A great score for a horror film can be as terrifying as the pictures – but what is it about the best ones that makes us feel so frightened? Arwa Haider looks for answers.
Horror movies and music have forged an unholy alliance over many decades – even before cinema’s demons and scream queens actually had their own voices. The modern horror soundtrack can be traced back to the silent film era. In 1922, FW Murnau’s vampire movie Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror premiered with a darkly romantic live orchestral score by Hans Erdmann. Although no original recordings of Erdmann’s music survive, Nosferatu’s musical spirit lingers on in modern revivals. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, the Universal Monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy et al – were summoning personalised soundtracks as the age of ‘the talkies’ dawned.
The sound of fear can’t be constrained by a single genre or instrument, but at its best, this music is as gripping as the scariest visual, and it is timelessly evocative. Take Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock soundtracks, especially his sleek, highly-strung score for Psycho (1960); its ‘stingers’ (those slashing violins, designed to shred your nerves each time you hear them) defined a device that has been echoed in countless other films.
The 1970s and ‘80s, and the rise of the synthesiser, brought fresh blood to the scene; this phase has also fuelled a recent resurgent passion for horror music. Modern hits such as the Netflix series Stranger Thingspay homage to the era right through to their pulsing electronic sounds. The alluringly eerie original score for the show, created by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon (of Austin outfit SURVIVE), also evokes pioneers like director/composer John Carpenter (who soundtracked many of his own films including 1978’s Halloween, and 1987’s Prince of Darkness, as well as enlisting composer Ennio Morricone for 1982’s The Thing). Nowadays, vinyl reissues of classic horror soundtracks sell out on labels such as Death Waltz Recording Co, and the original artists are packing out international tours; both Carpenter and Italian horror music maestro Fabio Frizzi have performed London concerts over the Halloween weekend.
“There is a kind of magic happening. In the last decade, this love for horror music has experienced a rebirth – maybe it makes reality sound better!” the jovial Frizzi tells BBC Culture. Frizzi’s prolific catalogue is especially noted for his gore-drenched collaborations with director Lucio Fulci, including Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and The Beyond (1981).
“Music has always helped horror movies to establish a mood, build tension and atmosphere – but the demand for these soundtracks has been mind-boggling,” says Death Waltz label manager Spencer Hickman. “There’s a bunch of people that remember these films from their youth, as well as young people looking back to a ‘golden age’ of soundtracks.”
“A lot of these films had smaller budgets,” he says. “Musicians took chances more, and improvised more. The scores still stand out as really strong pieces of work and musicianship.”
Hickman makes a point of championing new music alongside vintage scores; his label will release Pierre Takal’s ultra-tense synth score for Morgan Spurlock’s new documentary, Rats. This hardened horror fan has no doubt about his most fearful favourite soundtrack, however: it’s Italian outfit Goblin’s haunted lullaby for Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977): “Suspiria has all these weird old instruments and chanting; if you listen to it in the dark, you’re definitely not going to sleep.”
John Carpenter has also credited Suspiria as an influence on his unforgettable Halloweenscore – though his motif for a stalking Michael Myers also goes back further: “My father taught me how to play the bongos. He taught me 5/4 time when I was about 13 years old,” Carpenter told Rolling Stone. “All I did was sit down at a piano and play octaves and went up half a step. That’s the Halloween theme,” he explained. “I have minimal chops as a musician.”
Even as Carpenter’s film budgets increased, he maintained a minimal approach to musical shocks. “You’re trying to create suspense, this sense of ‘What’s coming?’. Think of the Jaws theme. It’s two notes. It keeps you in suspense.”
Science of fear
There is an art to a killer horror soundtrack – and arguably, a science, too. An academic study led by Professor Daniel Blumstein at the University of California investigated “non-linear” sounds in movies, and reported that horror soundtracks tapped into our primal fears.
“The music in horror movies reminds us subconsciously of primordial times,” says Rowan Hooper, managing editor of New Scientist. “Non-linear sounds like Psycho’s violin ‘stingers’ mimic the sound of animals in distress; they trigger our fear of being chased by dangerous predators. Things that feel harsh and unfamiliar manipulate us emotionally.”
“Everybody has the same basic fear response, regardless of culture; the interesting thing is how you can trigger it in different audiences. Both the Halloween and Stranger Things themes have a really strong heartbeat sound in them,” Hooper points out. “That clearly taps into adrenalin building, and our fight or flight instinct. In Stranger Things, there is also an almost sensual melody; it smuggles in the fear under this beautiful wrapping.”
The sound of fear always plays with shocking contrasts; it pulls you in, and pushes you away – Mica Levi’s monstrously seductive score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) is another modern classic. Finely-timed silence speaks volumes, too. “That’s when your brain fills in the gaps – building up to the scare moment,” says Hooper.
Frizzi explains further: “If you keep up a hard sound from beginning to end, you don’t surprise anybody. You have to create something attractive; your experience of fear could actually be a sweet moment. You’re also trying to create a melody that summons the entire film in a few notes.
“Each time you score a horror movie, you must become an actor involved in the story. I come from an old school symphonic background, and I always had good musicians; it was normal for us to experiment and find new sounds.” Although, Frizzi admits: “The very first time you face a scene with an eye being gouged out, it’s not so easy.”
At these extreme points, there is always space for a catchy surprise. Frizzi mentions that his music for Olga Karlatos’s grisly demise in Zombie Flesh Eaterswas actually inspired by the crescendo at the end of The Beatles’ track A Day in the Life. And the original pioneers’ appetites haven’t waned: Frizzi professes a mutual respect for contemporary horror composers such as Joseph Bishara (who uses experimental instruments to score films including The Conjuring and Insidious) and Marco Beltrami (who soundtracked Wes Craven’s Scream movies, as well as Halloween H20).
“Working on comedy movies is enjoyable, giallothrillers have blood and tension,” Frizzi says. “But creating horror music feels like a privilege.”