Ah, Halloween. The day we’ve all been waiting for. While there are countless party playlists and creepy themed mixes out there, there are likely few that don’t include a track or two off of John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic, Halloween. There is no shortage of amazing horror soundtracks out there, but few have worked their way into the main stream pop culture identity the way that Halloween has. And as it is Halloween proper, it seems the perfect time to take a moment to talk about the music behind this holiday essential.
The third feature film from director and writer John Carpenter, Halloween was completed in the summer of 1978, but was missing a score. Carpenter had previously composed scores for his films Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) so it makes sense that he would also tackle the music for his latest project. On top of being capable of such a feat, in his own words, he was also “the fastest and cheapest I could get“.
Inspired by composers such as Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) and soundtrack giant Ennio Morricone (Exorcist II: The Heretic), Carpenter understood and embraced the idea that sometimes less is more. While Herrmann often worked with a stripped down orchestra, Carpenter took this idea a step further with the modern technology of the time. Pulling in his friend and synth savvy former collaborator Dan Wyman, the work on the Halloween score began.
The heart of the Halloween score is the Halloween Theme. That all encompassing, insanely catchy, pulsating theme. While the seemingly simple piano melody chugs along in 5/4 time, an eerie, foreboding synth tone builds the tension beneath. On top of that is added another layer of synthetic string sounds adding to the continually building atmosphere. This slow build beneath the consistency of the piano is one that is not just haunting, but in all actuality, frightening. But what is it building to? What happens when that piano rhythm stops? Where is it leading us? All these questions reside in that deceptively simple theme.
The second most recognizable track from the film is Laurie’s Theme. Again utilizing a repetitive rhythmic piano base, Laurie’s Theme is combined with a synth counter melody that is slower, sweeter, but still holds a feeling of foreboding to it. It’s as if there’s no immediate danger, but there are definitely hints that something is coming. The perfect example of less is more, Laurie’s Theme embodies this idea to perfection. Combined with the use of the horror classic “stingers” to emphasize jump scares and important moments, the rest of the music throughout the film is really based on these two themes.
It’s not really possible to overstate how important and influential this piece of film music is to the world of film. At a time when traditional orchestration had dominated the film landscape, Carpenter and Wyman really brought the idea of minimalism into the mainstream. It’s influence is clearly evident in films today and it’s simply a must have for any fan of film music.