As any scared stiff moviegoer can tell you, a haunting music score is one of the horror genre’s most valuable assets. Try watching Halloween or Psycho with the sound turned off and you’ve set yourself up for a significantly less terrifying experience. Over the years, several composers have emerged with a gift for continually delivering memorably creepy horror film scores; not the kind of music you’d want to hear alone in the dark, but perfect for scaring trick-or-treaters on a windy Halloween night.
Renowned composer Bernard Herrmann started his feature film career off with a bang by scoring a little movie called Citizen Kane (1941). Herrmann worked with director Orson Welles many times over the years, including the notorious 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” but he is probably best known for his eight memorable collaborations with the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Together they crafted the tones for Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Herrmann’s scores were bold, brash and experimental. Who can remember Psycho without hearing those thrashing violins? But even Herrmann’s lesser-known scores have attracted present-day admiration. The eerie whistling theme for Twisted Nerve (1968), a forgotten Hayley Mills thriller, was memorably utilized in Quentin Tarantino’s kung-fu epic, Kill Bill Vol. 1. When Herrmann died in 1975, he left behind a legacy of gorgeously creepy music that inspired legions of future composers to attempt to achieve that wonderful blend of creepiness and beauty that Herrmann captured so well.
The late Jerry Goldsmith is one of the most prolific composers of all time, with more than 200 movie and television credits to his name, including such wildly diverse movies as Planet of the Apes (1968), Chinatown (1974) and Total Recall (1990). His work in the horror genre resulted in some of the creepiest music ever produced. His Oscar-winning theme for The Omen (1976) features a bellowing choir seemingly chanting hymns to Satan’s offspring from beyond the grave. Goldsmith’s genre work also includes his subtle, eclectic music for Alien (which ranges from melodic to atonal within seconds) and Poltergeist, for which Goldsmith again utilized the creepy choir device, this time with a handful of cheery, humming children sounding suspiciously like Carol Anne, the young girl of the movie who gets trapped inside an alternate dimension. The only regret one has concerning Goldsmith, who died in 2004, is that this talented composer can’t give us more original, bone-chilling music to savor.
Led by founding member and keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, Goblin produced some of the most disturbing music for movies (largely from Italy) over the last 30 years. The band’s experimental, progressive rock music stands in stark contrast to more traditional, orchestral scores. While Goblin has worked with many talented moviemakers over the years, including George Romero on Dawn of the Dead (the score of which was later utilized in Shaun of the Dead), they are best known for their collaborations with horror maestro Dario Argento. Their work for his first big success, Deep Red, was loud, strange and unsettling. They followed it up with an even creepier score for Argento’s witchcraft tale Suspiria. Masked as a children’s lullaby, with twinkling chimes in the background, the song was narrated by a raspy “witch” (actually the voice of Simonetti). About midway through the track, the lullaby turns into a full-throttle, hard rock song. Like all of Goblin’s work, the Suspiria theme was disturbing and completely unpredictable. In the 1980s, Goblin disbanded, a shame given the utterly unique music this band produced.