protect her unborn child from certain danger; the idea that demons can really be conjured through the power of belief; all done while framing Mia Farrow’s amazing performance as Rosemary.
The main theme, with Mia Farrow herself singing, reflects the character of Rosemary herself and is haunting and heartbreaking all at once. It certainly sounds like a lullaby one would sing to a spawn of the Dark Lord. The theme is repeated in several variations throughout the score, some including more light-hearted jazz versions to correlate with the happier scenes when you feel Rosemary’s joy that she is going to have a child.
There are even variations of the next door neighbor satanic cult chanting interspersed here and there, and it’s such a hair raising listen, you feel like it’s coming from the room right next door to yours. Like the movie, Krzysztof Komeda’s music still endures the power to give you goosebumps and make you feel melancholy all at once.
Also check out: “Knife In The Water”, “Fearless Vampire Killers”
Composer: John Carpenter
Of course, many of you saw this one coming, but you can’t talk horror and not bring up John Carpenter. Carpenter is a prime example of DIY filmmaking at it’s finest, and the same can be said about how he composes his music. When innovations like the Moog synthesizer caught on to the public, film composers would go to instruments like these to not only create different textures in their music, but also because it was cheaper than hiring an entire studio orchestra.
Carpenter was one of the many to gravitate toward this approach, and would wind up making many incredible soundtracks for his films this way. The now iconic theme serves as a classic example of music hinting at what you’re about to witness on screen. The combination of the use of 5/4 time for the main melody—one of the many times horror composers would use odd time signatures to great effect—and the octave stabs that follow provide a great musical “point/counterpoint”.
The main melody gives the feeling of a victim being chased after, whilst the octaves played underneath take the stance of the killer; calm, cold and confidently taking its time, knowing that it’ll catch up with you and once it does, you’re pretty much doomed to be strangled with a telephone cord (or impaled onto a wall, take your pick).
This simple but effective style is repeated elsewhere around the album and film, including pieces like “The Shape Lurks” which is used toward the latter half of the movie where the intensity is amped up. Other characteristics that make Carpenter’s score stick out include the ability to create music that explicitly represents the whole of a character while at the same time painting a vivid picture of the fall season (the beautiful “Laurie’s Theme”), and his use of space within the music to create tension (“Michael Kills Judith”).
Largely self taught, Carpenter himself has exclaimed he doesn’t know how to read or write music. But with the little knowledge he had, he created not only one of the most chilling scores ever, but it also has served as a blueprint for many scores for horror films onward.
Also check out: The Fog, Halloween 3: Season of The Witch
Dario Argento’s most well known and beloved film has a lot of things going for it. Intense usage of color; amazing architecture and art design; idiosyncratic characters; an unflinching look at vicious yet creative deaths; and the ability to instill an overwhelming sense of dread in the audience by putting them in the position of the main character(s), making them feel like they stumbled into something they shouldn’t be seeing. Goblin’s soundtrack adds to the spookiness of the film, and then some.
Music in general doesn’t get any creepier than this. You take the soundtrack away from the film, listen to it in the dark, and it’s ability to make your hairs stand up and your heart drop to the pit of your intestines is unparalleled. For ‘Suspiria’, the recording as a whole is very wide open sounding, much like the labyrinth-like halls and rooms of the ballet school in the film. The main theme lives up to it’s reputation for being a nursery rhyme for your nightmares.
The main melody, played on celesta and bells, creeps its way into your ears before ghoulish “la la las” and a mish mosh of instruments, acoustic and electric, all come together to form an orchestra of demonic sounds, all in a rather organic way too.
On other tracks you hear sighs, howls and screams coming from what sounds like the darkest bowels of hell itself, including the infamous “WITCH!!!” motif, and the voices that make these hellacious cries don’t even sound like they were created by humans. Tonally, the music is just as colorful as the movie itself.
Even tracks that weren’t used in the film, like the King Crimson-meets-gothic-folk tune “Black Forest” (one of the more “normal” sounding tracks) has a lingering eeriness to it, giving you the feeling of being alone in dark woods. Many fans of the band consider this their masterpiece and it’s easy to see why.
The music goes beyond the notes they play in order to create an all around vibe for a bigger picture, which is the ultimate goal that any musician, no matter what music they play, always try to aspire to.
Author Bio: Daniel Paschall is a professional drummer and music teacher, and also a non-professional film nerd/horror movie buff. To see when and where he is playing next, hear some music he has played on, or other random musings, go to danpaschalldrums.com.