31 Essential Horror Soundtrack Songs
It makes sense that we’re experiencing a horror renaissance. The genre took off during the Great Depression and has been there for us in difficult times to accentuate and provide some semblance of shelter from our biggest fears. Since the dawn of the medium, music has proven just as important to film as visuals are; film scores complete the illusion of movement and help to further remove us from reality. But more so than any other genre of film music, horror is distinct and modern.
Cliff Martinez explained this to me perfectly when I interviewed him about his score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016). “I hear some of the most adventurous, sound designer-ly music that seems to be happening a lot more in horror scores,” he offered. “Also horror is the stuff that sounds more like modern 20th century symphonic music — it’s the only stuff that references Stockhausen or Penderecki or Ligeti. That stuff doesn’t go a long way in your romantic comedies or anyplace else, but it has a home in horror movies.” Modern music, often composed in response to an increasingly terrifying reality, has become the perfect accompaniment to the nightmares we put up on the silver screen.
Horror score composers innovated over generations, from Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing Psycho theme to Stanley Kubrick’s liberal use of Ligeti and Penderecki’s “Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima” in The Shining and up to the ominous drones and eerie musique concrète of Thom Yorke’s Suspiria score. The late ‘70s and ‘80s were a golden age for low-budget horror, and both decades found composers resorting to synthesizers and computers to craft creepy scores on the cheap, which led to iconic electronic music like John Carpenter’s Halloween theme and the music Harry Manfredini composed for Friday The 13th. Those efforts mirrored the work of pioneering hip-hop and electronic artists who used similar production techniques (through sampling, no genre has shown more love for horror than rap).
To celebrate Halloween we’re rounding up 31 of the best horror score songs of all time. Though they span multiple decades, styles, countries, budgets, and levels of popularity, they all achieve the same thing: elevating a film to the sensory extreme that only horror can provide. All of these scores will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
Bernard Herrmann – “Psycho Theme” (from Psycho, 1960)
One of the most important horror films of all time, Psycho is also home to one of the most influential scores in cinema. But it almost wasn’t. Bernard Herrmann nearly refused to score the movie due to its lower budget (and thus lower fee), but he ended up using that to his advantage by working with only strings instead of the full orchestra he’d brought to Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier Vertigo and North By Northwest. The result was as minimal, sharp, and brutal as the film’s flawlessly edited violence, which lets your imagination fill in the disturbing blanks. It’s simply impossible to imagine something like this film’s shower scene shocking a generation without Herrmann’s stabbing string attacks punctuating every strike of the knife. Hitchcock famously said that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music,” but looking at all of the subsequent horror scores that Herrmann inspired, it feels like Hitchcock is rounding down.
Toru Takemitsu – “Kwaidan Theme” (from Kwaidan, 1965)
Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan or (Ghost Stories) might have been the most ambitious horror film in existence at the time of its release in 1965. It was also one of the most expensive in Japanese history and stretched over three hours long in its retelling of four folktales. The film utilized a score by composer Toru Takemitsu, who had previously composed Kobayashi’s samurai classic Harakiri (1962) and would later go on to work with Akira Kurosawa on Ran (1985). His score employs a bira, a lute-like instrument traditionally used in conjunction with storytelling, to create hypnotic soundscapes and piercingly atonal stabs. It’s a score that seems to sit outside the rest of the horror canon just as much as Kwaidan’s historical horror and gorgeous visuals do.
Luboš Fišer – “The Magic Yard” (from Valerie & Her Week Of Wonders, 1970)
Valerie & Her Week Of Wonders is many things: a childlike fantasy film, a visionary piece of surrealism, and the crown jewel of the Czech New Wave movement. It’s also very much a horror movie, one that follows the teen heroine’s transition to sexual maturity in a dreamlike swirl of Czech folklore. It employs horror’s obsession with symbolism in every striking and unsettling image — from the iconic shot of a flower streaked in menstrual blood to the leering Polecat, a villain equal parts vampire, father figure, and sexual predator. Luboš Fišer compliments the film perfectly with a fantastical score that blends ornate lullabies, folk arrangements, and hypnotic psychedelia to fit wherever the dreamy vibe takes it. The film ends, quite literally, like suddenly waking from a dream and it’s Fišer’s music that helps truly put you under in the first place.
Stelvio Cipriani – “Ecologia del Delitto – Reazione a Catena” (from Bay Of Blood, 1971)
Stelvio Cipriani was one of the most dynamic and underrated Italian film composers, a man who wrote music for slasher films and popes alike before his death earlier this month. Though his lush score to the killer octopus film Tentacles is a must-listen cult favorite, the breezy lounge music he provides for Mario Bava’s A Bay Of Blood is just as smooth. Also known by the equally amazing title Twitch Of The Death Nerve, Bava’s film depicts a wealthy family picking each other off in order to inherit the titular bay with all the ugly intensity that made him one of the masters of the classic giallo form.
Jazzy dance tunes like “Giovani e Liberi” or “Due Amanti” bring to mind Burt Bacharach while pieces like “Tribal Shake” and the fantastic opening theme “Ecologia del Delitto (Titoli)” are one bird-squawk away from fitting on a Martin Denny Exotica collection. Balancing out that energy is the reflective “Evelyn’s Theme,” a gorgeous piano-led piece that recurs throughout (despite no one in the film being named Evelyn). Like many great giallo films, however, Bava doesn’t let a sunny score get in the way of the mayhem and A Bay Of Blood lives up to its name as one of the bloodiest films of his four-decade career.
Paul Giovanni – “Lullaby” (from The Wicker Man, 1973)
The sole horror film written by the great playwright Anthony Shaffer, The Wicker Man seems like a gently unraveling mystery until we realize (too late) that it’s actually a tightening trap. The film follows an English policeman investigating the disappearance of a young girl on an isolated Scottish island and an alternately cheery/creepy Pagan farming community led by the charismatic Lord Summerisle (Christoper Lee in one of his greatest roles of all time). For this truly one-of-a-kind film, playwright and musician Paul Giovanni composed a score unlike anything else in film, horror and beyond. Giovanni incorporated traditional songs — including poetry from Scottish literary treasure Robert Burns — and blended it with original music and lyrics recorded with folk-rock group Magnet to make Summerisle feel like a living, breathing place filled with song and dance.
The Wicker Man feels like a musical as much as it does a horror film, and those flowery songs do most of the work in making the audience (and hero) let their guard down. The film reaches its climactic number with “Sumer Is Icumen In,” an English traditional from the 13th century that feels nothing short of nightmarish in this context. Giovanni’s score still feels like an anomaly in horror; he never composed another and sadly died in 1990 due to complications from HIV/AIDS. But his work has gone on to influence many artists, particularly Broadcast who appear on this list with a horror score of their own. Listen to the very first notes of their seminal 2005 album Tender Buttons and you may recognize them as The Wicker Man’s “Lullaby” theme.
Sam Waymon – “You Got To Learn, To Let It Go” (from Ganja & Hess, 1973)
Ganja & Hess is often referred to as a Blaxploitation film, but there’s very little that’s exploitative about this impressionistic vampire love story, which first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. All the music is made by Sam Waymon, best known as Nina Simone’s brother, who (in addition to playing a small role) fills Ganja & Hess with gospel, funk, and early Afrobeat, adding passages of delirious synths in tracks like the “Survival Drive” theme. Though it received a little-seen unofficial remake from Spike Lee in 2014 (titled Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus), this film and its music are still ripe for rediscovery.
Tobe Hooper & Wayne Bell – “Main Theme” (from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)
Underneath the human skin masks and butchered bodies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an art film and a damn good one. Director Tobe Hooper collaborated with Wayne Bell to compose a score to match by fusing industrial noise with musique concrète and twangy country guitars into one disfigured whole. It’s like they distilled Chainsaw’s most disturbing sounds and images — of which there are many despite the film’s PG rating — into a score as potent as moonshine. By blurring the line between its music and sound effects, it predates similar ideas David Lynch employed in Eraserhead as well as the work of Jóhann Jóhannsson, who would make the blurring of that line his signature sound.
David Lynch & Alan Splet – “In Heaven” (from Eraserhead, 1977)
David Lynch and Alan Splet’s Eraserhead score is a direct reflection of the film. Fusing sound queues, foley effects, dialogue, and distant mechanistic clangs, David Lynch and his late collaborator Alan Splet effectively turned the director’s masterful debut into a radio drama from hell. The album unfolds over two spacious 20-minute soundscapes that bring to mind the sprawling side-long sonic nightmares industrial pioneers like Throbbing Gristle and Nurse With Wound were beginning to release at the time. And yet tucked into the album’s sharp, metallic crevices are surprises like early jazz-era organ music and the miraculous “In Heaven.” Sung by the warm but disturbing Lady In The Radiator, it’s a song that manages to be terrifying and blissful all at once. Even if you think you know Lynch, you owe it to yourself to experience Eraserhead with only your ears sometime.
Goblin – “Suspiria” (from Suspiria, 1977)
Italian prog rock band Goblin composed the score to Suspiria before director Dario Argento even started shooting. Providing input to the band, Argento takes the music as seriously, if not more so, than the script itself. That could partly explain why the film, among the most brutally violent and aesthetically beautiful of all time, pairs so flawlessly with its music, but it’s a difficult thing to rationalize in a film where nothing is rational. Fear is not rational — it’s primal — and that’s what Goblin convey with their score better than any horror film in history.
Starting with a music box melody as sweet as a lullaby, they push you into a nightmare of hammering percussion, synths as colorful as the film’s chromatic visuals, and vocals ranging from operatic screams to animalistic growls and ghostly whispers. It matches Argento’s dream logic in every twisting step, transforming at any moment to build mystery, tension, and release in its agonizing murder scenes. When Thom Yorke abandoned any attempt to emulate Goblin’s score in Luca Guadagnino’s new Suspiria’s remake, no one faulted him. Goblin’s achievement will always remain untouchable.
Pino Donaggio – “Main Theme” (from Tourist Trap, 1979)
Pino Donaggio is a trained violinist and veteran songwriter and arranger from Italy. He’s best known for his work with Brian De Palma, scoring horror classics such as Don’t Look Now, Carrie, and Blow Out. Some of his best work, however, can be found in the 1979 slasher gem Tourist Trap, a film that’s only just starting to receive the cult classic reevaluation it deeply deserves. Though it shares the same basic structure as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and matches it in pure griminess — that’s not a coincidence, Robert A. Burns was art director on both — Tourist Trap quickly slides into pure surrealism due to the killer’s inexplicable telekinetic powers and a house full of creepy talking mannequins.
Though Donaggio’s score classes things up with haunting strings and piano melodies like the recurring “Love Theme,” its best moments are in the flairs of weirdness that match the film itself. The playful, almost cartoon-like percussion of its “Main Theme” and the absolutely chilling, nearly operatic vocals later provided by the mannequins aren’t like anything you’ll encounter in horror music. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a truly unique film.
Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave – “Main Theme” (from Phantasm, 1979)
Made on the cheap by a mostly amateur cast and crew, Phantasm makes up for its low budget and disorienting plot with enormous ambition. The film follows a boy investigating his older brother’s mysterious death, squaring off against a literal boogie man (Angus Scrimm’s iconic series villain the Tall Man), before descending into a bizarre narrative involving flying metal death orbs, inter-dimensional space dwarves, and a mythology expanded over four sequels.
Director Don Coscarelli took a note from the surreal, dreamlike work of Italian horror directors Fulci and Argento, rendering the “Kid Vs. the Boogie Man” premise as a childhood nightmare. Composers Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave in turn channeled Goblin’s prog rock Suspiria score, using limited means and aging synthesizers to craft a haunting soundtrack that, like Phantasm itself, transcended its budget and influences. You can hear echoes of Phantasm in the music of Stranger Things, the work of J.J. Abrams (who helped restore the film recently), and most of all in hip-hop, where its iconic organ has been sampled by Three 6 Mafia, Mobb Deep, Master P, and plenty more.
Franco Micalizzi – “Sadness Theme” (from The Visitor, 1979)
I’ve watched The Visitor multiple times and still couldn’t tell you what the hell it’s about. It’s chockfull of incredible actors cashing paychecks including Shelly Winters, Lance Henriksen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Glenn Ford, and Sam Peckinpah. It stars John Huston (yes, that John Huston) as some kind of alien space god who travels to earth to stop a Satanist millionaire from conspiring to revive another, presumably more evil alien space god in the body of a child. It makes zero sense, but none of that matters when there are so many batshit insane moments and the music is so good.
The jazzy, funky score by Franco Micalizzi often feels like it was composed for a different movie altogether, best evidenced by the theme, “The Sadness,” that emanates every time Huston’s alien god shows up. It sounds like something out of The A-Team. Micalizzi made many scores, but he’s best remembered these days for a piece called “The Puzzle,” which you hear every time Larry David gives someone his infamous stare-down in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Popol Vuh – “On The Way” (from Nosferatu The Vampyre, 1979)
In 1979, Werner Herzog set out to remake arguably the most influential horror movie of all time, Nosferatu (1922). Herzog considered the original to be the greatest German film ever made and his remake, Nosferatu The Vampyre, feels like a love letter to the entire German Expressionist era. The incredible use of color and Klaus Kinski’s committed performance help match the dreamlike power of the original, but it’s the score by ambient legends and Herzog regulars Popol Vuh that expands this film.
Over the course of Nosferatu The Vampyre, Florian Fricke conjures clouds of new age atmospheres from his Moog synthesizer and blends them with spiraling sitar lines, folk guitar, and a full choir in the startling “On The Way.” Though the psychedelic passages feel worlds away from the music of the silent era, Popol Vuh capture the original’s hypnotic spirit while sounding both ancient and futuristic at the same time.
Fabio Frizzi – “Voci dal Nulla” (from The Beyond, 1981)
If Dario Argento had Goblin, then fellow Italian horror pioneer Lucio Fulci had Fabio Frizzi. With a string of classic films and scores, Frizzi pushed the director’s disorienting, ultra-violent fantasies to dreamlike extremes. The Beyond aims to tell a story about a haunted hotel with a gateway to hell in the basement, but ends up dissolving into a blur of graphic death scenes and surreal plotting you could either call impressionistic or incoherent. (It also turns into a zombie movie near the last 10 minutes for some reason.)
Frizzi’s score, which fuses more traditional Bernard Herrmann-style orchestration before spiking into cathartic prog rock odyssey, holds the whole thing together when the plot falls apart. It especially works during death scenes so drawn out they might border on comical if it weren’t the hugely dramatic march-like arrangements and choral vocals imbuing every moment with drama and inexplicable emotion. The Beyond is kind of a mess, but dedicated horror fans consider it a classic, just as equal to the best of Argento or Bava. As Fulci himself put it, “People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection.” He’s right, but it’s also a film of sounds, and they’re some of the most haunting ever put on screen.
John Harrison – “Welcome To The Creepshow” (from Creepshow, 1982)
For George Romero and Stephen King’s love letter to the old horror comics of their youth, John Harrison had to essentially compose five film scores for each of the anthology’s short stories. Fortunately they’re all great, from the spooky gothic fun of “Father’s Day” to the ‘50s sci-fi synth atmospheres that fit King’s bizarro alien invasion one-man-show “The Lonesome Death Of Jody Verrill.” The seaside ghost story “Something To Tide You Over” is a another high point, with mournful piano melodies and the distant waves of a rising tide, but Creepshow’s greatest musical actually lies outside the film altogether. That comes courtesy of DJ Paul who sampled the film’s opening theme on “Mafia Niggaz,” a highlight from Three 6 Mafia’s great 2000 mixtape When The Smoke Clears.
John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – “Chariots Of Pumpkins” (from Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, 1982)
The hardest decision I had to make brainstorming this list was choosing which John Carpenter score to include. Narrowing his musical career down to one score is an impossible task that’s bound to disappoint, so I might as well go all out and list Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. The last Halloween film Carpenter composed until his return to the series with this year’s reboot, Season Of The Witch was despised by audiences for the crime of not including Michael Myers. The film tried Carpenter’s idea of turning the series into an anthology with only the holiday as a connecting theme, which meant relegating Myers to a cameo appearance in a TV news report and abandoning the original film’s iconic theme altogether.
All this sounded like blasphemy and it’s taken years for audiences to accept Season Of The Witch on its own terms. It may not be a true Halloween movie, but it’s certainly better than any of the traditional sequels. It was the one film in the series I didn’t watch as a kid because it was so widely hated, an experience many have told me they shared. (A rare fan from the start is Ariel Pink, who shared his thoughts on the film some years ago.)
We all missed out, because it finds Carpenter and frequent collaborator Alan Howarth pushing the prickling synths of the original to a new sensory extreme. They start with the jaw-dropping main theme, “Chariots Of Pumpkins,” a trance odyssey so hypnotic and propulsive you never notice the absence of the original tune. Following that are shrieking synth stabs, pulse-pounding chase themes, atmospheric melodies, as well as the cheery Silver Shamrock commercial jingle, a seemingly harmless rendition of “London Bridge” that will haunt you once you reach the film’s bleak conclusion. Nearly every Carpenter score is a must-listen, but Halloween III remains his most overlooked.
Ennio Morricone – “Main Theme” (from The Thing, 1982)
Operating slightly out of his comfort zone, Ennio Morricone accepted John Carpenter’s offer to score his remake of The Thing when the famed director flew to Italy to ask the composer. Carpenter’s love of the original Howard Hawkes classic is clear; it’s the film the kids were watching in Halloween, which had already become one of the most profitable independent films of all time. Though a financial and critical failure, The Thing has been retroactively labeled as the director’s masterwork — but it must have been hard to mistake the score for anything other than brilliant from the start.
Morricone went above and beyond, composing both an electronic and an orchestral version of the score for the film, each sounding absolutely chilling. It was used in the film alongside other original pieces by both Carpenter and his frequent collaborator Alan Howarth, some of which was initially used as temp music for Morricone, who was unable to see the film before he started working. Still, the best musical riffs in The Thing are the simplest of either composer’s career. The single, minimal pulse breaking through the silence employed during low tracking shots of the snowy research base are what stick with you the most. Though a great deal of Morricone’s score went unused, it had a fascinating rebirth when the composer repurposed it for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), a film that closely resembles The Thing.
Richard Band – “Re-Animator Theme” (from Re-Animator, 1985)
Richard Band is one of the great composers of trash cinema, often working on productions for his brother Charles Band’s company Full Moon Features. The greatest of them all remains Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon’s debut film and the first of many H.P. Lovecraft adaptations that would make him one of the original “Masters Of Horror.” The film’s Frankenstein-esque mad scientist plot hearkened back to classic cinema, while its over-the-top gore and humor — both of which Band navigates masterfully — made it a key influence on future classics such as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. The film bears a heavy influence from Bernard Herrmann’s work for Psycho, with plenty of sawing violins, but always maintains the nimble balance of campiness as the film swerves between laughs and scares with a whiplash-inducing intensity. Re-Animator is one of the best horror films ever made, with a soundtrack to match.
Chuck Cirino – “Main Theme” (from Chopping Mall, 1986)
Originally titled Killbots, this B-movie bomb was in and out of theaters before finding a new life (and audience) in the VHS rental market after a janitor suggested renaming it Chopping Mall. The film follows a group of teens in a suburban mall that get picked off by high-tech security bots accidentally set to “kill.” It’s awe-inspiringly stupid fun, elevated by Chuck Cirino’s sparking synth score. The main theme — a pinballing surge of ‘80s guitar licks, propulsive synth melodies, and throbbing basslines — is one of the greatest in horror film history.
Many deeply shitty horror movies from this era made their money in the VHS market where you only needed an attention-grabbing title and good box art to con a rental. Nothing even close to the cover of Chopping Mall happens in the movie; nobody even gets “chopped.” (For what it’s worth, a lady’s head does explode and beloved character actor Dick Miller gets electrocuted.) But you’ll never meet anyone who felt ripped off by Chopping Mall and Cirino’s music is one of the big reasons why.
Chester Novell Turner – “Main Theme” (from Tales From The QuadeaD Zone, 1987)
In the 1980s, Chester Novell Turner left the home remodeling business to realize his camcorder filmmaking ambitions with Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984), the most bizarre movie to currently reside in Yale University’s film archive. The amateur writer/director/producer/editor/SFX creator/composer became the stuff of Blaxploitation and horror legend and was rumored to have died in a car crash in the ‘90s until he seemingly returned from the dead.
Original VHS tapes of his even weirder follow-up, Tales From The QuadeaD Zone, have sold at auction for over $1,000 and it’s not hard to see why. The handmade releases contain one of the strangest independent films ever made, a surrealist piece of outsider art packaged inside of an anthology ghost story. His utterly bizarre soundtrack, including a main theme song that’s equal parts the Residents, Parliament, and Ariel Pink, turns chintzy lo-fi keyboard themes into pure gold. There is nothing else like Tales From The QuadeaD Zone and there is nothing else like this soundtrack.
Les Reed & Rick Wakeman – “Creepshow II Theme” (from Creepshow II, 1987)
Nobody is going to argue Creepshow II is as good as the original anthology horror classic (though an exception could be made for the second story, an awesomely gross Blob-riff called “The Raft”), however you could make the case for Rick Wakeman’s music. The keyboardist was best known for his work with David Bowie and Yes, but already had a great horror score under his belt with The Burning (1981). Taking over for John Harrison, Wakeman worked with Les Reed to craft a different theme for the three very different anthology segments. The best track remains his main theme, which is all icy, twinkling synths and a perfect encapsulation of the series’ equally scary and fun balance.
Coil – “Hellraiser Main Theme (Unreleased)” (from Hellraiser, 1987)
Though veteran composer Christopher Young’s score is just fine, you have to imagine how much stranger, scarier, and kinkier Clive Barker’s Hellraiser would have been with the original score by Coil, arguably the most innovative industrial music act of the 1980s. Primarily a duo consisting of Jhonn Balance and his partner, Throbbing Gristle co-founder Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, Coil were friends of Barker’s and composed a score at his request that was later rejected by the studio for being too dark.
It’s a shame because the unreleased score — that was thankfully put out separate from the film — seems to come straight out of the same dimension as Barker’s S&M demons. The score ranges from sensuous synth melodies, metallic clangs, twinkling children’s toys, and (near the end) stabbing, electronic strobes. Though the Hellraiser franchise has spiraled into a quagmire of low budget sequels, there’s always hope in the rumors of a reboot. If that ever happens, the perfect accompanying score is already taken care of.
Tangerine Dream – “Bus Station (Mae’s Theme)” (from Near Dark, 1989)
Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire classic Near Dark eschews traditional gothic atmospheres for a shit-kickin’ biker/western hybrid and German ambient greats Tangerine Dream followed suit with one of their best and hardest soundtracks. The film features motorik synth burners (“Fight At Dawn”), wailing guitar jams (“Good Times”), and highlight “Bus Station (Mae’s Theme).” They’re all representative of the kind of stunning, kosmiche epics that Tangerine Dream innovated in the first place. Near Dark is one of the most unique vampire films ever made and one of the best collections the German ambient pioneers ever made.
Philip Glass – “It Was Always You, Helen” (from Candyman, 1992)
One of the most underrated ‘90s horror films, Candyman transported Romantic-era gothic horror to modern-day Chicago with Tony Todd’s larger-than-life performance as a restless spirit borne of a brutal slave-era lynching. The spirit haunts Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green Homes, a public housing project, as an urban legend. Renowned 20th century composer Philip Glass provides a towering score that weaves gothic pipe organs and a choir with his trademark hypnotic minimalism. Alternating between dramatic flourishes and fragile music box melodies, it’s a complex score for a complex film. Glass was inspired by director Bernard Rose’s more psychologically-driven original vision for the film, but after the studio demanded traditional slasher elements (and gore), Rose was fired and Glass threatened to pull his score completely.
Thankfully much of Candyman’s vision remains intact. It’s gory, sure, but how many horror movies make time to discuss the legacy of Emmett Till’s murder or gentrification, in 1992 no less? Glass came around and decided to include his music in the film. Though he did allow the score to be repurposed for the lesser Candyman II, the composer wouldn’t let a modern studio compromise his gothic horror ambitions again. His next (and last) horror contribution was a reimagined score for the original Dracula (1931).
Climax Golden Twins – “Noon, About Noon” (from Session 9, 2001)
Most horror scores are as splashy and big as the movies themselves, but most of Session 9’s soundtrack could pass for an ambient album. Recorded by the experimental band Climax Golden Twins, the score buzzes with crackling tape hiss, sustained piano chords, and glitchy blips that suggest impending doom. It fits the uniquely slow-burning tale about a crew of asbestos cleaners trying to finish a job at an abandoned mental hospital with a dark history.
The drones glow like a Stars Of The Lid record capturing the summer humidity and emptiness of the asylum — filmed on location at the Danvers State Asylum outside of Boston — before patiently sinking into darker and more hellish territory. The soft music offers an essential counterpoint in a film that relies on sound cues for many of its biggest scares, but by the time Session 9 hits its nightmarish and emotionally devastating final stretch nothing, not even the music, is there to protect you.
Broadcast – “The Equestrian Vortex” (from Berberian Sound Studio, 2012)
Whether they were making the breezy ‘60s pop of their early singles or the abstract, eerier final albums, Broadcast always seemed to be soundtracking music for films that only existed in the imagination. In the final recording of their career, the Birmingham duo took that to a literal extreme when they chose to score Berberian Sound Studio. It’s the perfect choice for Broadcast in that it’s a horror movie about horror movies. The film follows Toby Jones as a weary sound designer hired onto an Argento-style giallo film in Italy called The Equestrian Vortex. That film-within-a-film is actually what Broadcast were asked to soundtrack, a concept they completely ran with.
Their influence from Italian horror scores like Suspiria and dreamy Czech New Wave masterpieces like Valerie & Her Week Of Wonders avoids the standard trappings of popular musicians trying to bridge the gap into film scores, because this was already music that was foundational to Broadcast’s entire discography. (As mentioned before, this was, after all, a band that sampled obscure melodies from The Wicker Man on their 2005 release Tender Buttons.) Like Goblin’s music for Suspiria, this is a soundtrack that transcends the film it’s attached to, but for much more tragic reasons. Broadcast mastermind Trish Keenan did not live to see the project’s completion, having died in 2011 after contracting avian bird flu. Though her musical and life partner James Cargill has expressed hope to complete their last album, it’s understandably difficult. And so, Berberian Sound Studio remains their final statement, an impossibly good score that haunts you long after the movie ends.
Mica Levi – “Lips To Void” (from Under The Skin, 2013)
For this existential horror film told from the perspective of the monster (an alien invader wearing the skin of Scarlett Johansson), Mica Levi made the best use of shrieking violins since Bernard Herrmann scored Psycho. Levi’s panic-inducing main theme is certainly influenced by both the Hitchcock classic and the use of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima” in Kubrick’s The Shining, but it’s a disservice to simply compare the works.
The Shining and Psycho feature two of the most iconic, mimicked scores in the horror arsenal, but Levi’s work in Under The Skin is the only one to stand on equal footing as her predecessors. Levi’s respectfully tender and queasy “Love” and “Death” themes convey most of the overwhelming emotion that Johansson’s masterfully stone-faced performance resists during her doomed journey to understand humanity. It’s one of the most recent films on this list, but make no mistake, Under The Skin will eventually take its place alongside the all-time greats. Levi’s soul-shattering first score, meanwhile, stands as a masterpiece.
Mark Korven – “A Witch Stole Sam” (from The Witch, 2015)
“No electronic instruments” was the only real direction composer Mark Korven received from director Robert Eggers for his “New England folktale,” The Witch. There may not be any synthesizers on the score, but Korven’s soundscapes of bone-rattled percussion and obscure instruments, like the waterphone, end up being just as otherworldly. Korven is a veteran composer, who can be heard in ‘90s horror flicks like Cube, but The Witch ended up being a late-career high that proved a horror score could be historically accurate without losing any of its trauma-inducing edge.
Cliff Martinez – “Neon Demon” (from The Neon Demon, 2016)
Cliff Martinez’s The Neon Demon score begins with just a sparkle of synth, but soon unfolds into a dark swirl of minimal techno, throbbing basslines, and bleary drones, as shiny and dangerous as a razor blade. It’s the perfect soundtrack to capture Nicolas Winding Refn’s feverish depiction of the LA modeling world feeding off youth and innocence in every dark corner. Martinez explained to me that the film was originally temped with all music from Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann, which he disregarded completely while composing this propulsive score that could just as easily soundtrack a runway show.
It’s that kind of blind trust director Nicolas Winding Refn had in Martinez that recalls the near-psychic connection Martinez has shown with his longest and closest collaborator, Steven Soderbergh. Refn and Martinez have made incredible collaborations before with Drive and Only God Forgives, but it’s in the ghoulish glamor of The Neon Demon where their relationship solidified into something for the ages.
Jóhann Jóhannsson – “Children Of The New Dawn” (from Mandy, 2018)
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s first posthumous film score after his unexpected death earlier this year raises all kinds of sad speculation of where his career might have gone. He’d made the war on drugs sound like literal hell in Sicario and infused alien invasions with angelic grace for Arrival, but with his first horror film score he achieved a delicate balance. Mandy finds Nicolas Cage on a furious, psychedelic revenge journey after his wife is killed by a hippie Jesus cult.
Taking a cue from the opening credits soundtracked by “Starless,” the best King Crimson song ever, Jóhannsson alternates between starry astral synths and towering doom metal. Jóhannsson’s performance is as impressive of a balancing act as the film itself, which manages to fuse B-movie Cage and art-movie Cage in a way that previously seemed impossible. It’s Jóhannsson’s most animated score but also the most romantic and tragic he ever delivered.
Colin Stetson – “Charlie” (from Hereditary, 2018)
Anyone who sat through the gut-wrenching attempted lynching in 12 Years A Slave soundtracked by Colin Stetson’s “Awake On Foreign Shores” knew the virtuoso saxophonist was meant to make a horror score at some point. He finally did this year, but the score to Ari Aster’s soul-crushing debut Hereditary is as expectation-flipping as the film itself. Anyone looking for a typical horror story was abruptly thrown into one of the most devastating depictions of familial grief in recent memory. And though Stetson’s score is filled with some of his heaviest saxophone blasts, it’s at its best when he’s whisper quiet.
As Stetson told me earlier this year, Aster approached him very early in the process, explaining that his music influenced the script. In turn, Stetson knew the script beat-for-beat before composing the massive 85-minute score, which fills even the film’s quiet moments, lingering on the edges of hearing with a persistent pulse. It’s what helps fuel the paranoid fear of Hereditary, which Aster described as being told “from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs.” The ones doing the sacrificing keep themselves hidden until near the very end, but Stetson lets you know they’re always watching. His score acts almost like a character in of itself and disappears once the movie ends, queueing credits cathartically soundtracked by Judy Collins’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now.”
We compiled a playlist of available tracks on Spotify. Listen here.