Hearing the fear
Horror music isn’t just thumps and shrieks—it has a rich, varied history
Their occasional merits (and enjoyable demerits) aside, the background score in a Ramsay brothers film was something to be endured or, at best, ignored. Yet, many of the films that inspired the brothers have wonderful music. There’s something about horror that frees up composers, allows them to experiment in a way that comedy or action might not allow. From genre-straddling geniuses like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone to cult artists like Popol Vuh and Goblin, the history of horror film music is varied and surprisingly rich.
It began, as so many things in cinema did, with German silent film. Horror was a recognised genre by the 1910s, but a score written specifically for a film was still a novelty. One of the first horror films for which a score was commissioned was Robert Wiene’s seminal The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). It was composed by the Italian Giuseppe Becce; sadly, the original was lost, though it was later “reconstructed”. Two years after Caligari, Hans Erdmann composed a famous score for the appropriately titled Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (the “gloomy melodics” of FW Murnau’s vampire film found approving mention in a review of the time). This too was lost, and recreated decades later.
Erdmann’s isn’t the only famous Nosferatu score. For his 1979 version, Nosferatu the Vampyre, with the vampiric Klaus Kinski in the lead, Werner Herzog reached out to the experimental band Popol Vuh. By then, horror film music had developed its own traditions and standardized sounds. Talkie horror scores began in Hollywood with composers like Max Steiner (King Kong, 1933) and Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935). The tradition was continued across the Atlantic by James Bernard, who composed for Hammer films in Britain. Along with the gothic tones and sudden orchestral stings that came to define horror film music, electronic instruments (like the otherworldly theremin) started to be used in the 1950s. And in 1960, for the shower scene in Psycho, there was the one-note shriek of Bernard Herrmann’s violins, as definitive a moment in horror scoring as the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night is for pop music.
Horror film music started to really flower in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Across the world, old and young composers experimented with new sounds or found appropriate ancient ones. Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda used lullabies, demonic chants and plangent jazz for his Rosemary’s Baby score. In Japan, Hikaru Hayashi combined traditional Taiko drums and human cries in his harrowing scores for Kurneko and Onibaba. Popol Vuh’s Nosferatu soundtrack had sitar and tanpura along with folksy pickings that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Fairport Convention record. It’s possible that Herzog was inspired by the soundtrack to the British pagan horror film The Wicker Man, which had released a couple of years before, and used old-timey English music instead of a traditional orchestral score.
If some composers were paring their sound, others were ramping it up. The 1960s saw the birth of giallo – stunningly lurid Italian slasher films. Perhaps the most important giallo practitioner was Dario Argento, several of whose films were scored by Ennio Morricone, who’d already redefined the Western soundtrack with his work on the Sergio Leone films. Morricone created a sensual, slightly Euro-trashy sound for Argento and other horror movie directors. Argento also collaborated with prog group Goblin, whose dense, bass-heavy sound can be heard in cult classics like Suspiria and Profondo Rosso.
The most influential horror composer to emerge in the ‘70s, though, might have been John Carpenter, who scored nearly all his films himself. Carpenter’s soundtrack work is nearly as well-known as his films today – you can hear his distinctive throbbing bass and creeping synths in everything from the soundtracks to It Follows and The Neon Demon (by Disasterpeace and Cliff Martinez respectively) to the theme music for TV shows like Stranger Things and Legion. (A different, and equally influential, approach to synth-based horror movie scoring can be heard on Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack for Katherine Bigelow’s vampire film Near Dark).
Today, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish between horror soundtracks and regular ones. The mad screech of Scott Walker’s opening theme for The Childhood of a Leader suggests an Omen remake rather than an arty psychological drama. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ squalling score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Jóhann Jóhannsson’s for Sicario, are more ominous than most horror film soundtracks, while Mica Levi’s music for Under the Skin (which, all things considered, is a horror film) is more haunting than one might expect. It’s not like film-makers today have abandoned the old-fashioned orchestral shriek when the monster shows its face. Yet, many have realized that mixing a little beauty into the horror makes for a more unsettling and memorable experience.