What makes the song ‘This is Halloween’ from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ sound so creepy?

21 December 2018, 18:37 | Updated: 7 January 2019, 11:01

The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas. Picture: Getty

By Helena Asprou

From strange lyrics and unusual instrumentation to a spooky minor key, here’s what makes this catchy tune a scare fest.

A cult classic among film fans, Tim Burton’s animated movie The Nightmare Before Christmas follows the misadventures of Jack Skellington, Halloweentown’s pumpkin king.

Jack has grown tired of scaring people for a living, so when he discovers the colourful setting of Christmastown, he decides to kidnap Santa Claus and steal his limelight – but it doesn’t quite go to plan.

Released in 1993 and composed by Danny Elfman, the soundtrack to the hit movie has become just as popular as the story itself, especially the kooky song ‘This is Halloween’.

Everything about this imaginative tune fits in perfectly with the film’s dark, fantasy theme – but what is it about the music that makes it so undeniably creepy?

It’s all about the beat

One of the defining features of this piece is its unusual time signature. It starts off in 4/4 with a moderate tempo and every other beat is emphasised, giving the music a commanding, march-like quality.

However, this is cut short at the end of the chorus when the timing temporarily changes to 3/4:

4/4: It's our town, everybody scream
3/4: In this town of Halloween

The sudden change gives a feeling of unease, and the listener doesn't quite know where the music will go next.

Syncopated rhythms also appear throughout, for example during the lyrics: ‘Everybody's waiting for the next surprise’. The unusual emphasis of the off-beat adds another dimension of uncertainty and imbalance to the song.

Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman, composer of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Picture: Getty

An unsettling key signature

Despite starting off in C Minor, the song modulates to G Minor and then up to Ab Minor for the chorus – ascending to heighten tension as the critters prepare to scare. Later, it switches to F# Minor for the next verse and continues to change for the remainder of the piece – which is peppered with naturals, flats and sharps – before finally ending in G Minor.

A clever highlight is the soar from C# up to Ab during the solos for ‘Creature Under The Bed’, who is hiding and getting ready to pounce with ‘Teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red’.

Note duration and a spooky melody

The music for ‘This is Halloween’ is largely detached as staccato quavers and semiquavers feature heavily throughout. You can hear this clearly in the strings during the intro, which sets a spooky tone for the rest of the piece.

By contrast, the lyrics ‘In this town we call home’ is set to a rhythm of two quavers followed by a crotchet. This slows down the pace of the song as the vampires descend and creates yet again, another eerie dimension to the song.

The oh-so-catchy chorus

Elfman uses note repetition both in the lyrics ‘This is Halloween, this is Halloween’ and in the main melody, which includes a series of three notes played as a descending scale.

Although the repetition is subtle, it's constant, and creates a dreary picture of the world we're being introduced to.

Tim Burton
Tim Burton. Picture: Getty

Instrumentation

To create that wonderfully rich sound, whispering voices are combined with heavy instrumentation, which includes the piano, cello, violins, woodwind and brass.

Elfman has even thrown in a few cow bells, tambourines and wood blocks for good measure.

Broken arpeggios in the flute and brass are also used to portray the destructive nature of witches and corpses. The contrast in these instrument timbres creates a tug-like effect of extremities, complemented by the chugging off-beat of the song.

Crescendos further add to the ghoulish excitement and are especially relevant in the brass part for ‘Everybody scream, everybody scream’.

MCM Comic Con
MCM Comic Con. Picture: Getty

Finishing touches

The size of this ensemble might be impressive, but it’s what the musicians are actually doing that gives the music its unique character.

From tremolo strings, repeated down-bows and pizzicato detail to accented notes and rapid harp glissandos, there’s layer upon layer of texture and a real sense of movement.

The debate is still open as to whether ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is actually a Christmas film or a tribute to Halloween, but one thing is for sure – this eerie tune is likely to stick around for quite some time.