It’s October, the month of Halloween! Put up the spider web, break out the candles, and turn off the lights. It’s time to watch some scary movies. Though I love music, I’m also a horror movie fanatic. For the past two years, I’ve been watching a horror/Halloween movie every day to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve. By doing this I’ve learned how important music is to the horror film. Sometimes it’s scarier than the movie itself. A good horror theme makes you shiver before the monster reveals itself. Most horror themes fall into the cliche of booming, dramatic string music and lots of panic. Then there are the themes that are so good, they stick with you forever. These are themes that can scare you even if the movie isn’t playing. Here are some of the best themes in horror.
Sinister is a pretty good horror movie. It’s unnerving, hits all the right creepy spots, and keeps you on edge. But the thing that shook me the most about the movie was the music. And I’m not talking about the main theme. I mean the weird, jarring, spine-tingling music that plays during the “home movies.” There isn’t just one that’s scarier than the others; they’re all fucking terrifying. Hearing the music still, makes me cringe and curl up into a ball. The ominous noises, otherworldly vocals, jarring piano, and unsettling mood gives you goosebumps especially when paired with the disturbing footage. Often times the music lulls you into this false sense of safety; the music is quiet and soft. Then it hits you with a loud noise and broken piano making you jump out of your skin. Composer Christopher Young did an excellent job with the soundtrack. This movie is a great example of how great music is very effective in horror films.
The Exorcist (1973)
This is one of the most iconic horror themes of all time. Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” is haunting, unnerving, yet oddly beautiful. It’s the first minute of the song that really makes you shiver. Something about it is innocent and dark all at once. The song loses some of its creepiness near the end when guitars are introduced making it sound more like an 80s rock song. Still, when you hear it, you know bad things are coming. It’s been used outside of the horror realm, like in the 1979 NASA movie The Space Movie. But thanks to its association with this film, it will always strike fear in your heart.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
This is one of those themes that takes you off guard. Composed by Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper, it opens like many other horror themes; ominous noises and tolling bells. This is then interrupted by a high pitched screeching noise that sounds like nails on a chalkboard. It repeats several times making you grit your teeth as it gets louder. From there we get a news report of the grisly murders while clanging and thumping resonate in the background. Random noises keep getting louder and louder as the newscaster is drowned out making you wonder what’s happening. It’s eerie and uncomfortable to listen to, which makes it a perfect fit for the film. You’ll want to look over your shoulder after hearing it.
The opening theme for the excellent film Creepshow is the epitome of horror movie themes: stark strings, creeping piano, and unnerving trickling ivories. There’s even lightning cracking in the background. The music then turns into some kind of demented lullaby getting scarier and scarier. Throw in some maniacal laughter, thunder striking, and more piano playing and you’ve got the perfect horror theme. It sounds what you would hear when walking through a haunted house with only a lantern to guide you. Though why you would want to do that is beyond me. Like most of these themes, it’s unsettling, but beautiful at the same time. Thanks for the nightmares, John Harrison.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Composed by Lalo Schifrin, the genius behind this theme is how subtle it is. It begins with lush tones and some light piano tickling putting you at ease. When the piano is fleshed out, you feel safe and calm. It actually sounds pretty and almost seems out of place for a horror film. But before you get too comfortable ethereal voices filter in with eerie harmony. Still, it’s not that bad; a little unsettling, but nothing that makes you feel scared. The theme goes the extra mile by adding ominous percussion that hammers and thuds, reminding you of the horror that lies ahead much like the infamous horror house itself.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Whereas other themes want to lull you into a false sense of security, the theme for Friday the 13th is made to terrorize you. Right from the start it strikes panic in your heart with the stark strings getting faster and faster. Harry Manfredini perfectly captures the frightful mood of the first film. It sounds like someone running through the woods, trying to get away while Mrs. Voorhees is on their tail. Jason’s infamous cry of “ki ki ki…ma ma ma” adds another layer of fear to the already frightening tune. The theme got a weird, disco upgrade for the third film, which is funny and a little corny, but it’s this one that will always be remembered.
This one is cheating a little bit since this song wasn’t written specifically for the film. Rather it’s an excerpt from Act II from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Since the technology for adding film scores was severely limited in 1930, no score was ever written for the film. Rather, this song was used for the opening credits along with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the end. Normally, such a beautiful and elegant piece of music wouldn’t work for most horror movies, but this one has such an unspoken beauty to it. The tune is pretty, but it’s also fierce and dramatic much like the iconic vampire himself.
The Conjuring (2013)
Similar to the Amityville theme, this one starts out sounding nothing like a horror movie. It’s calming, pretty, and sweet with a light piano playing softly. Though it’s mellow there’s still something ghostly about it, like it’s the soundtrack for tragic events. It goes on like this for a minute until the music builds up with an eerie choir singing. The music and mood suddenly turn dark as everything gets louder and intense. It then returns to its soft sound as if the loud, jarring noises never occurred. Near the end, the music swells sounding more cheerful and hopeful than before. Listening to it, it reflects the changing moods of the film. The family moves into a new house excited to start a new life. They then experience turmoil and fear when supernatural events begin to occur. But things are hopeful once again when the band things have passed.
Deep Red (1975)
Some horror films are satisfied with using the standard tropes when it comes to the soundtrack. Others want to do something entirely different making you rethink what horror music can be. This is what Goblin’s theme for Deep Red does. It begins with an uneasy twinkling piano dancing around. Though it doesn’t give you goosebumps, something about it is unsettling. You hear it and know something is wrong. At the same time, it sounds like the start to 70s prog rock song, which isn’t a bad thing. As the music fleshes out, it turns into a production of synth, percussion, and more of the opening riff. Rather than sounding scary, it sounds mysterious. The horror tropes come in at the end when the organ swells creating a Gothic atmosphere. It’s a one of a kind theme and shows why Dario Argento signed on Goblin to score more of his movies.
The Fog (1980)
The master of horror John Carpenter is also the master of creating music that gives you nightmares. The theme for this 1980 movie The Fog shocks you right out the gate with violent thunder crashing. It’s a little cheesy considering it’s a horror cliche, but it’s the music that follows that makes it unforgettable. The entire theme is the same fragile piano riff treading throughout the song. As it goes on, the tone changes getting deeper and more dreadful than before. Each time the music repeats, it sounds more horrifying than the last. It signifies something horrible waiting for you in the darkness. It perfectly captures the ominous vibe and terror of the film.
Whenever the topic of Psycho comes up the first thing that comes up is the music from the iconic shower scene. The screeching violins and foreboding bass denote a sense of dread when you hear it. This brief song is the universal sign for saying someone is crazy. It hits all the right spots when it comes to horror music. It’s scary and uncomfortable. This theme often overshadows the beauty and eeriness of the main theme by Bernard Herman. The booming music, frantic strings, and rapid pace brings on a sense of panic. It sounds like you should be running for your life when you hear it. Then the middle comes with a brief, lilting melody. It still retains it’s terror thanks to the constant stirring violins buzzing underneath.
Children of the Corn (1984)
Johnathan Elias’ Gothic, baroque opening for this theme makes it better suited for a black and white horror movie than an 80s Stephen King film. Right from the beginning, there’s an uneasiness to the tune letting you know you walked into the start of something horrible. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the children’s choir comes. As any horror fan knows, there’s something unnerving, disturbing, and creepy about children singing. Here is no different. Maybe without the Victorian music, it wouldn’t sound as scary, but the music mixed with the harmonizing kids makes it chilling. And if you know the story of Children of the Corn, you know this theme is eerily fitting.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
With how ridiculous the later movies in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise are it’s easy to forget how terrifying the first film is. Some parts are kind of hokey, but a burnt child molester that attacks you in your dreams with his steel claws? That’s fucking horrible! There’s a reason why the first film is still regarded as one of the best in the genre. And a great horror film needs a great theme. Composed by Charles Bernstein, the theme starts with a quiet eeriness. It slowly builds up tension, leaving listeners in the worst kind of suspense. That moment of fear hits with a light piano melody that sends chills up your spine. Throw in some odd noises that sound like evil laughter and a creepy kid’s choir and you’ve got a horror classic.
The mother of all horror movie themes. John Carpenter’s theme for Halloween is unmistakable. The iconic piano melody has struck terror in the hearts of millions for almost 40 years. It manages to be one of the most frightening themes in horror despite its simplicity. The song consists of the same piano melody repeated for over two minutes, but it’s the dark vibes and moody sounds that makes this theme genius. There are times when the scariest thing about Halloween is hearing this theme, signaling Michael Myers. Stark and subtle, it is the ultimate horror theme.
Which horror movie theme is your favorite? Which one did I miss? Let me know in the comments!