Top image: Still, ‘Psycho’ (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock.
With just one ominous note, the very best horror soundtracks can cause hot sweats. In fact, many of cinema’s creepiest scores have transcended their accompanying visuals and become a source of fright in their own right, gnawing at the nerve endings.
This week sees the return of shit scary clown Pennywise (played by HERO 11 cover star Bill Skarsgård) via Andrés Muschietti’s big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel. Having broken a record for the most views in its first 24 hours – a whopping 197 million views – it’s clear that our appetite for a frightener is more ravenous than ever.
In anticipation for the release, we’ve rounded up our favourite creepy AF soundtracks. From original scores to ingenious repurposing of existing tracks, from brooding synths to cutting gothic noir, John Carpenter to Trent Reznor. Scroll down and fill your boots. Or underwear.
Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter
Let’s start with a clear-cut classic, John Carpenter’s 1978 freight-fest, Halloween, the story of escapee murderer Michael Myers.
Directed and co-written by the legendary Carpenter, it’s his minimal spine-chilling piano score that really makes the film. The story goes that in the early summer of 1978, months ahead of the film’s October release, Carpenter received a final cut of the film sans any music or sound effects, which he screened for a young executive at 20th Century Fox. “She wasn’t scared at all,” Carpenter wrote in the soundtrack’s liner notes, adding: “I then became determined to ‘save it with the music.’”
Taking inspiration from Goblin’s Suspiria and Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Psycho score (we’ll get onto both of these later), Carpenter brought his own unique style to the genre. With its use of musical “stingers” (sudden, loud chords) to emphasise moments of terror or violence and that instantly memorable main theme, played in 5/4 time, a rhythm he learned as a teenager from his music-professor dad on bongos, Carpenter created an instant classic that continues to send shivers down spines 30 years on.
And good news, folks: Carpenter has hinted that he may create more original music for the upcoming reboot of the Halloween franchise. Fingers crossed.
Described by John Carpenter as “being inside of painting”, Dario Argento’s stylised horror masterpiece Suspiria (1978) immediately carved its status as a cult classic.
Etched in a colour-saturated palette, the Italian filmmaker’s surrealist supernatural flick is an incredible feat of cinema, however it’s hard to imagine the film’s visuals without their swarthy music, created by Italian prog rockers Goblin. Centered on drums and synth, the score also included witch screams, Mellotrons, Minimoog, thick bass riffs, electric and acoustic piano as well as organs and a string machine.
One of David Lynch’s many incredible talents is the way he creates movie scores that not only accompany but heighten his unique visual narratives. But it’s perhaps the score for the auteur’s 1997 mystery-horror film Lost Highway that sticks out as the most eerie (perhaps it’s also because we can’t help but picture the haunting Mystery Man character).
Released via Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records label, the soundtrack features music from frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti as well as Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Smashing Pumpkins, Rammstein, and Marilyn Manson (who also makes a brief cameo). Using these industrial cuts to build atmosphere, Lynch sliced repeated musical cues and snippets of dialogue to provide clues to decoding the film’s fractured timeline – answers on a postcard.
Honourable mention to the buzzy discomfort of Eraserhead’s industrial anxiety.
It is impossible to discuss spine-chilling scores without mentioning Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining whose sound track is so iconic it was labelled ‘Hauntological’. This is no surprise as Kubrick did have a reputation of being far more involved in music scores than the average director. In both The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey, very little of the commissioned composers Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score ended up in the final Edit. Instead Kubrick turned to Eastern European modern classical music subverting any expectations of what space (or terrifying corridor chasing) music should sound like.
The sound track was so successful that its influence can still be heard in many horror films made today.
Sometimes less really is more, take William Friedkin’s 1973 minimal score for The Exorcist as a prime example. Anchored by Mike Oldfield’s now-infamous Tubular Bells – which went on to become a smash so huge that it essentially bank-rolled Virgin Records – the track optimised that brooding tension that fed throughout the entire film.
The blueprint for an infinite amount of imitations, none of which come remotely close, Friedkin’s classic remains unmatched, both in terms of the sinister urban legends shrouding its production and the terrifying account of demonic possession contained within.
When the late William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist was first released, it freaked some people out so bad that they thought that the book itself was cursed, others kept it in a separate part of the house out of fear. So when the tale hit the big screen, it was a major cultural event, especially when reports began to feed through that audiences were fainting, crying and even being sick in the cinemas – rather ironic considering the film’s projectile-vomiting lead character.
Repeatedly voted the scariest movie theme tune, Bernard Hermann’s screeching violin in Alfred Hitchcock’s bloody Psycho shower scene has become part of the American vernacular. Instantly recognisable, instantly hair-raising.
Played as Norman Bates stabs Marion (played by Janet Leigh) to death, leaving her blood to pour down the plughole, the music ups the ante 100 percent, adding a further layer of suspense and tension. Hitchcock actually originally stated that he wanted no music at all though the motel sequence with Marion and Norman, however Hermann’s genius cello and violin masterwork changed all that.
The Lost Boys
Alright, this one isn’t so much scary as just a killer compilation of 80s tracks. Perfectly tuned in with the film’s vampish aesthetics, the soundtrack straddled the line between 80s synth shoegaze and hairspray draining hair metal – reflective of the 1987 music charts – part Billy Idol snarl, part Nikki Sixx pout.
The film’s composer Jerry Goldsmith’s music for The Omen was so successful that it is credited for taking the film from good movie status to an absolute classic. Composed by Jerry Goldsmith (who also created scores for the likes of Planet of the Apes, Chinatown and Alien), the film’s theme tune Ave Satani features a strong chant like choral segment, which includes (in Latin of course ) the lines; “We drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan,” intermingled with cries of Hail, Satan!” and “Hail, Antichrist!”
Now there’s a mantra you can take with you to your next bikram yoga class.