Ask most horror fans, and they will tell you there are two essential things that make a horror movie scary. The first is the atmosphere. The second is a chilling horror score. A horror movie theme can act as a character itself when done right. From lulling them into a false sense of security to flat-out terrifying them, good horror movie music is vital. There are tons of choices, but here, in no particular order, are ten of the best horror scores.
Halloween is perhaps the most obvious and best example of a great horror score. A music composer works closely with a director to perfectly accompany a film. In the case of Halloween, this was the same person. John Carpenter’s score to Halloween is the stuff of horror legend. The main theme was become a staple of the Halloween season and is instantly recognizable to anyone, horror fan or not. The music in this movie seems like it is empowering Michael Myers and shoves audiences to the edge of their seats. Halloween is one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, so it is fitting the score is equally as iconic.
9. The Exorcist
The Exorcist has frequently earned the title of the scariest horror movie. While this is thanks to many reasons, a major part is the spine-chilling music. It should be noted that while this piece is synonymous with the legendary film, it wasn’t written specifically for it. The movie’s famous score was released before the film was made. Lalo Schifrin, known for creating the Mission: Impossible theme, actually composed several pieces of music, including one for the infamously banned trailer. According to the story, director William Freidkin threw the demo reel out of his office window in rejection. Some of this rejected music has made its way online, and many find it fitting to the film’s tone. While Tubular Bells has become synonymous with the movie, this rejected horror movie music shouldn’t be forgotten.
8. Halloween III: Season Of The Witch
While initially panned due to the lack of connection to the first two movies, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has received a cult following in recent years. John Carpenter wanted to lean away from the Michael Myers mythos. Halloween III was an attempt to create an original story under the Halloween name. One reason the film has grown in popularity over the years is because of John Carpenter’s synth score. Much of Carpenter’s music involved a synthesizer, and many agree this is the best example. This horror score is pure ’80s in the best way possible. It is scary in a way that differs from Carpenter’s earlier Halloween score.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street
There are many reasons Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street series have gone down as horror royalty. One overlooked reason is the score by Charles Bernstein. everybody knows the unnerving rhyme, but the music itself is just as chilling. Horror movie music should transport the listener to a scary world just by listening to it, which is exactly where this score shines. Regardless of which track, the music in this film is guaranteed to enchant the listener into believing their greatest nightmares are coming true. Seeing Freddy lurk in a dingy boiler room is one thing, but having him accompanied by Charles Bernstein’s music is truly the stuff of nightmares.
It is hard not to think of Saw without imagining the incredible twist ending. Harder still is imaging that ending without the track Hello Zepp playing. Variations of this song appear in some form in each Saw film, typically during the ending zinger. This song has become the unofficial theme for figuring something out. Every secret the film’s plot had hidden was revealed as this incredible piece played. Every horror fan imagines this song when they begin to piece together anything. Applying a song into everyday life is a power few horror scores have, but Hello Zepp is the best example.
As bizarre as it sounds, it is hard to categorize Jaws as horror movie music. This legendary score has transcended simple movie music and has taken on a life of its own. For a good chunk of Jaws, the shark isn’t on screen. Instead, his presence is felt through the droning score that is sure to put anyone on edge. Take anyone to go see a shark. They are almost guaranteed to begin humming the score. This song is well known by anyone with even the most basic understanding of pop culture, and it will not fade in public memory anytime soon.
Everybody knows the music from Psycho’s shower scene. However, what some may not know is that the other pieces of music in the movie are just as good. Bernard Herrmann is heavily responsible for Psycho’s success. Herrmann’s work elevated the film in ways even Hitchcock couldn’t have foreseen. Listening to the film’s suite is a thrill ride. It starts off jarring, slows down a bit, and then hits on a colossal note with the famous shower theme. Herrmann actually dragged a knife along piano strings for the effect. His dedication to the craft shines through the film and is just many ways the movie outperforms the original book.
3. The Shining
Another example of a famous movie with an underrated horror score is Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. The entire film is almost otherworldly in execution, and the opening titles are no exception. The simple sequence shows a car driving through mountains. While this seems boring, the ominous and foreboding music is what carries this opening. Even those who are unfamiliar with Stephen King’s story know something sinister is on the horizon thanks to this music.
2. The Omen
Depending on the fan, The Omen is even scarier than The Exorcist. Even if someone disagrees with this statement, the main theme certainly works in the movie’s favor. The entire film is wrapped in religious imagery, both positive and negative. The score is dark and unnatural, sounding like a warped version of a song one would hear in church. The choir seems almost menacing, and one expects to see them appear on screen whenever the theme kicks in. A terrifying theme for an exceptionally scary film.
If there is one thing Hellraiser isn’t, it is subtle. The score exemplifies this, as it is in your face and loud in the best ways possible. The music is scary but almost fantastical at times. It gives the sense that something tempting and deadly is being shown. This is a perfect metaphor for the Lament Configuration. A fantastic puzzle box that suckers victims into solving it, only to unleash unspeakable horrors. The franchise is due for a reboot soon; one can only hope an equally effective score will accompany it.