By Bianca Garner
An effective horror film won’t simply just use jump scares, gory special effects and men in monster costumes to scare the living daylights out of us. In order to leave the viewer with nightmares, a filmmaker will need to utilize every aspect of the mise-en-scene, from the cinematography to the performances from the actors. We can all agree that film is indeed a visual medium, but it’s important not to overlook the importance of sound and music in filmmaking, especially when it comes to the horror genre. Some of cinema’s most iconic scores belong to horror, whether it be Bernard Herrmann’s shirking violins from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) or John Carpenter’s score for “Halloween” (1978).
A good horror score will build tension and compliment the imagery being depicted on the screen, it can act as a cue to warn us of danger and play on our primitive fears. Humans have evolved to be on alert whenever they encounter an abnormal sound which makes them feel uncomfortable, which is why we often feel on edge when we hear certain high-pitched sounds. According to Rowan Hooper, the managing editor of New Scientist. “The music in horror movies reminds us subconsciously of primordial times…they trigger our fear of being chased by dangerous predators. Things that feel harsh and unfamiliar manipulate us emotionally.” Take for example Brian McOmber’s score for “It Comes at Night” which uses electronic elements such as synths as well as strings to enhance the terror of the situation depicted in the film.
The last decade has seen horror films evolve, evoking the fears and anxieties of the modern age whether that be the rise of white supremacy as depicted in “Get Out” or the fear of an unseen infection as seen in “It Follows.” Film scores have also evolved, unlike the grand orchestral scores from Herrmann, the horror score of today is all about building on atmosphere and evoking an unsettling sense of terror for the viewer. The selection of film scores listed below are just a few that send shivers down your spine but are all unique because they sound so different from each other and they are a brilliant accompaniment to the films they happen to belong to. Each score demonstrates the importance of music and why it’s a necessary component to horror cinema, although visually these films are frightening, it is the music that helps evaluate the films to a whole new level of terror.
10. The Invitation
Composer: Theodore Shapiro
Theodore Shapiro’s score for Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation” starts off with a track entitled “Into the Canyon” that features a heavy drumbeat, almost as if the main characters are preparing for battle. The build-up of plucking, wailing strings adds a sense of panic and confusion, which perfectly reflects the state of Will (Logan Marshall-Green) as the events of the film develops. In the piece entitled “Rupture,” Shapiro returns to the use of plucking strings, but the sound is slightly muffled (as if we are listening to it underwater), the reason why these high pitched strings are so distressing to hear is because “they remind us of distress sounds, [or] they don’t form regular mathematical patterns” as Eva Amsen explains in her piece “What Makes Scary Music Scary?.” The use of high pitches in horror music is said to have the same effect on us as animal distress calls, and we’re conditioned to find them disturbing, which explains why the score for “The Invitation” is so effective.
9. It Comes At Night
Composer: Brian McOmber
Brian McOmber’s score for “It Comes at Night” is full of foreboding dread and tension. Perhaps the best track is “Sores” which has a pulsing quality to it, almost like the sound of a searchlight scanning the night landscape and is a perfect example of how McOmber uses music to create a feeling of unease and build up the suspense. According to McOmber, the use of modular synths helped to create a ‘pulsing feeling’ to the score, which can also represent the beating of a heart. As Rowan Hooper explains the ‘pulsing heartbeat sound’ is something that “clearly taps into adrenalin building and our fight or flight instinct.” which beautifully complements the themes of the film. The score to “It Comes at Night” has a combination of different sounds and instruments, which adds a layer of confusion reflecting on the events that occur in the film. In an interview, McOmber explained the process of composing the film’s score,” it was a piece-by-piece adding…it was oftentimes just a single note or a single drone and then adding more and more and more — just building it up.” By layering the notes and the drones, McOmber manages to convey the build-up of tension and claustrophobia in the film.
8. Under The Skin
Composer: Mica Levi
Although technically Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” isn’t a straight horror film, it does have horror elements. And, in terms of scores, Mica Levi’s deeply atmospheric score can certainly cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. The film’s score is a perfect companion for the surreal imagery we see on-screen. In order to create the strangely distorted strings, Levi decided to use the viola, when asked about her decision to use this instrument, she stated the following, “A viola is not solid, the sound it produces is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of something because you get an airiness and creepiness, and there’s a struggle in that. The vibrato doesn’t ring out. It’s dead. A lot of the score uses microphones, and any sort of difference of expression there is created by the clashing of microphones. I find that I love that.” Perhaps one of the most hauntingly beautiful tracks is “Love” which has this strange strobing sound and you can clearly hear the scratches of the viola and the use of the bizarre vibraphone which descends in frequency. Listening to this track almost puts you into a state of hypnotic trance which mirrors the events taking place within the world of the film with The Female (Scarlett Johansson) lures unsuspected men into the void. What’s unique about Levi’s score is that something as seemingly ordinary as the viola becomes otherworldly, which was intentional by Levi and Glazer “we were looking at the natural sound of an instrument to try and find something identifiably human in it, then slowing things down or changing the pitch of it to make it feel uncomfortable.“ They certainly managed to pull off that ‘uncomfortable’ feeling, which is why the score is so unforgettable.
7. It Follows
Composer: Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland)
The score for David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” is another example of how effective the use of pulsing, throbbing music can be in creating a sense of panic and dread. Composed by Disaterpeace (real name Rich Vreeland), the score to “It Follows” pays homage to the synthetic music of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” which is a beautiful compliment to the overall visual look of the film, which has a very retro/vintage vibe to it. For the track entitled “Heels” we get a frantic build-up of music, which gives the impression of a countdown. Jay (Maika Monroe) has a limited amount of time to pass on the entity to someone else, so the music helps to reinforce the panic that she is feeling. In an interview, Disasterpeace explained his decision to use synths in “It Follows” stating that “synths can create sounds that are not always analogous to real-life sounds, they do a good job of being strange and harder to pinpoint. I think that tendency can ignite the imagination. It’s perfect fodder for writing scary music.” As synths sound so artificial, we instantly become aware that what we are hearing is not a natural sound, which sets off our fight or flight mode.
6. The Conjuring
Composer: Joseph Bishara
The music for the first installment of “The Conjuring” films is perhaps the most traditional score on this list. Joseph Bishara has scored for other horror films including the “Insidious” series, but it’s his work for “The Conjuring” which is perhaps the creepiest and most effective. Bishara has always been obsessed with horror film scores ever since he watched “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu,” which would explain how the score for “The Conjuring” sounds more classical with the use of brass instruments such as horns. Bishara’s decision to use horns in the piece “Dead Birds” helps to create a very unsettling and ominous feeling, as we’re here the wailing of the wind or the shrill shirking a bird makes. The film’s score also features strings that sound like a low groan, which is perhaps best demonstrated in the film’s main theme entitled “The Conjuring.” When asked about his decision to use stringed instruments, Bishara stated “For me, it is often about trying to get myself in a place where I can hear an inner voice as clearly as possible so I can translate that. So the way that I write for strings really is about finding a suitable voice for all these things that I’m hearing in my head.” I’m not quite sure what to make of that statement, but his score for “The Conjuring” certainly has a way of invading your mind and making you think there’s something sinister whispering inside your head.
5. Get Out
Composer: Michael Abels
It was a hard decision to pick between Michael Abels score for Jordan Peele’s “Us” or “Get Out,” but ultimately it was “Get Out” which won. What makes Abels’ score somewhat unique compared to others featured on this list, is the way he incorporates the use of African American music, which reflects the themes of the film. Abels described his score for “Get Out” as “gospel horror,” and to achieve this he used Swahili incantations with a blend with an array of unusual and unfamiliar instruments such as the African kora which is a string instrument with 21 strings which sounds like a cross between a harp and a lute, and the Middle Eastern oud which is lute instrument with 11 strings. The film’s main theme “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” is a perfect demonstration of how Abels blends the sounds and music of different cultures. Abels was a perfect fit for the role of composer, as he explained in an interview, Peele had “been looking for someone who could have lived some of the scenes that the lead character in this film has lived. I’m African-American so I could write from my own experience.” The track, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” almost acts like a ghostly warning to the character of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as Abels explains, “The voices are meant to represent the departed slaves and lynching victims. They are trying to reach Chris, the lead character, and speak to him from beyond.” What is so unique about this piece of music, is the way it begins with an upbeat melody, before the whispering chanting begins, reinforcing the idea that the real truth is being suppressed by deep-rooted systematic racism that plagues our society today.
Composer: Thom Yorke
The music to the original 1977 film “Suspiria” is somewhat iconic in the world of horror cinema. The Italian prog-rock band Goblin composed most of the film’s score in collaboration with the film’s director Dario Argento himself. Even if you haven’t seen the 1977 version, you probably would recognize its score. How does one manage to distinguish their music for the 2018 remake from the music of the original film when the original score has become so ingrained in cinematic history? This was the challenge faced by Radiohead’s frontman, Thom Yorke who was specifically chosen by director Luca Guadagnino, who explained that the film’s composers “should be someone who speaks for my generation, that is the voice of my generation.” Although the film opens with the not-so-frightening track entitled “Suspirium” this song is very melancholic, creating a sense of unease and sorrow, and more importantly, it instantly sets the film apart from its 1977 predecessor. In terms of creating pure horror, the track “Volk” will send shivers down your spine, it creates the sense that you are falling into a hypnotic void through space, which was intentional by Yorke as he explained in an interview, “hypnotic thing is extremely important because what you’re trying to do is lull people into some sort of odd, false sense of security, and then not let them go.” With the use of electronic synths, Yorke manages to create an alien soundscape that feels like an attack on our senses, the music sounds so alien to us that it sets us on edge. As the combination of sounds in the music doesn’t seem to match with each other, our mind struggles to process it, which makes it so frightening to listen to. In Yorke’s own words, “the essence of what is disturbing in sound is when frequencies and tones fight against each other — no longer in harmony.”
Composer: Colin Stetson
There’s something deeply menacing about Colin Stetson’s music for Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” From the very getgo, the music is used effectively in order to create a sense of dread and build upon that sinister atmosphere which Aster has managed to create. In the track entitled “Funeral” Stetson cleverly incorporated a saxophone to create a droning sound, the ‘drone’ sound is one that provokes the fight or flight scenario, as stated by Neil Lerner, a musicologist and professor at Davidson College, “It’s the sound of dread. And that’s something that [I think] triggers fear in all kinds of creatures.” What’s unique about the score for “Hereditary” is that the music almost feels like it’s alive and trying to communicate with us. This was intentional by Stetson who explained that “the score itself was a character in the film. Namely, the character of the unfolding narrative. It was like establishing this additional character in the narrative, rather than having the score playing themes for each character and things like that. This was an additional character who had relationships with all of them.” Stetson certainly has a way of making music that should sound uplifting and inspirational come across as sinister and disturbing, and as a result, it plays on our perceptions. Perhaps, the best example of this lies in his track entitled “Reborn” which starts off seemingly innocent, almost cheerful before those ‘drones’ pipe up. What makes the score for “Hereditary” so effective is the fact it manages to create a sense of discomfort and unease, so much so that it even disturbed Stetson, “there were some nights where I’d be working on it and I’d find myself listening to sounds in the house in a different way than I had been. I felt a palpable discomfort and was like, ‘What the fu*k is that?’ Then I realized I’d been in Hereditary world every day.” If the music for “Hereditary” can even scare its creator then you know it’s truly the stuff of nightmares!
2. The Witch
Composer: Mark Korven
Other composers on this list have used a range of strange and unusual instruments to create their nightmarish music, but Mark Korven (the composer for Robert Eggers’ 2015 film “The Witch”) took things a step further and created his own instrument he affectionately dubbed “The Apprehension Engine.” Korven commissioned guitar maker Tony Duggan-Smith to create the strange and unique instrument, which was made up of guitar string, metal rulers, and curled scrap metal, that helped create the disturbing sounds we hear in the film. In an interview, the composer explained his and Eggers’ intentions for the score stating they wanted it to be “quite minimal, and keep any human imperfections in the score. The score is tense and dissonant, but there’s also a certain fragility there, which reflects these people living on the edge of existence.” In the track “A Witch Stole Sam” Korven uses a mixture of frantic strings, a steady clapping sound and chanting to create a sense of foreboding dread and menace, this is the piece of music for when we discover what has happened to the baby that has been stolen by the witch and it makes the scene even more disturbing to watch. The eerie frantic scratching sound we hear throughout the film happens to belong to a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. Korven had a difficult task of not being able to use certain instruments as he stated in an interview, Eggers requested that there would be “no drums, no woodwinds, no brass, and maximum dissonance at all times.” As a result, we get an unusual combination of strange instruments creating sounds which our ears don’t instantly recognize, this creates a sense of alienation and places us in the shoes of the banished Puritan family in the film who are fighting both real demons and their inner demons as well.
Composer: Christopher Young
Although the 2012 film “Sinister” is littered with plot-holes so big you go drive a truck through them, the film’s score by composer Christopher Young still stands up today and is perhaps the most frightening score to be included in this list. The music is so disturbing and unsettling that it has become infamous in its own right. Young stated that he usually uses an orchestra to compose his music, but “Sinister,” marked his first all-synth/sound-design-based score. What is so brilliant about the music for “Sinister” is that almost every track begins with a soft pleasant piano melody that lulls you into a sense of full security, as Young explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he saw his role as a composer as “ being the barker at a carnival. A good barker can get anyone to walk into the roped-off tent. Especially with the main title, my job is to convince the audience to take the leap into the film even though their better sense is telling them, “I should put my popcorn down and get the hell outta here!” Perhaps the most effective track is “BBQ ‘79” which starts off seemingly innocent to perfectly complement the footage seen in the film, but as the music continues it becomes even more and more distorted and the piano melody becomes almost lost within the distorted sounds and wails. Halfway through the track, we hear what sounds like a record skipping, before the sounds of wailing chanting drown out the piano melody. The sudden change in sounds and tone catches us off guard. It’s this switching of the melodies which makes Young’s score so iconic, and it’s almost his trademark, his discussed this technique in interviews before, “I love holding a score together with a handful of melodies in a way that only dramatic movies would allow you to do. My head is filled with a variety of musical voices and they can shuffle around quite easily.” It’s this weird mash-up and mixing of melodies that works, and even though “Sinister” is a messy movie, there’s something about its score which manages to leave the viewer with goosebumps, and it’s for this reason alone that it manages to nab the number one spot on this list.
What are some of your favorite horror movie scores from the past decade? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
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