In 2019, I put together the soundtrack for a party, and selected the songs intentionally without cinematic affiliation. This year we return to the movies and pay attention to the scores. No diegetic rock songs or rap beats here blasting from Teenager #2’s boom box in the woods. These songs were all—for the most part—composed by and for their surrounding films in order to heighten and intensify audience emotions in every scene. You’ll hear screeching violins and wailing cellos, banging pianos and that sweet deep synth. As before, the more obvious choices like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Exorcist have not been included – we’re looking for some classics and deeper cuts here. If there’s a song missing, it may actually be on a previous Pumpkin Songs list so be sure to check those out too.
Please sit back in your concerto seat, light a fancy pipe, and let the natural background sounds of horror play a movie in your mind.
- “Dies Irae” by Hector Berlioz, performed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind from The Shining (1980). We start with, perhaps, one of the most iconic opening numbers in horror. Kubrick is known for his penchant for taking classical music and portraying it against his movies in a way that makes it seem new. Here, Carlos and Elkind’s arrangement of Berlioz’s classic symphony not only makes the drive to The Overlook Hotel feel ominous with the deep synth and winding road, but leaves an impact on audience’s minds forever. So much so that this track would later be sampled in Flanagan’s 2019 Doctor Sleep.
- “Suspiria” by Goblin from Suspiria (1977). The entire soundtrack for this film is fire, but we’ll start with the title track because it has so much going for it that takes a bit of what worked in earlier films and meshes it together in perfect chaos. You have the bells (The Exorcist), whispering/chanting (similar to Rosemary’s Baby), and this strumming and drumbeat that builds against synth in a way that should maybe not work but absolutely does. This is put against the scene where Suzy arrives in Germany in the midst of a giant rainstorm and the music fits not only the atmosphere of the weather but the nighttime neon as well. It’s a song that will make you want to twirl and cast spells at midnight.
- “Main Title” by Charles Bernstein from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). I only don’t include this among the “more obvious” scores because it’s not one of the ones people can offhandedly hum when they think of horror movies (that would probably belong to the jump rope chant). However, everything about this feels at once so 80s—the synth, the echoing drums, the stingers—and so perfect for a boogeyman chasing teenagers in their dreams. It’s entirely fitting that the first time we hear this theme is during a dream sequence so bizarre that it does have elements that stick with us; the score is at once a lullaby and a dirge.
- “Another Puzzle” by Christopher Young from Hellraiser (1987). You can hear, in some ways, the churchlike, operatic quality to this score. It feels a bit like you have entered a sacred space and are in the presence of a deity—one who has no issue with flaying you alive. There’s a gentleness to it and a hint of mystery which comes from the strings (kind of John Williams-esque). For how large the track begins with the horns, it becomes something a bit different once it transitions and, yet, it’s the same track—as if you have just solved the puzzle and moved to a different world.
- “It Was Always You, Helen” by Phillip Glass from Candyman (1992). This is probably one of my favorite scores of all time and one of my top piano arrangements. It’s the perfect blend of something apparently simple but actually complex (much like the Candyman mythos), and then once the choir joins in it becomes this horrifically beautiful thing. Like, this is a score that you would imagine in a romance or a drama, and here it is in a horror movie about Cabrini Green and gentrification and urban legends. The way the piano threads throughout the movie as a theme is also a thing of beauty but as it transforms in the final moments is something to keep listen for.
- “Bucket of Blood” by Pino Donaggio from Carrie. This score has such a build to a key moment. You can hear the strings and the horns carrying the track forward to an inevitable climax, and it ratchets your pulse higher and higher with it. The woodwinds come in here and there only to add to the anxiety as it just builds…and builds. Then, when you think, it can’t get any worse and the speed picks up, there’s resolution as you can literally hear the bucket fall. It’s a great piece because I can imagine another composer might have made the music more sentimental in this scene for juxtaposition, but it works because we, as an audience, know what’s about to happen and it heightens everything about that.
- “Prelude” by Bernard Herrmann from Psycho (1963). Here’s another song that’s just anxiety captured in sound. As our heroine Marion drives away with her stolen cash and a lot on her mind, we’re there in the car with her and this sound. That’s it. Just driving, anxiety, and this music. It feels like we’re being followed or chased, even if there’s no real proof of that. Herrmann does great work with the overall score—the obvious shower scene, I mean, come on—but it shines here through the magnificent string work.
- “Not Human” by Javier Navarrete from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). All of the scores for a movie that involves Guillermo del Toro are usually good, but there is something otherworldly about this one. This track begins with soft strings, light and low, as if we are descending into this other world and trying to solve the challenge. Then we have a male choir to signal the change as the music begins to ramp up tension. The strings—including a harp—speed up. On screen, this scene is infamous for its tension as Ofelia attempts to finish her task, but can’t help stray a little in front of the infamous Pale Man. The horns and drums come in and create a good sense of chase as the adrenaline amps up, but the music never loses its sense of magic.
- “The Well” by Hans Zimmer from The Ring (2002). This is another song that makes great use of the piano and a slow rhythm to build a sense of mystery and terror. At times, its sound is almost reminiscent of drops of water in a well, especially when its joined by other instruments like strings. It feels like innocence or a lullaby—as many tracks that revolve around ghosts/children do—but as it transforms to reveal the truth about Samara there’s a darkness to the sound that feels oh so delicious. The piano fades out a bit and the strings take center stage. There’s this continual build and fade that works so well, but then it fades back into the lullaby—and it just works so well on so many levels.
- “Music Box and Theme Finale” by Richard Band from The House on Sorority Row (1982). This song, in many ways, feels like a made-for-TV movie set in the fall where we’re going to learn valuable lessons and come of age. It has a sense of wonder, of magic, of friendship—and a creepy music box at the beginning that reminds me of clowns. In some ways, it doesn’t fit the tone of this classic slasher, but, in other ways, it totally does. It’s a nice score that is noticeable but does feel a bit at odds with what surrounds it at times—still worth noting.
- “End Credits” by Lalo Schifrin from The Amityville Horror (1978). Do you want a song that feels like you’re standing outside the fence of a haunted house and it’s autumn and the rusted playground equipment in the yard is obviously possessed? Then this is it. The stingers in this song hit hard, like a migraine. But the choir juxtaposed against them works upsettingly well, and then the piano and the strings make everything seem idyllic when everything is going wrong. This song is a perfect fit for its film and encapsulates a lot of the atmosphere of the movie in a way that works.
- “The Calling/The Neighborhood” by Jerry Goldsmith from Poltergeist (1985). This score begins on a dissonant and atonal note but eventually fades into what feels like the soundtrack for the advertisement for an idyllic neighborhood. It feels spooky and out of this world, but then becomes something All American and adventurous. I love the bits of percussion toward the end that ramp it up in a fun, kind of unexpected way. What starts as a creepy song that shows the danger lurking in suburbia becomes a song highlighting the upbeat motifs of such a life.
- “Opening – Sarah’s Theme” by Marco Beltrami from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019). The second I heard this song as the film began I knew Beltrami and Øvredal were going to do at least some justice to my beloved children’s series. It samples the infamous “Hearse Song” from the books and legend in an almost low key way and, as the song is repeated throughout the movie, this is a nice way to introduce it without being overt. It’s a great nod to the fans before weaving it into the plot. The piano seems to echo before additional instrumentation joins in to build the score before fading out again; it has an overall lonely, lullaby tone to it.
- “The Halloween Schoolbus Massacre” by Douglas Pipes from Trick R Treat (2007). Similarly, this song initially focuses on the piano instrumentation before building. It’s such a strong number that it does bring to mind the story within the anthology it follows—hence the title. There’s a gentle innocence to the tone, a mystery as the story unfolds in its telling through the strings, and an entangling in the joining of the two. Then there’s that pause where you can tell the score is changing before it begins to build and the tempo and rhythm become more manic and the percussion starts banging out. That’s when the story becomes more horrific and I just love it—a truly fantastic score.
- “The Diary of Patience Buckner” by David Julyan from The Cabin in the Woods (2012). From the get go, this feels like a creepy song. The violins are slow and dragging, there’s some discord coming in ever so slowly, and it focuses on these gorgeous strings. But! That distant build to something going wrong is always there and then the percussion goes—bang—and we get some stingers and all hell breaks loose and the song releases its monstrous family upon us. It’s not that long of a track, but I really appreciate the ways in which it takes the strings (Patience/innocence) and then twists them into this unavoidable horror we can’t escape.
- “Daddy, Are You Here?” by The Newton Brothers from Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016). I hate to describe so many songs as “creepy” but here it seems as if the music is literally doing that—crawling, creeping toward you, as if it’s going to lean over your shoulder at any moment. The strings do nice work to be both light and heavy as needed, balancing each other out in a gorgeous tandem, and there’s occasional moments of intentional dissonance which hit in interesting ways. I’d say the score is reminiscent of those from the 70s and 80s, which fits that nostalgic feel of the film overall, and when it ends on the piano it feels both like a relief and a new tepid kind of anxiety.
- “Suite, Part 2” by Fernando Velázquez from The Orphanage (2007). This encompasses a few moments from the film, but, dear God, it’s gorgeous. Haunting. Soft. Tragic. Tender almost. It matches the film so well. There’s such harmony between the strings and choir it’s practically seamless. This isn’t quite a lullaby but it’s almost there. If a ghost story can make you cry just by hearing it then it would sound like this. I really don’t know what else to say—just listen.
- “Narcotic” by Kenji Kawai from Dark Water (2002). This song seems to capture what it feels like to walk down a hallway dripping with water. There’s a slow tempo to the music as it builds and then cringes into a discordant note before transforming into a melodic piano and accompaniment. Here, there is release and melancholy, beauty and tragedy, and they’re twisted into this lovely score. You can almost hear the rain falling throughout the track, and it perfectly captures the ongoing presence of water that haunts the film itself.
- “Lonely Void” by Mica Levi from Under the Skin (2015). There’s something relaxing but not about this track. It feels as if you’re floating in a large dark vat of nothingness, occasionally interrupted by strings and haunted by a drum which never ceases. In that way, it’s eerie and upsetting. The high notes are almost unbearably so as if your human ears were not built for this range of sound, and it’s delightfully human in the way the lower levels skitter their sounds like exoskeletons.
- “The Demon Dance” by Julian Winding from The Neon Demon (2016). Unlike many of our more ‘natural sounding’ scores, this pop-synth track is as fake and glamorous as the models in the film it surrounds. It’s exactly the kind of song you could imagine playing in a club somewhere with illicit activities, but with every addition to the beat you find you don’t mind what’s happening as long as you can stay trapped in the song, this ambiance. Like, I both want to dance with glow sticks and hypothetically murder to this song and that’s a great place to be.
- “Run Motherfucker” by Adam Wingard, Mads Heldberg, Kyle McKinnon, and Jasper Lee from You’re Next (2011). What an apt title. This ode to 80s synth should be on everyone’s running playlist because it will inspire you like no other track has before. Not only will you feel as if you’re running for your life from masked intruders come to kill you, but you’ll also feel smart as hell doing it. The percussion almost sounds like gunshots, and then comes the guitars; it’s almost too much to handle against that relentless synth. If you need to feel amped up for any kind of last stand then this might be the music you need to do it.
- “Pas de Deux” by Michael Abels from Us (2019). A bit of a segue way in our playlist here as we find this unique blend between the classical and the modern. Originally, director Jordan Peele was going to use traditional ballet music for the scene between Adelaide and Red, but he thought it felt flat. Instead, Abels sampled Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” as a key aspect for the music and paired it with classical instrumentation to create that sweet, sweet vibe that made the film stick out so well in audience’s minds. The strings do great work to create so much tension between when they’re drawn or pizzicato and then that climax hits and it just whomps us away with the oomph.
- “Consumed by Fire” by Michael Yezerski from The Devil’s Candy (2015). We move from hip-hop inspiration to rock as this track from the indie darling literally slams the guitars into our faces. It begins a little quiet and then brings the noise with some horns and ominous, autotune-esque chanting before that sweet guitar comes in. It’s all about the build here in the climax of the movie as the characters literally fight for their souls in the midst of fans and flames. It’s memorable partly for what music means in the context of the scene and how it’s used, and this song solidifies that nicely.
- “Badass Bride” by Brian Tyler from Ready or Not (2019). You gotta love a song with a vibe in the title. This one begins with a hesitant piano that transitions so beautifully into this growing power. And then it explodes with synth and strings and confidence that oozes out of the speakers. You feel like you could take down your enemies to this song or escape a prison. Then it transitions back into that slow piano melody, mysterious, charming, and dangerous, before we get a bit of silence and then a guitar surprises us. It’s an interesting choice and welcome, and makes this track standout in more ways than one.
- “Panic Again” by Krzysztof Komeda from Rosemary’s Baby (1968). If you’ve ever wondered what a panic attack feels like in auditory form look no further. This feels as if the room is spinning around us as the horn blares over and over and slowly loses air and the piano plays in discordance. Then the woodwinds come in as if they have no wind for a chilling effect, and there’s a bit of a guitar here too. The song, overall, just makes you want to sit down, hold a wall, and take several deep breaths. And check the baby.
- “Reborn” by Colin Stetson from Hereditary (2018). We return to the orchestral, symphonic tunes since Stetson’s piece here sounds properly operatic. Everything about this song builds and builds to the finale (which is fitting since this is the end of the film). It’s also overwhelmingly beautiful in how it portrays this ritual in terms of the music: chanting, bells, choir, horns, strings—everything. It is an elaborate celebration that, when set against the film, becomes even more obscene. Somehow this track of what should be almost church music becomes tainted by its inspiration, and that is totally fitting.
- “Every 27 Years” by Benjamin Wallfisch from IT (2017). You know what’s really creepy? Children singing, especially when it echoes as if they’re singing underground. Then you get a melancholy piano and sad strings. This track is once again a little reminiscent of the orchestration of that “nostalgia 80s” feel, but keeps its foot firmly in the spooky realm with how smooth the notes blend into each other and refuse to ever seem properly happy. This fits the town of Derry just perfect since it’s a place that doesn’t ever seem to become happy. For a track that sets the tone for the film, it does creepy wonders.
- “All Hallow’s Eve Ball” by Alan Silvestri from Van Helsing (2004). Y’all can hate on this movie all you want but the score slapped from beginning to end. It definitely hit hard on the violins and nostalgia for the 1940s horror films, but in a way that seemed to complement rather than distract from the film. There’s a seduction and a mystery to this song at the ball—a sense of grandness at times—and then it slams into our action score as Van Helsing gets to doing what he do and trying to save the day. In many ways, it does sound similar to the action movies of the early 00s, but that early violin on the track is what does me in every time.
- “Gassed” by Bobby Krlic from Midsommar (2019). You know what song screws me up without needing to see the scene it takes place with because I can visualize it so clearly? This one. I knew the score was good the first time I watched it, but, even then, the way it heightens the horror and focus of the scene—which is largely silent—rather than distracting is key. It’s all about discord and chaos, pain, and the way it echoes like sirens in those first moments. Then that mildly fades out and we have the slow grief and mourning of the strings, which only get louder. Before a new note slowly starts to play and come in, closer and closer, until it’s basically a drumbeat summoning you into a new circle of hell as everything amps into a cacophony of grief.
- “What Went We” by Mark Koven from The Witch (2015). This is a fantastic score, not only because it encapsulates so much of what Eggers goes for with the atmosphere of his film, but because it’s just gorgeous as is. This feels like the kind of song a person might play over a fire in the dark of night, centuries ago, to ward away evil and chase away our collective fears. They’re still out there, lurking, but its beauty gives us something in that moment. It’s a tentative song with strength to it and hope. You can’t help but admire the smooth sound.
- “Abysmal Horizon” by Francois Tetaz from Wolf Creek (2005). We end here with the score that, in many ways, inspired some similar sounds in later films. Like, he literally took the sound of wind through barbed wire and wove it into the music. This song feels desolate and lonely in the sharpest of ways. It feels like being lost and not knowing when you’ll be found. The strings and echoing percussion make it feel so ongoing until there’s a moment of discord, but even that is only temporary. You may never escape the emptiness of this sound.
The great thing about a horror score is that it can accentuate so many of the things that are already working and take it to the next level. We can get an iconic theme from them, find new sounds to scare us to death, or discover anxiety via violin. It’s worth noting that while many of our favorite onscreen performances are captured by scream queens, behind the scenes it can be harder for women to find a place in the industry. Of the above list, only two scores were made by women—men are predominant in the industry. Hopefully, in the future, more minorities will be responsible for the sounds that make it harder to sleep. Until then, I’ve supplied you with 31 days of symphonic scares, and I hope you enjoy.
Welcome to OcTerror.