Whether you're just an occasional dabbler or have a serious nerd-on for horror, one thing just about all of us can agree on is the importance of music and sound effects in a successful horror movie. Doubters should try this little experiment: first imagine the most shocking, suspenseful or just plain creepy scene from your favorite fear flick; then imagine that very same scene with all the music and sound effects removed. Doesn't really work, does it?
But that's not exactly where I'm going with this. Instead, I'd like to dig a bit deeper into the horror/music connection by identifying a group of musical motifs that have become inseparable from the horror movies for which they were written – themes that instantly call to mind creeping chills or sudden shocks, even if removed from the images. In other words, if you suddenly heard one of these melodies out of the clear blue – or more likely from the darkest shadows – you'd know instantly which movie it came from. In fact, some of these tunes are so etched into popular culture that they're often familiar to people who haven't even SEEN the movies they came from.
Turn the page and prepare to get some classic terror tunes stuck in your head... kinda like a commercial jingle, but even more evil!
Every note and beat of Bernard Herrmann's score to Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece is pure poetry. But there's one short motif in particular that's permanently associated with the film's history-making centerpiece: The Shower Scene. Hermann's high-pitched, shrieking staccato strings (budget limits forced him to choose a small string ensemble) perfectly capture the stabbing, slashing motions of the murder weapon as it tears through the flimsy plastic curtain and into the naked flesh of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Since the film's release half a century ago, that motif has become so ingrained into people's minds that you literally can't mimic a knife-stabbing motion without someone singing the theme out loud. It's all pretty ironic when you consider that Hitch originally didn't want to use ANY music in that scene.
There's no better example of music being intimately tied to a horror film's impact than the opening titles of John Carpenter's immortal 1978 classic. Carpenter once famously stated that when he first screened an early music-free cut of Halloween for a studio exec, she was not particularly impressed – prompting the young auteur to “save it with the music.” And save it he did, drawing on his musical background (though he had very little formal training and couldn't read a note of music) to create a piano-driven theme based on a 5/4 rhythm his father once taught him on the bongos. The end result is a simple, haunting, beautiful and absolutely unforgettable melody that continues to give people chills whenever they hear it.
Friday the 13th
Another classic theme from the golden age of slasher cinema, Harry Manfredini's original Friday the 13th score is a cut above lesser entries, thanks to his skillful use of a very small orchestra and some clever recording tricks like looping and tape echo. One of those technical tricks would lend itself to the trademark stalk-and-kill theme of franchise boogeyman Jason Voorhees – known to most folks as the “ch-ch-ch, ha-ha-ha” theme. It turns out that's a misinterpretation of what Manfredini actually recorded: according to the composer, those whispers are based on Mrs. Voorhees' delusional inner dialogue with her (not actually) dead son, who commands “Kill her, mommy! Kill her!” So what you're actually hearing are the words “Kill” and “Ma,” whispered by the composer himself and processed through a tape echo device.
Jerry Goldsmith was one of the finest composers for any film genre, but his work in horror and science fiction has earned him godlike status among fans – and much like his contemporary John Williams, played a major role in elevating the stature of genre films from cheap drive-in fare to major box-office draws. One of those Hollywood blockbusters also managed to snag Goldsmith his only Oscar – the literally apocalyptic compositions for orchestra and choir accompanying The Omen helped turn that film into one of the biggest screen hits of 1976. The main theme Ave Satani (“Hail Satan”), born from the composer's intent to create a satanic inversion of the Latin Mass, is so epically creepy that dozens of metal bands (including Black Sabbath) have used it as an intro before taking the stage.
When John Williams originally presented Steven Spielberg with this now-legendary shark attack theme, the director actually thought it was a joke... and if you were to just play it on a piano, you can probably understand the director’s point. But history has proven how Williams knew exactly what he was doing: it's now one of those themes that everyone instantly recognizes without even thinking – probably due to the fact that it's basically just two notes, played over and over again. Think about it: when you imagine a shark fin cutting through the water, or the paddling legs of a swimmer seen from the depths below, it's just those two repeating notes that instantly pop into your head... slowly at first, just lurching low strings and brass, then more layers at double-tempo, as the ocean predator closes in on their unsuspecting meal... it's enough to make you afraid to take a bath, much less dive in the ocean.
If you're reading this, I'll bet you can instantly identify at least one tune from Italian prog-rock band Goblin – known by some for their score contributions to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but mostly beloved by fans of Euro-horror for their close association with the films of Dario Argento during his peak period. After their groundbreaking rock score for his 1975 classic Deep Red, the band was approached by the director to create the nightmarish music for his incredible 1977 follow-up Suspiria. Still one of the most unsettling main title themes ever recorded, the opening music bursts into your brain with thundering percussion and eerie screeching violins before giving way to floating bells, rustic dulcimer, a lurching bass line and a raspy demonic voice. Before the first shot, you're already scared of what's coming next...
Dawn of the Dead
Zombie master George Romero blended Goblin's unique score with an assortment of library music to create a surreal apocalypse that serves as a grotesque parody of the “normal” world… and when our heroes convert a shopping mall into a well-stocked fortress, Romero takes a sound commonly associated with consumer culture – bland, canned department store Muzak – and turns it into a twisted, obscenely goofy carnival with his choice of “The Gonk,” an obscure novelty song from the De Wolfe music library that has now been permanently carved into the memories of every zombie fan on earth. More than three decades have passed since the film premiered, and by now commercialism is so deeply ingrained into our culture that we barely notice it... but there's not a single horror fan who doesn't know this zombie mall-crawl ditty by heart.
Although we only hear a small section in the end credits (when most audience members have already stumbled from the theater numb with shock), Mike Oldfield's ghostly art-rock classic Tubular Bells is nevertheless considered by many to be the official theme to William Friedkin's horror landmark The Exorcist. After rejecting Lalo Schifrin's original dissonant and disturbing orchestral compositions, Friedkin went with excerpts from existing pieces by avant-garde composers, and it's those pieces that underscore the film's demonic onscreen frights. But Tubular Bells got a huge boost from the success of the film – as well as tons of radio play in its wake – and since then the mesmerizing theme has taken on chilling new dimensions that Oldfield probably never intended.
A true auteur who controlled nearly every aspect of his films, Stanley Kubrick was very particular about his choice of music. Even though he tended to work with many of the same composers, he still cut, mixed and layered their music in ways the artists never imagined. When Kubrick took his only plunge into pure horror with this Stephen King adaptation, his choice of existing works by Penderecki and Ligeti was perfect for capturing the enormous horror that enveloped the Overlook Hotel and its ill-fated caretakers… but among the few original cues commissioned for the film, it's the title theme – an electronic rendition of Berlioz's Dies Irae, performed by Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind – that seizes you by the throat in the film's breathtaking opening shot and draws you physically into a vortex of doom. Just a few seconds in, and you're already too scared to move.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
There's nothing creepier than a childhood nursery rhyme turned upside-down and transformed into something dangerous... especially if it becomes a warning about a boogeyman who plans to slaughter you in your dreams. This is the essence of the recurring “Freddy Rhyme” that began with the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, continuing through all of its subsequent sequels, and now back again in the big-budget remake. When we first hear the song in the original film, it's sung by three little girls playing jump-rope in the dreams of Freddy's first victim. Over the course of the story, it becomes a recurring motif – first as a music-box theme, then layered with piano and orchestra – sometimes sung, other times just lurking softly in the background, but always serving as a musical reminder that “Freddy's coming for you.” And as we all know, those lyrical warnings to “lock your door” or “grab your crucifix” won't do Freddy's victims a damn bit of good anyway…