October may be synonymous with Halloween and scary-movie marathons, but that doesn’t mean horror films have to be off-limits at other times of the year—any night you’re in the mood to curl up on the couch, turn off the lights, and watch knife-wielding maniacs or kids possessed by the Devil lay waste to naive people is a sufficient excuse to make your worst nightmares come true for a couple of hours. And a big part of what makes scary movies so, well, scary is the music behind the scenes. These seven films prove that.
Mia Farrow’s waifish form and pixie haircut make her instantly recognizable onscreen, but her childlike voice singing, “La la la” over and over in the title lullaby of Rosemary’s Baby, based on a 1967 best-selling horror novel by Ira Levin and adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski in 1968, has also remained burned on audiences’ brains for decades since the movie was released. In the film, scored by Krzysztof Komeda, songs with ominous titles like “The Coven” and “What Have You Done to Its Eyes?” add to the sense of foreboding as Farrow’s character, ill-fated housewife Rosemary Woodhouse, is impregnated by a demonic figure and gives birth to its spawn, which a group of Satan worshippers promptly whisks away and hides in the Woodhouses’ apartment building. So much for friendly neighbors.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The soundtrack to this 1974 independent film, directed by Tobe Hooper and loosely inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, has never been officially released to the public, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the most memorable in horror-movie history. Anyone who’s heard the nails-on-a-blackboard-esque screeches of the chainsaw-mimicking instruments on the title track can instantly conjure up visions of arch villain Leatherface as he claims his next teenage victim in a home filled with human-bone furniture. The Texas Chainsaw score comprises seven original songs in total, all by obscure Texas-based musicians, and original background effects by Hooper and Wayne Bell.
Like circus music gone wrong, the original score to this 1976 Richard Donner–directed film—in which a murderous child named Damien, who has a 666 birthmark and is destined to become the Antichrist, is substituted for a U.S. ambassador’s recently deceased infant and orchestrates the deaths of numerous innocent victims—was composed by Jerry Goldsmith. The Oscar-winning soundtrack is best known for its choral segment featuring an eerie Latin chant—Sanguis bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani (which translates as “We drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan”)—coupled with Ave Satani! and Ave Versus Christus! (“Hail, Satan!” and “Hail, Antichrist!”). Do you have chills yet?
Man-eating great white sharks are heart-stoppingly scary in their own right, but legendary composer John Williams managed to make them that much more terrifying with the soundtrack he composed for this 1977 movie, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Arguably one of the most recognizable melodies in cinematic history, the simplistic tune of alternating E and F notes that opens the film—and that will now forever symbolize imminent doom—earned it the number-six ranking on the American Film Institute’s list entitled “100 Years of Film Scores.” Williams described the theme, played on a tuba, to author Lester Friedman as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.” No matter how many times Jaws the shark draws blood from screaming Amity Island beachgoers in the movie, the music never ceases to give viewers goose bumps.
Who knew a simple piano melody in a minor key could make for one of the most bone-chilling songs in horror-movie history? John Carpenter did: for his epic 1978 slasher film, the director composed a theme that’s guaranteed to haunt viewers long after the credits roll. In stark contrast with the peaceful, fictional Illinois suburb where the movie takes place, the score supplies the perfect sinister backdrop for six-year-old Michael Myers’s knifing of his older sister and the subsequent havoc he wreaks on the town following his escape from a psychiatric institution fifteen years later. Halloween features excerpts of other songs as well—including the appropriately titled classic-rock hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” by Blue Öyster Cult—but it’s largely Carpenter’s composition that made a film produced on a budget of only $320,000 gross $47 million at U.S. box offices alone.
French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz might roll over in his grave in fear if he found out that a portion of his 1830 Symphony Fantastique was repurposed as the theme song of this Stanley Kubrick–directed 1980 psychodrama, based on the 1977 Stephen King novel of the same name. As seminal as Berlioz’s masterpiece is in its own right, the menacing orchestral strains of “Dies Irae,” part of the symphony’s fifth movement, seem custom-made for this particular thriller, in which Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) relocates his wife and young, clairvoyant son to a snowbound hotel in Colorado for the winter, goes insane, and eventually tries to murder his family.
John Carpenter rightfully does double duty on this list for the creepy music he composed not only for Halloween, but also for his 1980 thriller, The Fog. Pipe organs, accompanied by piano and synthesizer, provide the ideal sonic complement to an insidious fog bank, containing the vengeful ghosts of a crew of wronged sailors, that envelops the fictional Northern California fishing town of Antonio Bay, causes a variety of supernatural happenings, and claims six lives. As with Halloween, Carpenter keeps it simple, but to great effect.
Hitting the High Notes
Do you have chills yet? It’s hard not to—and that’s the beauty of masterfully composed scores to horror films. Not only do they play up the movies’ chilling visual elements, but they never get old, no matter how many times you revisit unforgettable flicks like these. Don’t believe me? Just try watching The Shining’s Torrance family drive over a precipitous mountain pass, or watching Halloween’s Michael Myers stalking high school girls, with the sound turned off. Not quite the same, is it?