In no other film genre is the musical score as important as it is in a horror or suspense drama. The score sets the mood (usually dark, creepy or mysterious), leads the audience down blind alleys, and then springs the jump scare on the hapless viewers when they least expect it. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, anyway.
Some horror scores are so famous they’ve become “musical memes.” In other words, these are themes or parts of themes that a lot of people know—even if they’ve never seen the movie or television show that the theme supports.
A good example of a musical meme is the introductory score for the original Twilight Zone television series, which is credited to French avant garde composer Marius Constant. It’s a theme that countless people repeat whenever they encounter something unexplainable, eerie or scary. When a television musical composition becomes that famous, you know it truly is something special.
Here’s my Top 10 horror movie scores; among them are a few that are so well-known, they could also be considered musical memes.
10- It Follows (2014), score by Disasterpeace. This score, by young composer Richard Vreeland (who works under the name Disasterpeace), is only four years old, but judging from fan reactions, it’s already an instant classic. This is pretty remarkable, considering it’s Vreeland’s first-ever film score. A throwback to the Carpenteresque horror scores of the 80s, it’s heavy on ominous synth sounds and creepy droning motifs. It’s so good at setting the mood, it’s almost better than the original vintage sources of thirty-plus years ago. Let’s face it, this guy’s probably got producers calling him night and day, and he may very well end up as the Bernard Herrmann (see below) of the 21st Century.
09- Candyman (1992), score by Philip Glass. Glass, an avant garde classical composer, is often credited with inventing what critics call “minimal music,” or what Glass himself calls “music with a repetitive structure.” He has scored many films, but Candyman is one of the best-known. The opening sequence, consisting of choral chanting and tinkling bells, seems like a clever wink and a nod to other famous horror scores (three guesses as to which ones). Something tells me I will never hum any part of this theme while looking at myself in the mirror. No stranger to horror, Glass also composed principal music for the 1999 remastered release of the revered classic, Dracula (1931), with Bela Lugosi.
08- The Thing (1982)
score by Ennio Morricone. Morricone is most famous for scoring the classic Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns of the 60s, such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). However, he’s an extremely versatile composer who’s also scored everything from biblical epics to frothy rom-coms. One of his best scores was for John Carpenter’s second-most acclaimed film, The Thing. It’s a piercing, heart-thudding, and chilly musical representation of the frozen setting for the story: an isolated outpost in the Arctic. While Morricone wrote the score, Carpenter made sure to add in some of his trademark synth sounds.
07 -Deliverance (1972)
Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. There was originally no composer credit listed for the score, but after a lawsuit, Smith was given credit for Dueling Banjos, one of the best-known film themes in cinematic history. The instrumental composition was well-known since the 1950s in bluegrass music circles, but did not reach a wider audience until it was used for Deliverance. Director John Boorman originally wanted to commission a full score, but didn’t have the budget, so he instead hired two musicians, Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel, to arrange numerous variations of Dueling Banjos to use throughout the film. Necessity is the mother of invention and it’s tough to imagine how a conventional score would have been more fitting for this legendary film. Like the Twilight Zone theme, Dueling Banjos has become a musical meme, usually invoked when passing through the backwoods or encountering pale, scary folks in plaid shirts and overalls.
06- Halloween (1978)
score by John Carpenter. Carpenter co-wrote, directed and co-produced Halloween, which is very likely the greatest slasher film ever made. The quadruple threat, all-American horrormeister also composed the famous score. (Let’s face it, he probably also emptied the trashcans and catered the lunch breaks.) But, getting back to the score, its droning, relentless synth music is a perfect complement to the terror unleashed by the unstoppable Michael Myers. If you’re ever walking down the street while humming this score, keep an eye out for a creepy guy popping out from behind a bush. Carpenter also composed the score for another of his great classics, The Fog (1980).
05- Jaws (1975)
score by John Williams. The many-Oscared film composer got his second one for this score, which is so famous that, like Dueling Banjos, it has become a musical meme. Even those who’ve never seen the film can hum the famous “stalking” theme that signifies the approach of the killer shark. Jaws began the long-standing collaboration between Williams and Steven Spielberg that is still in force today. It’s probably not a good idea to hum the theme while swimming at a crowded beach, though.
04- Suspiria (1977), score by Goblin. This score, a collective effort by the Italian progressive rock group Goblin, is so demonic and creepy, it’s almost scarier than this legendary film by the great Italian horrormeister, Dario Argento. It features unforgettable, hellish hissing over electronic wailing that sounds like the musical cries of the damned. Goblin later went on to score many other films by Argento, but this is the group’s best effort by far. Do I really have to tell you to not listen to it in the dark?
03- The Exorcist (1973), Jack Nitzsche; Mike Oldfields. Director William Friedkin initially commissioned a fully orchestrated, original score for The Exorcist from film composer Lalo Shifrin, who turned in a score so dark and disturbing that studio executives rejected it. Shifrin refused to alter his score (part of which is posted on YouTube), so Friedkin hired Nitzsche to create the incidental music and chose an already existing composition, called Tubular Bells, as the movie’s recurring theme. Although the unused Shifrin score is masterful, The Exorcist is so identified with Tubular Bells (composed by Oldfields) it’s difficult to imagine any other composition having the same impact on viewers.
02-The Omen (1976), score by Jerry Goldsmith. Prolific film composer Jerry Goldsmith won an Oscar for this score, which is so much a part of this film that it’s almost like another major cast member. The creepy and demonic choral chanting of the main theme, Ave Satani (Hail Satan), reportedly gave leading man Gregory Peck nightmares. Directed by Richard Donner, The Omen is a brilliant example of how important a score can be to a movie; it simply would not have been the same film without Goldsmith’s music. Goldsmith also turned in another legendary horror score for Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982).
01- Psycho (1960)
score by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann scored most of Alfred Hitchcock’s later films, including The Birds (1962) and Vertigo (1958). However, his score for Psycho is his magnum opus, remembered especially for the infamous “shower scene,” where screeching string instruments are timed perfectly with the stabbing motions of killer Norman Bates. If you don’t know the theme for the shower scene in Psycho, frankly you have no business calling yourself a horror fan!. Like Tubular Bells, Dueling Banjos and the shark attack theme from Jaws, it’s so famous that it’s become a musical meme: when people hear it, they know some really bad shit is going down, even if they’ve never seen the movie.
Scream (1996), score by Robert Beltrami https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d2k2flgIIk&list=PL5TLa2YhAb9CA5UK3kxhVLOtDjI4b8v7G
The Fog (1980), score by John Carpenter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKGzUxH9GyQ
The Birds (1962), score by Bernard Herrmann https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DVbDJXly9w&t=69s
The Innocents (1961), score by Georges Auric https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NSUbQzwXE8
Cape Fear (1962), score by Bernard Herrmann https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRYg9q4_WhM&list=PLDC9D87881D85708D
Poltergeist (1982), score by Jerry Goldsmith https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgD11vAytks
The Ring (2002), score by Hans Zimmer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-ByztTkCfE&t=1000s