Music, or sometimes the lack thereof, can make or break a horror movie. The right sound can make the viewer nervous and tense, even if nothing else creepy is on the screen. Although I’m still working on expanding my horror movie knowledge, these scores have managed to create goosebumps on my skin.
I could say it’s the inspired Psycho riff of the stabbing violins that makes this one of the creepiest scores ever made. But it’s not. We’ve been there. The eerie whispering of “ki ki ki ma ma ma” is what makes you squirm in your seat.
The score, like the movie, creates the feeling that you have to keep moving. Don’t stop. Once you do, you’re dead. There is no relief. When the score does slow down, the drums reverberate like a beating heart, and the distorted piano leaves no direction for where the threat is coming from. Then there’s the ever-creepy synths thrown over the whole thing to ensure you that yes this is a horror movie and death is coming.
No other horror movie score screams "you’ve just been played" more than Charlie Clouser’s original main theme for the first Saw. With each drum beat, you know you’re being let in on Jigsaw’s latest reveal. In the case of the movie that started it all, it’s that pivotal moment when everything you thought you knew just got flipped upside down.
Many other horror movies use synths, but there’s something truly '80s about how it’s combined with the other elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street's main score. The beat of the drums counteract the nursery rhyme elements of the electronic keyboard, so the audience can never be fully relaxed. Then over all of it is a haunting vocal track just in case you were thinking about sleeping easy tonight.
After a trying time finding the right main theme for The Exorcist, director William Friedkin stumbled across Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” at the last minute. The tranquil, yet eerie, piano melody maintains a consistent rhythm that doesn’t reveal much about what you can expect, but somehow instills hope and fear at the same time.
From the very beginning, the Psycho score sets a stage of urgency. It doesn’t have a sense of foreboding that some of the other main themes found throughout the film create, or even the unexpected fright that is later felt in the infamous bathroom murder scene. The string ensemble does, however, build suspense. It’s hard not to be alert to what’s happening next or wonder what misdeeds are taking place as the movie opens.
If the Torrance family had heard the score of their movie on the drive to the Outlook Hotel, there’s no way they would have continued the trip. The haunting reimagining of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” was composed by Wendy Carlos, but in typical Kubrick fashion was picked and edited to meet the vision he saw. It builds tension in the movie viewer's mind right off the bat, and if you’re listening with good audio, the ghostly voices are already inviting you in.
While the cinematography of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre puts you in the headspace, it’s the grating metal score that tells you everything here is wrong. It’s loud and piercing and gets right to the dread of the piece. The late Tobe Hooper created the experimental sound with Wayne Bell by editing together multiple instrumental pieces and effects made by various objects they had sitting around. The payoff is this torturous, unrelenting terror forced upon the audience.
It’s one of the most recognizable movie scores, but John Carpenter’s three-note minimalist tune still manages to strike fear in anyone who hears it. The creepy piece is played using analog synthesizer on an electronic keyboard. When it starts, the urgency of the irregular meter can be felt, and the atmosphere becomes unsettled because you know that even if you can’t see him, Michael Myers is there.