Imagine yourself asleep in a tent, in the middle of the woods. You are awoken by an unfamiliar sound. It’s not a completely unfamiliar sound. It could be the falling of a leaf, or the wind through the trees or a the breaking of a twig. It is the silence that surrounds the noise that makes it unfamiliar. You don’t know what it is. So, in your mind it is some unimaginable horror. You now become acutely aware of your surroundings. You can now hear your own heart beating. You rustle a bit in your sleeping bag. Your breathing becomes labored. You are all too aware of the sounds that you are making. You are afraid of who or what you might be drawing towards you with these sounds. You hear the noise again! Everything stops. Your ears have tapped into some primal ability to detect a threat. But, your modern mind doesn’t know what to do with that information. It starts to create sound where there is no sound. You think you hear grunting in the distance. You could swear a child is laughing somewhere in the darkness. You would never open the tent to inspect this. No, you just lie back down, close your eyes and hope it all goes away. Your breathing returns to normal, you heart beat slows down, your ears slowly shut out the world until you eventually fall back to a peaceful sleep.
No film score can compare to the horror soundtracks we create in our own heads. We are the composers of the most frightening scores imaginable. When our imagination invites a little fear or dread, we create a cacophony of horrific noise. This is what makes a good horror score so fascinating. It is a music that needs to cut to the core of our being in order to be effective. Horror is more frightening if it is successful in pulling you into the screen. To do this, It needs to get inside your head. There is no better, sinister brain surgeon than music. So, here are 5 horror film soundtracks that take that drill and really get in there.
The Legend of Hell House 
Music by Delia Derbyshire
Delia Derbyshire came up in the world of radio and television, creating music and sounds effects. Her blend of acoustic instruments with electronic music and sound effects made her a pioneering figure in the electronic music world. On Legend of Hell House Derbyshire creates the perfect blend of noise, pulse and music. There are nods to classic horror with the use of organs and orchestral instruments. But, the unfamiliar sounds are really where this music takes hold.
Kubric had a knack for “borrowing” music for his films in a way that made them feel completely original and specific to the images he created. Like his use of Gyorgy Ligeti’s pieces in 2001 a Space Odyssey, the Shining consist mostly of Krzysztof Penderecki pieces that seem to have been written specifically for this film, however not. The tone of the film and the music are equally dreadful and emotive. We are also treated to an original theme written by the great Wendy Carlos (A Clockwork Orange). It embodies all the great MOOGiness of the era.
Music by Collin Stetson
Colin Stetson’s collaborative resume includes a who’s who of indie rock, including Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem, as well as Tom Waits and Lou Reed. But, he has found a strong footing with his solo work. If you look up his soundtrack work, you’ll probably find that you are more familiar with his music than you initially thought. On Hereditary, Stetson lets our brains do the work for us. The growls and swirling arpeggiated horns give the sense that you are stuck in your own mind which can be the most terrifying. Sometimes the monsters are inside of us.
A Quiet Place
Music by Marco Beltrami
I would imagine as a composer, scoring a film where the premise is “if you make a sound, you die” might be a bit of a daunting task. In A Quiet Place silence plays a leading role. Beltrami supports this role by leaving plenty of space and adding textures that seem to grow out of the silence. Anechoic chambers are considered to be the quietest places on earth. They say that if you spend more than a few minutes, you start to hear your own body. You’ll hear the blood moving through your veins and your lungs expanding and contracting. They say if you spend more than an hour inside one, you start to go mad. Betrami’s music gives a similar feeling. It starts from a whisper and escalates to a panicked pace, as you realize that you can’t stay quiet forever.
Music by Mark Korven
The VVitch is one of my favorite modern horror films. At this point, we’ve seen all the jump scares and CGI monsters we can handle. The VVitch approaches a horror genre with consideration to what might have passed as “horror” for puritans living in 1600s New England. Much like the movie, Korven keeps the listener in this time and place. He pairs antiquated instruments, natural noise and atmospheric arrangements that let Puritan superstitions and the backdrop of nature and isolation carry the horror. I’m very much looking forward to his new collaboration with director Robert Eggers, with The Lighthouse, which is being released on the very Friday this is being published!
Spooky Halloween, Everybody!