From the screeching violins of Psycho to the prickly synthesizers of It Follows, filmmakers have relied on unsettling music to enhance suspense and fright. The right kind of music communicates emotions of characters and establishes tone and atmosphere of a movie. A scene with a woman walking up to a closed door may appear innocuous on its own, but the addition of ominous strings can inject tension into the images. Music in horror movies compounds tension and lets the audience know that something dreadful may be lurking on the other side of that closed door. Some horror movies use music so effectively that it leaves its mark on the entire genre, escaping the confines of a single film. Below is an overview of 10 essential horror movie scores. This is not a list of the 10 best horror movie scores; it’s a list of 10 scores important to the genre with which anyone new to the genre should familiarize themselves.
Psycho, Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann’s frantic and piercing composition perfectly embodies the sense of Norman’s madness and the acuity of his blade. The softer, fluctuating sounds of “Prelude” and “The City” are widely known and they masterfully convey the feelings of tension and sadness, but it’s the cold, screeching violins of “The Murder” during the classic shower scene that has proved to be the paramount of this iconic score. Even today, the sound of those strings brings out a feeling of looming danger and this score in its entirety is widely considered among the best of any genre.
Highlight track: “Prelude”
Jaws, John Williams
Like Bernard Herrmann’s score of Psycho, John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score of Jaws is one of the most iconic scores in the history of film. In this case, the score as a whole is eclipsed by a single track. A simple two-note expression indicating the presence of a menacing shark has evolved into a sound synonymous with impending danger. The simple, but effective, alternating pattern shows how sound and action can be fused together to create anxiety.
Highlight track: “Main Title”
Candyman, Philip Glass
Philip Glass’ eerie gothic-inspired score made of chorus singers and pipe organs seems out of place for a modern, urban setting, but it cleverly parallels the more antiquated idea of a myth such as Candyman being placed in a contemporary environment. The rolling, airy vocalizations throughout the film create a sense of wonderment and alluring danger, accentuating the psychological plot and influence of Candyman.
Highlight track: “Floating Candyman”
Phantasm, Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave
Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave produced a bizarre and swirling score of Phantasm that blends seamlessly with the idiosyncratic elements of the film. The combination of brooding electronic moaning, wiry keys, hand drums and classical organ not only matches the daydream qualities of the film, but it devises a kaleidoscope of sound that pieces together unexpectedly well. The recurring iterations of the theme music help establish a sense of familiarity with the music by the film’s end.
Highlight track: “Intro and Main Title”
Halloween, John Carpenter
John Carpenter has produced scores for several of his films over his career, but no other is more essential to the genre than his score of Halloween. Carpenter’s urgent, but delicate, keyboard ditty isn’t his most complex piece, but it proves simplicity is useful and impactful in the genre. Carpenter’s score, like the movie, is direct, but memorable, and its influence is ubiquitous in horror to this day.
Highlight track: “Halloween Theme”
Italian progressive rock band Goblin has a rich history of scoring horror films, such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, among others, but their most prolific creation was born from their collaboration with Director Dario Argento. The tickling and otherworldly sounds bring a supernatural feeling to the movie. The mixture of classic strings with progressive rock coupled with ghastly chatter, warping pulses and music box-like pinning and combing generate a classic horror soundtrack with influence still felt today.
Highlight track: “Suspiria”
The Thing, Ennio Morricone
An ode to minimalism, Morricone’s synth-heavy score of The Thing establishes dark and isolated undertones. Prominent, dense tones build anticipation at a walking pace before giving way to climatic and excited melodies, underscoring the transformations of the shape-shifting threat scurrying around Antarctica. The ambient textures feel just as concrete as the images, making an overwhelming sensory experience. Incredibly, the beloved score was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Musical Score.
Highlight track: “Humanity, Part II”
Halloween III: Season of the Witch, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth
The majority of the score contains dynamic and throbbing synthesizer with a dark resonance and ringing reverberations. The sounds share many similar aspects with Carpenter’s previous scores, but this one boasts a unique fluctuating articulation that became prominent in horror movies throughout the 80s and continues to influence some horror movie scores of today. Each track is distinctly its own but falls into an overall design of maniacal, electronic dissonance. In addition to the theatrical score, the film features a commercial with an annoyingly infectious song to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”
Highlight track: “Main Title”
Bonus track: Silver Shamrock Commercial
The Shining, Various Artists
While The Shining features mostly non-original music, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind scored several of the film’s most impactful scenes with original music, most notably the swooping aerial shots during the film’s opening sequence. Brooding horns and winding trills and howls lace immense shots of the Colorado wilderness and colossal Overlook Hotel featured in the movie. Several of the non-original songs—which are mostly ballroom music—enhance scenes throughout the movie, but it’s the unraveling ambient sounds oscillating in the background that are most effective.
Highlight track: “Main Title ‘The Shining’”
It Follows, Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace)
Vreeland’s prickly score of It Follows acts as an example of where all the previously mentioned scores, and others, have led. The use of sharp and menacing synths is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s signature style, while the trickling pinning sounds evoke feelings of Goblin’s music. The rhythmic and percussive tones completely match the bleak and unnerving visuals of the film. Previously known for his video game soundtracks, Vreeland has shown he is capable of carrying the torch for the composers who paved the way for him.
Highlight track: “Company”