Judging the Year’s Scariest Movies By Their Throwback Soundtracks

By  · Published on October 17th, 2014

Universal Pictures

Horror films live and die by their scores because the music is what helps drive the story and makes us feel anxious. While the images get stuck in the front of our brains, hearing tracks like John Williams’ theme for Jaws immediately takes us back to the fearful place the film conjured up when we first watched it.

In the spirit of the season, I looked back over the horror scores released this year to see which delivered the most frightening music and soundscapes, and discovered a recurring, synth-y theme. First, a little history.

Horror scores have evolved over the years, but the first true horror film score was Franz Waxman’s score for Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. In the beginning, these scores were full of rich, almost romantic orchestration that was more about the thrill than creating a sense of foreboding leading up to a jump scare. In the 1950s, James Bernard introduced the idea of more jarring instrumentation that focused on creating a sense of fear like his commanding score for Hammer Horror’s Dracula.

But in 1960 the sound of horror changed forever with Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. Herman brought the strings to the forefront and not only made them sound scary – he made them sound abrasive and made them forever synonymous with Norman Bates’ knife.

While Herman definitely moved the sound of horror into a whole new direction, it was John Carpenter’s score for Halloween that took horror into the electronic age. By using a synthesizer, Carpenter was able to create sounds that felt familiar, but slightly off – the perfect approach for scores that aim to keep you on your toes.

Today’s horror scores toggle between all these different influences, but as composer Christopher Young pointed out to me in an interview earlier this year, “I don’t care how inventive you are, once you introduce strings into the ensemble for a horror film, you’re entering into a world where a tradition has been thoroughly established.” There are only so many ways to reinvent sounds, but horror is the one genre where it is almost imperative to do something unexpected in order to get a surprised reaction and deliver the scares.

So how does one do this?

For Lucas Vidal, utilizing found sounds (like brakes screeching on a subway track) helped add a different dimension to his score for The Quiet Ones. Although incorporating found sounds in a score is not a new approach (see: Goblin’s score for Suspiria), Vidal makes the interesting choice to take things one step further and focus solely on harsh sounds in tracks like “Bathtub Attack.” Where Carpenter used synth to create familiar sounds with an apprehensive edge (like his theme for The Fog), Vidal goes in the opposite direction featuring upsetting sounds that aren’t masked by or combined with music. It is a direct approach and one that definitely works to create fear, but that feeling is almost outweighed by a desperation to get away from what is happening.

Young is a horror music master having composed the scores for classics like Hellraiser, Trick or Treat, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. But it was Deliver Us From Evil that gave Young the opportunity to take his orchestral background (and understanding of how to use it when it comes to horror) and add in more modern electronic elements. Young’s score for Deliver Us From Evil starts out as almost a throwback to the days of Waxman and Bernard with the classical sounding “Without Faith,” but it quickly devolves into something much more sinister as electronic elements and sounds are woven in on tracks like “Procession and Possession” and “The Devourer of Souls.”

It is this dichotomy between music and sound that make up the fabric of modern horror scores – a necessary dance between what is familiar and recognizable and what is off-putting and unknown. Rather than using bold orchestration to create a thrilling feeling like Waxman and Bernard did, the use of music in today’s horror scores is almost meant to give you a false sense of calm before harsher found sounds or electronic elements come in to make you jump.

Like Young, Nathan Whitehead also relied on strong orchestration in his score for The Purge: Anarchy. His music is certainly amplified and elevated beyond the strictly orchestral scores of years past, but Whitehead also combines it with foreboding atmospheric sounds and electronic elements to keep everything feeling just a bit off. On tracks like “Commencement,” where all these different elements begin to build and fold in on one another, there is no question about the fear Whitehead’s music is creating – with or without the accompanying images on screen.

Annabelle composer Joseph Bishara’s approach was similar to Whitehead’s in combining orchestral, found, and electronic elements to create a fever pitch of sound in tracks like “Not My Blood.” Like Carpenter, Bishara knows how to utilize elements of synth, but has modernized it to shift around the accompanying music and sounds in a way that causes the moments when the louder elements crash back in (like in “Black Stroller”) literally make you jump out of your seat.

Unlike the feeling Vidal created by focusing only on uncomfortable sounds, the fear Whitehead and Bishara create comes from not being able to focus on any one element and therefore not able to anticipate what may happen next. Vidal’s approach may illicit one emotion (the need to get away from something sharp and biting), but Whitehead and Bishara make you want to run and never look back.