It’s not a hard and fast rule that a horror movie’s only as good as its theme music, but a memorable, eerie, or unsettling score does go a long way. Horror movies should aim to scare viewers through their stories and visuals, of course, but sound is just as important, and often works to provoke feelings on a more subtle or even subconscious level. As such, those horror movies that go the extra mile with their music deserve to be highlighted.
The following films are all classics of the horror genre, and are all celebrated for the music they use, too. Most are older films, suggesting that either horror music scores were more adventurous in decades past, or perhaps that it just takes a little time for a score to become iconic and ingrained in the minds of many. Either way, these are great movies with great scores, standing out as highlights of the horror genre in both these departments.
10 ‘Psycho’ (1960)
By Bernard Herrmann
It’s difficult to imagine Psycho – one of the greatest and boldest movies of the 1960s – existing without the iconic score composed by Bernard Herrmann. Of course, the uncompromising direction courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock and the surprising (for its time) story about a woman coming across a strange motel shine in their own right, but things are paired with Herrmann’s score in an uncannily striking way, particularly when it comes to the widely-discussed shower scene.
But even before this, the opening theme for Psycho – played over the opening credits – sets the tone perfectly straight away, and injects a certain amount of anxiety into the film before the story even gets underway. The screeching strings used in the score are so iconic that even those who’ve not yet seen Psycho will likely recognize the music; that’s surely one way to know you’ve done your job as a composer.
- Release Date
- June 22, 1960
- Alfred Hitchcock
- Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland
- Main Genre
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9 ‘The Exorcist’ (1973)
Tubular Bells and its use in The Exorcist is an interesting case, because while it wasn’t music written for the 1973 film, it’s become synonymous with it. It’s easy to think of the opening theme of Tubular Bells as being an unofficial theme for The Exorcist series as a whole, with it even being reappropriated in the most recent (and not exactly beloved) series entry: The Exorcist: Believer.
The album known as Tubular Bells, by Mike Oldfield, reached a surprising level of popularity thanks to a small portion of it showing up in this iconic horror movie. Perhaps it wasn’t expected to become an unofficial theme, nor does the progressive/instrumental rock album sound like it would become a popular hit, but it speaks to how monumental this film (and its music) was back in 1973. The album’s sold millions of copies worldwide, and the portion used in The Exorcist is undeniably creepy, perfectly fitting in with the tone of the overall film.
- Release Date
- December 26, 1973
- William Friedkin
- Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb
- 122 minutes
- Main Genre
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8 ‘Halloween’ (1978)
« Halloween Theme – Main Title » by John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s a filmmaker who’s also a composer, and has frequently written the scores for his own movies. The most iconic theme of his is probably the one found in Halloween, which – perhaps not coincidentally – is also up there as one of his most iconic films. It stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence, and was the world’s introduction to Michael Myers: a fearsome and mysterious killer who goes on a murder spree one Halloween in the fictional town of Haddonfield.
The main theme in Halloween is fantastic for its simplicity, and has the kind of melody that, once heard, is never forgotten. It matches the simple premise of the film, which is all about surviving a seemingly unstoppable murderous force, and the driving piano matches the unrelenting nature of Michael Myers as an antagonist. It might not be flashy, but it is certainly memorable, and complements the rest of the movie perfectly.
- Created by
- John Carpenter
- First Film
- Halloween (1978)
- Latest Film
- Halloween Ends
- Michael Myers
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7 ‘Saw’ (2004)
« Hello Zepp » by Charlie Clouser
Saw was certainly a surprise hit back upon its release in 2004, having a very low budget and largely – though not entirely – taking place in a single location. The first film followed people being challenged in a series of painful and psychologically intense tasks by a mysterious figure known as Jigsaw, with later films taking such a premise and pushing things further. Notably, the traps and challenges got more visceral, and the amount of blood and gore increased substantially.
The Saw sequels can stand out from the original in this way, but one thing maintained throughout all the entries is the use of the iconic track known as « Hello Zepp, » from musician/composer Charlie Clouser. It’s sinister and oddly infectious in equal measure, and has been repurposed and altered in every Saw film to date (not even Tobin Bell can claim to be so constant, as he didn’t appear in the ninth film, Spiral). « Hello Zepp » is often used near the end of each film, usually complementing the signature reveals/twist endings that the series is also known for. When the familiar motif kicks in, it’s a good sign things are about to get shocking and/or wonderfully silly.
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6 ‘The Thing’ (1982)
By Ennio Morricone
With The Thing, John Carpenter made another iconic horror movie just four years on from Halloween, though he notably didn’t compose the score this time around. That being said, Ennio Morricone did the score in a way that sounds unlike his other notable work (especially the lush, epic, and emotional scores he did for Sergio Leone’s films). To be blunt, Morricone made a score that sounded quite a bit like a John Carpenter score, but certainly not in a bad way.
Anything else wouldn’t have fit the feel this terrifying science fiction/horror movie was going for, so it’s safe to say that Ennio Morricone understood the assignment perfectly. Its main theme is subtle and sparse, to the point where listening to it divorced from the movie might not make it sound particularly compelling. But if you hear it in the proper context, alongside the desolate/cold landscapes and while feeling the isolation the film’s characters are going through, it’s essentially flawless.
The Thing (1982)
- Release Date
- June 25, 1982
- John Carpenter
- Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart
- Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller
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5 ‘Jaws’ (1975)
By John Williams
The Jaws theme by John Williams is so iconic that even though it lacks lyrics, just about anyone can hum and/or vocalize it. It goes something like « Duunnn dunn… Duunnn duun… Duuunnnnnnnn dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun… » and so on. It might be the only horror theme that can rival the Psycho theme for just how well-known it is, to the point where you might find it difficult to find someone completely unfamiliar with it.
The theme itself is a huge reason why Jaws is one of Steven Spielberg’s very best movies, and quite possibly his greatest thriller, too. The most iconic part of the score plays whenever the shark is near, and even stands in for the creature itself; implying it’s not far away, even if it can’t be seen. It’s well known by now that there were production-related problems with bringing the fearsome creature to life, but in the end, perhaps the best special effects 1975 could offer wouldn’t have been as effectively scary as that iconic John Williams score.
- Release Date
- June 20, 1975
- Steven Spielberg
- Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb
- 124 minutes
- Adventure, Horror, Thriller
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4 ‘The Omen’ (1976)
« Ave Satani » by Jerry Goldsmith
Though Jerry Goldsmith composed music for the first three movies in The Omen series, none of his music in movies #2 and #3 had quite the same impact as the main theme in 1976’s The Omen. « Ave Santani » is the first thing you hear when you watch the film, as it plays during the opening credits, setting the scene flawlessly. In fact, the music is so dramatic, powerful, and unnerving that some may feel the following film – for as good as it is – doesn’t quite live up to that music.
Nevertheless, the story here is still very interesting, revolving around what happens to a married couple who can’t conceive a child of their own, and end up adopting a boy who may be the Antichrist. The Omen is unsettling religious horror at its best, and this makes « Ave Satani » even more appropriate. It translates from Latin to « Hail Satan, » and was intended to sound like a satanic version of a Gregorian chant (in this sense, it undoubtedly succeeds).
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3 ‘The Shining’ (1980)
By Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind
The Shining is one undisputed classic that barely needs an introduction, as it is perhaps the greatest supernatural thriller/horror movie of all time. It showed what Stanley Kubrick was capable of when working within the horror genre… it turned out, quite a lot. At its core, The Shining is about a mysterious and seemingly haunted hotel that wreaks havoc in the lives of a family staying there, but it’s also an unsettling psychological horror movie and a subliminally eerie one, thanks to the ways it was made.
And, given it’s a great horror movie, it shouldn’t be too surprising to realize the music plays a great part in making things so creepy. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind did some of the most noticeable music in the film, including the horrifically unsettling main title theme that functions as an electronic reinterpretation of part of Symphonie fantastique, a 19th-century piece by Hector Berlioz. Carlos noticeably altered pre-existing music in an electronic fashion for Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, with the results being effective and disturbing there, too.
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2 ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980)
« Main Theme » by Riz Ortolani
While most R-rated horror movies can be extreme in their own right, Cannibal Holocaust goes one step beyond, making many other horror films aimed at adult audiences look like Sesame Street in comparison. Sometimes, controversy can feel overblown, but Cannibal Holocaust does genuinely earn its notorious reputation. It’s groundbreaking for being an early mockumentary, but also lives in infamy for the shocking violence, sexual content, and animal cruelty it graphically shows.
It’s a gruesome horror film that shows countless unpleasant sights, but it also has some jarringly beautiful music used for its score, particularly Riz Ortolani’s main theme. It contrasts in a genuinely fascinating way with the story and visuals of Cannibal Holocaust, and might also be effective in lulling the viewer into a false sense of security early on, thanks to how calming and serene the music is on its own. It’s a fascinating choice, score-wise, for a movie like this, but nevertheless a memorable one.
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1 ‘Suspiria’ (1977)
Whenever it comes to watching a Dario Argento film, you can be pretty sure you’ll bear witness to stylish/colorful visuals and/or a memorably wild and unique score. In the stylish and non-stop supernatural horror classic from 1977, Suspiria, you get both, but it’s the score that’s worth focusing on here. The music comes courtesy of a long-running progressive rock band called Goblin, and though they’ve done other scores for Argento and also worked with similar horror legend George A. Romero, their best work can be heard in Suspiria.
The main theme of Suspiria gives a perfect overview of what music is on offer throughout this strange and pulse-pounding horror movie. The music makes a splash, the colors are eye-popping, and the camera movement is all over the place in the best way possible. Suspiria is an assault on the senses in a good way, and the music by Goblin is a huge reason why it works so well in this regard.
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