Let’s face it, horror films are all-the-scarier because of music.
Things that go bump in the night are often punctuated by the stab of violins, the whine of woodwinds or the cackle of choir.
But not always. Composers have come up with all manner of ways to give us the willies on screen over the years.
So, get some popcorn (and a cushion to hide behind) as we delve into six of the very best scores composed for horror films.
When you’re done, have a listen to our spooktacular playlist which takes in even more fangtastic film music…
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Not many sequels surpass the original, but James Whale’s follow-up to Frankenstein (1931) is one of them and not least of all because of Franz Waxman’s original score. Wildly exciting and ahead of its time in many ways, Waxman’s music was riding high on the wave of the new ‘Hollywood Sound’.
Film music as we know it was really born just a couple of years before and Waxman was part of its origin story, along with Max Steiner, Alfred Newman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. This score, with its thrilling orchestral palette and something called a theremin, really made audiences sit up and take notice.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Hollywood had well and truly moved on from classic monsters by the 1960s and the young visionary directors of the day took things in more unsettling directions. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby focuses on the paranoia of a mum-to-be who believes the child she’s carrying may not be of this world.
The music by Polish composer and jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda set a beautiful lullaby waltz at the heart of his score which appears in variations throughout. Very much of its time, the wider score is infused with jazz inflections and pop sensibilities, though Komeda brings in more traditional orchestral elements when things get creepy.
The Omen (1976)
An example of horror as blockbuster (a term still in its infancy – Jaws came out the year before), Richard Donner’s The Omen saw Gregory Peck and Lee Remick star as the unwitting parents of the Devil incarnate. Everything about this film was big, from the performances to the effects and set-pieces.
The music, by Jerry Goldsmith, is something to behold as the legendary composer created a lavish accompaniment for orchestra and chorus. It won him his only Oscar and he would go on to write two more scores for the Omen series; some say his third score, for The Final Conflict (1981), outdoes the original. You can’t beat this first score, though, for sheer spine-tingles and unabashed devilment.
There was more of an appetite for blood, guts and gore in the 1980s, and Hellraiser gave audiences plenty of that. Clive Barker’s cult classic also gave us one of the genre’s most iconic characters (‘Pinhead’) and one of the decade’s best horror scores. The likes of Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) before it had plumped for more modern musical scores – the synthesiser was becoming king.
For Hellraiser the producers turned to composer Christopher Young who created one hell-of-an orchestral accompaniment. Young had cut his teeth on a number of low budget horror films and made his break with the sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1985. He proved himself adept with a large orchestral canvas, however, applying broad Romantic strokes to this sickeningly brilliant film.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
The ’90s were all about style (over substance?) and Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s legendary vampire tale was certainly an expensive exercise. Keanu Reeves’s British accent remains awful, but the film is – today – loved for its excesses and high camp. Gothic horror abounds on screen and in the music, with Polish composer Wojciech Kilar pulling out all the stops. The brass is flagrant, the choir is steaming and the strings are frenzied…
The Witch (2015)
Horror remains huge and the last decade has seen some of the most popular franchises make big money. Some of the best films, though, have taken the stance of ‘less is more’. The Witch is one such example, with its period setting and earthy folklore. The pace is slow, the scares actually more impactful as a result.
Canadian composer Mark Korven followed suit and created a score that scratches and picks away at the drama. The emphasis is on strings, but they’re ragged and unsettling. Howling banshee-like voices are added into the mix, just to make it even more terrifying. This is artful, atmospheric film music.