The 13 scariest horror film soundtracks ever written

27 October 2020, 11:12

From ‘Psycho’ to ‘The Shining’: the most terrifying music ever written for the movies
From ‘Psycho’ to ‘The Shining’: the most terrifying music ever written for the movies. Picture: Warner / Universal / YouTube

By Rosie Pentreath

From ‘Psycho’ to ‘The Shining’, here’s THE definitive list of the most terrifying music ever written for the movies.

The shiver and flick of high glissando strings? Check. Long, low-frequency rumbling? Check. Sudden stab notes to double the effect of an on-screen jump? Check.

The following film scores have all the devices worthy of any good horror movie.

So with Halloween just around the corner, we thought we’d dust them off so you can plan your watching, and let the music determine just how rattled you’re willing to make yourself this All Hallows’ Eve…

Read more: These are the scariest pieces of music ever written >

  1. Psycho: Bernard Herrmann

    It’s those enduringly iconic violin stabs that do it.

    Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s tense 1960 horror film Psycho arguably set the tone for all horror scoring more than any other. It’s because of Herrmann that high string stabs became synonymous with on-screen scares.

    What’s most terrifying, is Hermann’s string stabs match the stabbing action on screen to make it feel all the more real. Ouch.

  2. Jaws: John Williams

    Similar to Psycho, the suspense and terror of the man-eating shark story, Jaws, is reinforced simply-yet-effectively by just a couple of well-chosen notes.

    Film composer extraordinaire John Williams opts for alternating notes just a semitone apart, played by the tuba.

    Williams himself summed it up well when he described the music as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do. Instinctual, relentless, unstoppable…”

  3. The Thing: Ennio Morricone

    Fellow horror film composer, John Carpenter (see below), described the late Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing as “fabulous”, in recent reminiscences about their collaboration on the film.

    “He added something to it, that I didn’t realise, didn’t ask for. He brought it: this deep, tragic sense that this is the end of things, of everything. Oh my god, it really worked. I was delighted with it.”

    Think rattling low pizzicato (plucked strings) and percussion, tense, tingling strings and organ, and sounds on a frequency low enough to send a shudder down the hardiest of spines.

  4. Rosemary’s Baby: Krzysztof Komeda

    The score for 1968 horror classic Rosemary’s Baby makes use of high piano tingles, followed by the “la la la…” of wistful, whispery vocals for the ultimate creep-factor in the film’s intro and recurring theme.

    As with the film’s little baby protagonist, the motto here seems to be: the nicer something seems, the scarier it will turn out to be…

  5. The Shining: Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind

    Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind collaborated on Stanley Kubrick’s only and endlessly iconic horror movie after their work with the director on A Clockwork Orange.

    Like most of Kubrick’s films, the soundtrack leans on pre-existing music – hello György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, your atonal music truly was made for horror flicks.

    But Carlos and Elkind’s cues can be heard in the film’s bone-melting organ and synths theme music, and bringing the rocky mountains to life with nauseating slices and swoops of electronic sound.

  6. Ghost: Maurice Jarre

    Maurice Jarre’s music for iconic love story slash horror film Ghost is more about being spooky and supernatural than outright scary.

    But the score sets up an intensity and uncertainness that makes the action on the screen all the more powerful and heart breaking.

    And so much so when set against THAT beloved ‘Unchained Melody’ clay throwing scene…

  7. The Exorcist: Mike Oldfield

    On the surface or in standalone listening, Mike Oldfield’s 1973 Tubular Bells is light and carefree really – cheerful even.

    But matched with the sinister story of a 12-year-old girl overtaken and inhabited by The Devil Himself – with incredibly bad language and snarls aplenty to match – the music takes on a much more foreboding and weighty mood.

    Yep, let’s face it: The Exorcist made that previously pretty unassuming piano motif creepy as anything.

  8. Beetlejuice: Danny Elfman

    Elfman’s Beetlejuice theme is underpinned by his favourite clever syncopation (off-beats) and string whirls, and features a tight brass melody that, well, just makes us nervous.

    The driving rhythm seems to both drag you along and leave you behind, utterly defenceless in the face of all the scary things that are going on.

  9. Under the Skin: Mica Levi

    Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin is Xenakis-esque – lots of creepy sliding and glissando stuff, with a sprinkling of futuristic shine in its instrumentation for harmonic strings and extended techniques.

    “Some parts are intended to be quite difficult,” Levi herself wrote about the score in The Guardian. “If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.”

  10. The Omen: Jerry Goldsmith

    As 1970s horror fests go, The Omen is right up there for chill factor.

    For the music, Goldsmith calls on uneasy, suspended choral chants underpinned by low, thudding winds, piercing strings, tubular bell glimmers and timpani rattles.

    Yep, a dark soundtrack worthy of the actual Antichrist.

  11. Suspiria: Thom Yorke

    Thom Yorke-of-Radiohead-fame’s soundtrack for the 2018 remake of witchy gorefest, Suspiria, is as beautiful as it is unnerving.

    And that’s a terrifying combination. Listen to the glassy harshness of ‘The Storm That Took Everything’ and try not to shiver; the creaks and cracks in the piano-led cue ‘The Hooks’; the positively heart-ripping atmosphere of the soundtrack’s vocal-led climax, ‘Suspirium’.

    Ooh. *Shivers*

  12. Halloween: John Carpenter

    Halloween isn’t complete without… well, Halloween.

    It’s real cushion-over-the-face stuff, this horror franchise. And it’s got a score worthy of all that scared-y stuff, provided by legend of horror scoring, John Carpenter.

    The piano suspends itself on one repetitive motif – reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (see above) come to think of it – while throbbing low brass, winds and percussion swell underneath to underpin the whole gruesome thing nice and scarily.

    Carpenter also wrote the music for horror classic The Fog, and directed The Thing, for which he enlisted Ennio Morricone’s film scoring talents (see above).

  13. Saw: Charlie Clouser

    The most memorable thing about Saw, let’s face it, is the saw.

    And the gore. But give ‘Saw soundtrack’ a Google, and the evocative strings rocked by crunching (eww) percussion and rattling drum beat will take you right back into the nightmarish torture cells we see countless people subjected to in their droves throughout the franchise’s nine-film history.

    Gross.

Andrew Collins celebrates the best and scariest horror film soundtracks in Saturday Night at the Movies this Halloween. Listen at 5pm, Saturday 31 October on Classic FM.