A film’s score is arguably one of the most instrumental elements (ha, get it?) in crafting any good movie, but horror films especially benefit from an effective, dark, ominous score. With the way music gets stuck in our heads, the themes from scary movies can haunt viewers for decades after seeing the film, lurking in dark corners of the mind. The films on this list were chosen because of how they impact the subconscious as well as how unique and/or groundbreaking they are in the horror film canon. Each one of these scores packs a visceral punch that leaves listeners on the edge of their seat. This ranking system can be measured by how much you don’t want to hear that iconic music playing if you were walking alone at night.
Before you begin, keep in mind the caveat that while this list may lean towards classic 80’s horror, I would argue that that was the golden age that lead to the modern horror film score. Many of the most successful elements that elevate modern horror scores stem from the backbones that were set during that groundbreaking & monumental period in horror movie history. While obviously unable to include every great 80’s horror staple (sorry, Nightmare on Elm Street) I tried to choose the most indelible music contributions that truly terrify.
10. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
One of my all-time favorite movies about Halloween is Trick ‘r Treat, Mike Dougherty’s cult classic anthology. While it isn’t well-known for its music I think the score is criminally underrated. In the Main Titles theme a rousing orchestra gives way to angelic children’s voices – echoing the kids that meet a gruesome demise in the famous school bus scene. This score makes me feel like I’m walking up to a Halloween Horror Nights maze – it invites the viewer into the film’s world, excited yet heart-pounding, ready to have some spooky fun. This score would fit perfectly in any Halloween party playlist and uses music to tease the dark undercurrent of the stories in the film.
9. Psycho (1960)
Psycho is another entry that is so famous, you can probably hear it now as you’re reading this. Bernard Herrmann’s crescendo of strings while Marion Crane showers nearly jarred me out of my seat on my first viewing. The punctuation of each note with the stabs in the infamous shower scene was pure brilliance and allowed the audience to feel as if they were feeling each stab through their ears. The score was a stark break from films typical of that era and catapulted film, as an art form, into a new generation, inspiring horror filmmakers and underscoring the critical nature of collaboration on a film.
Hitchcock himself was quoted as saying that thirty-three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music (a rave review from a man not known for his humility). Bernard Hermann’s score of this film remains one of the most famous of all time, if not necessarily the scariest, with it being referenced and parodied across a wide variety of other films.
8. It Follows (2014)
It Follows features a tense, chilling soundtrack by first-time film composer Disasterpeace, an electronic artist (a.k.a Rich Vreeland) more commonly known for his video game work. Influenced by John Carpenter, the Title theme effectively builds dread and suspense while feeling like a ticking clock dragging the demon closer and closer as It walks. Sharp tones exaggerate the booming synth base, the score borrows from hits like Halloweento create a mesmerizing and wholly unique soundscape that highlights the unrelenting evil at the films core.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, composer Vreeland explains the allure of the synth best: “I think because synths can create sounds that are not always analogous to real life sounds, they do a good job of being strange and harder to pinpoint… I think that tendency can ignite the imagination. It’s perfect fodder for writing scary music.”
7. The Shining (1980)
While it’s not an original score, few scores are as immediately impactful as The Shining’s. This score is actually based on Hector Berlioz’s “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” from his Symphonie Fantastique, which certainly doesn’t sound pleasant. From those first ominous tones playing as we fly over the Colorado countryside, a pit forms in my stomach. You can argue it’s because I’ve seen it and know what’s coming, but even on first watch, the score filled me with dread. It’s slow pace reminds me of a glacier methodically and relentlessly inching forward, knowing that its icy grip is inevitable. While it’s not the scariest one on the list, that sense of foreboding that it builds cannot be easily shaken.
6. The Exorcist (1973)
While Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is the song most recognized as the main theme for The Exorcist, much of the actual score was written by Krzysztof Penderecki, who also contributed a lot to The Shining’s score. Yet it’s Oldfield’s song that we remember and associate with what many claim to be the scariest horror film of all time. What I think makes it so effective is the repetitiousness of the piano, similar to Halloween. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if John Carpenter was partially inspired by this score.
Those high piano notes pierce through our minds and hit our fight or flight mechanism, delicately tapping on it with each note, keeping the audience suspended between the two. Yet, the true beauty of this is that it remains hopeful. The music never seems crushingly dark and, in fact, inspires the thought that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
5. The Conjuring (2013)
Joseph Bishara’s haunting compositions for The Conjuring elevate the terrifying material in the film to another level. The main title starts with a quiet, monotone hum that builds to an eerie crescendo like the sinister forces at work in the film are getting nearer and nearer. It sets a perfect entry into the world of demonic possession by echoing a church-like chorus in the background of the pounding, intense horns.
In addition, the way The Conjuring uses music as a diegetic element is noteworthy in itself. The music box is one of the most effective repeat scares in the franchise; the minor key notes tumbling out of place upon turning the handle, accentuating the spinning mirror filling the viewer with dread. The tune sounds both innocent and horrifyingly out of place, emphasizing the haunting that the Perron family is experiencing in what should be a quiet, idyllic Rhode Island farmhouse. The Conjuring’s score plays a huge role in building a creepy, unsettling tone in one of the scariest and most successful modern horror films.
4. Jaws (1975)
Any list of scary scores would be remiss if it did not include Jaws. John Williams is a master and his striking two-note theme which signals a lurking great white killer is one of the smartest uses of music in a film of all time, in my opinion. The theme is then interwoven with many of the other score moments in the film, creating a taunting, inescapable dread as soon as those notes pop up. The theme draws the music down, much like the infamous shark drags its prey into the ocean depths. It also sounds vaguely muffled, almost as if you are hearing the beat from a distance while underwater.
John Williams’ music does much of the heavy lifting in creating a terrifying villain when the actual mechanical shark onset rarely worked – part of the success of the film can definitely be attributed to that ingenuity by Spielberg and Williams. It’s worth noting that Williams also created an Orca theme that rivals the shark theme, filled with adventure and hope, and the Orca theme plays almost equally with the shark theme in the second half of the film to emphasize the determination of Brody, Quint, and Hooper.
The theme of Friday the 13th remains one of the most terrifying scores in my opinion. Harry Manfredini’s score separates itself from other slasher films of the ‘80s by being totally distinct and unique. It abandons the synth tones beloved in that time period, preferring strings and brass. Then, the famous sounds creep into the mix. This score couldn’t be more perfect for a film set at a camp in the woods. Those creeping sounds remind me of birds in the distance, a twig snapping somewhere nearby, and someone breathing on the back of your neck. I first heard this score play at a Halloween store when I was very young and, without even having seen the film, I was terrified by it. To this day, the music raises the hairs on the back of my neck and puts me on edge.
2. The Omen (1976)
This one is another absolutely iconic score, headlined by composer Jerry Goldsmith’s “Ave Satani”. Goldsmith actually ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score in 1977, with “Ave Satani” being nominated for Best Original Song. A mixture of choirs singing in Latin, strings, and low, plodding brass notes comprise the black heart of this score. Nowadays, what screams Satan more than a choir singing Latin over ominous music? You can recognize the influence of this score by how many shows and films have ripped off “Ave Satani,” notably South Park with their take on both Damien and Satan. By taking some key Latin phrases, and putting them over those strings and brass, Goldsmith created a score that emphasizes that evil is inevitable and it’s finally here walking among us.
1. Halloween (1978)
You can argue whether the film itself is scary after more than 40 years (I argue that it remains terrifying), but I dare you to walk down a dimly lit suburban street at night with the theme music playing and not feel a chill run down your spine. When I think of horror scores, this is one of the first films that pops into my mind. John Carpenter’s music for this film, which he wrote and performed himself, set the tone for the slasher films of the ‘80s.
Not only is it immediately recognizable, it’s well-composed, being set in a rare 5/4 time signature. This is one of those few scores that I get fearfully excited hearing. The synth hits my gut while the high piano notes pluck at my nerves, putting both my conscious and subconscious on high alert. No matter what, when this score comes on, I am on the edge of my seat (and maybe doing a little dance there).
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