Music Education

The History of Horror Music

When I was younger, I would cower at the thought of silly campfire stories, checking under the bed and in closet corners before I went to sleep. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve sought out more and more scares. 

Some of my favorite experiences with film have been in theaters — jumping so hard that I spill my popcorn — or with a friend, peeking out nervously through our fingertips. Further, some of my favorite music is from horror soundtracks.

Through the use of music, or the lack thereof, a director can build tension, anticipation and cue the audience as to what might be around the corner. They can also heighten the horror of the mundane, making empty hallways or creaking floorboards suddenly terrifying. 

One of my most cherished horror soundtracks comes from the 2016 movie “Raw.” Its protagonist, Justine, is a vegetarian whose first year at veterinary school is interrupted by a new and insatiable craving for human flesh. The film utilizes the bloody terror of cannibalism as a metaphor for coming of age as a young woman.

In the background of each highly troubling scene is Jim William’s beautiful and sweet synth score. The music swells and sweeps, grand and dramatic and yet highly empathetic, filled with droning, repetitive sounds both low and high.

Williams spoke in an interview about how he tried to write a score that followed Justine’s journey as a character, starting out with “naive children’s music” and ending somewhere with “visceral rock.”

It’s clear in listening to the album how much depth is there in each song, with tracks like “Lust,” propelling themselves forwards with the energy of a ballerina’s crazed dance. Then, on “Finger Scene,” the piano is light and lighting before growing heavier and more urgent, conveying an escalation in mood. 

Williams also mentioned how some of his inspirations included Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrman, two extremely accomplished film composers. While Morricone created orchestral symphonies for films like “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” and “A Fistful of Dollars,” Herrman worked on projects like “Vertigo” and “Taxi Driver.”

William’s idols are particularly relevant to the history of horror, as before the advent of the synthesizer, most music made for films had to be orchestral and in the vein of Morricone. His work just happens to be a genius combination of the two.

In fact, it was Herrman who composed one of the most famous early horror soundtracks for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

The movie, which came out in 1960, was revolutionary because of its use of music. At first the score starts out as very subtle, suggestive of a possible catastrophe, before peaking at the infamous shower scene with shocking harsh string tones that come across as fingernails scratching down a chalkboard. 

Herrman’s score in this scene serves as the catalyst of the jumpscare, electrifying viewers through its violent orchestration.

One of the next revolutionary film scores in horror came from John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” The iconic, yet simple, repetitive track only took three days to compose and record. Its heavy use of the synthesizer marked a huge departure in the music of horror, more like the screeching and uncomfortable “Psycho,” soundtrack and less like classical Hollywood instrumentation.

The “Halloween” score is heavily credited in transforming an otherwise anticlimactic slasher with high amounts of tension. Empty suburban streets were suddenly full of murderous potential, back to the idea of turning the mundane into the horrible. 

In an interview, Professor Neil Lerner of Davidson College discussed how “Halloween” did not come out of a void. He directly cites “Psycho” as an influence, noting the shower scene that utilizes only two pitches in comparison to the repetitive sounds of “Halloween.”

Further, this innovation was partly motivated by budget. Lerner discusses how the “Psycho” budget was so low that Hermann did not have the money to pay for a full orchestra, only the strings. Similarly, Carpenter only had a 300,000 dollar budget for “Halloween,” motivating the director himself to sit down and compose the piece.

The theme of limited budgets continued throughout the 1970’s and 80s with the next great horror movie, “Jaws,” also focusing around two uncomfortable and repeating tones. Composer John Williams recalls how Steven Speilburg thought he was pranking him when he proposed just E, F, E, F, E, F, D, F for the theme of the shark.

So, what makes these soundtracks so scary? How do they work? And why do they continue to persist throughout pop culture? As someone who loves music but struggles to understand a songs’ complicated inner-workings, these questions fascinate me. 

Firstly, it seems there is the principle of dissonance, or an overall lack of harmony in music. There are typically major and minor chords which comprise any given track, with the former being associated with positive emotions and the latter conveying sadness or darkness. 

This is where dissonance comes into play. In each of these tracks above, there are two or more minor notes combined together at once, which simultaneously sounds unpleasant and works to elevate feelings of fear and natural discomfort. This is highly present in the “Halloween” theme.

Building on this, the combination of sounds in any given musical landscape helps in creating an overall mood or feeling. It’s like a garden of several plants and flowers, growing together, intertwining and sustaining from the same soil. 

In the “Halloween” theme, dark, shattering notes thrum together at lower pitch. In the “Psycho” theme, high-pitched strings are paired not only to build that dissonance, but every note is accented at a higher pitch, making it almost feel like it’s imitating the stabbing knife. 

Going back to the work of Jim Williams, what stands out about his soundtracks is that he seems to combine all aspects of dissonance and an uncomfortable musical landscape with a complex instrumentation that builds a sense of security before delving into the uncanny. His fusion of Morricone-style orchestral scores with the preceding horror legacy of droning notes and underlying fear makes for a highly effective and intense listening and viewing experience.

Another fantastic modern horror score is that of Disasterpeace, aka Rich Vreeland, a well-known video game composer who worked on the movie “It Follows.” 

The track “Title” is tense and somehow lush. It feels like you’re walking home late and night, looking over your shoulder, feeling a cold breath on your neck and back as the music intensifies. 

When the stronger instrumentation kicks in around the one minute mark, it so perfectly captures that horrific, striking moment of fear in your heart during a jumpscare. Maybe there was someone there following you all along. 

In a Pitchfork review of the score, author Jeremy Gordon writes that Disasterpeace’s “’Title’ sounds like an update of Carpenter’s Halloween theme, as a lonely piano line is slowly enveloped by gothic dread.” 

And clearly, the inspiration is there. There are the same dual, pulsing notes. 

In this way, horror music seems to build on top of each other, like stray seeds that have blown in and settled in the already-grown garden, populating the old landscape with new vines and fruits and flora.

The landscape of horror soundtracks now is ripe with influence and integration of old and new, growing scares with two-tone dissonance and homages to the past. I look forward to all the scares to come.

By Wordgirl

Between her time making playlists for future DJ sets, Wordgirl loves to watch movies and read books. You can find her hanging out with her cat, Mouse, and playing music too loud in her headphones.