Some of the scariest movies have featured the most terrifying scores, but that's not always the case. Often, great horror movies use dull soundtracks that either come across like a wall-to-wall jukebox of hard rock radio hits or a predictable soundbed of classical music that rises and dips with the action of the film.
But when the formula is just right, the music that accompanies a horror film acts as an integral element that's as important as the cinematography, building the tension of the story and providing sonic motifs at key moments. Here are 10 of the creepiest, most haunting horror film scores ever recorded.
10. Friday the 13th - Harry Manfredini
Strings that swirl, glide, and violently shriek, and horns that start out soft and ominously build create a menacing tone that complement the action in this chase 'n' slash classic. But the most memorable element of Manfredini's score is the echoing, breathy whispers that foreshadow a horrific kill. "Kii, kiii,kii, haa, haa, haa."
9. Hellraiser - Christopher Young
The music in the Hellraiser soundtrack won't "tear your soul apart," but it subtly gnaws at the nervous system with its eerie, minor-key orchestration, dissonant, climactic passages, and fear-inducing noises, including bell, harp, string, and percussive echoes that will have you looking behind your chair even before Pinhead and his minions arrive to to do their evil bidding. Beautifully arranged and executed, the score works as a complete, darkly romantic symphony from start to finish.
8. Rosemary's Baby - Krzysztof Komeda
The lullaby song that propels this Roman Polanski classic is both gorgeous and harrowing. Beyond the main theme, Polish jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda creates fully orchestrated melodies that are variously whimsical and at other times foreboding and eerie.
7. Jaws - John Williams
The root of the recurring theme is composed of three notes in a four-note passage that surface whenever the shark approaches a victim, and builds into eight notes by the time the water had turned blood-red. The rest of the score is alternatively placid and turbulent, driven by braying horns and gliding strings. Hear the main theme and you might think twice about stepping in the water.
6. Eraserhead - David Lynch and Alan R. Splet
The nightmarish industrial soundscapes of David Lynch's 1977 debut influenced everyone from David Fincher to My Bloody Valentine. The noisy washes of static, whirring machines, shattering glass, hissing crickets, barking dogs, and random keyboard sounds are intercut with snippets of Fats Waller, and it all perfectly complements the disturbing, surreal storyline. Coupled with the wonderfully unsettling Peter Ivers-penned "In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)," Eraserhead created a new frontier for relatively melody-free movie soundtracks.
5. The Exorcist - David Borden, Mike Oldfield, others
The theme for The Exorcist is one of the most instantly recognizable in horror movie history. The song is Mike Oldfield’s hauntingly beautiful "Tubular Bells," which wasn't actually written for the film. The rest of the score is a hodgepodge of orchestral snippets by Jack Nitzsche, Lalo Schifrin, Krzysztof Penderecki, Anton Webern, Harry Bee, Hans Werner Henze, and minimalist composer David Borden, performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Combined with rattling sound effects assembled by the studio's music department, the experience is unforgettable -- especially "Tubular Bells."
4. Suspiria - Goblin
As with many of Dario Argento's films, Suspiria used the talents of Italian progressive-rock band Goblin to maximal effect. Evocative, eerie, and otherworldly, the band mixed then-state-of-the-art synthesizer sounds with tribal drums, demonic whispers, and droning guitar lines, and accompanied them with recurrent melodies, such as the main theme, which inspired other composers to employ similar techniques.
3. Psycho - Bernard Hermann
Composed by Bernard Hermann and performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Psycho used dramatic string arrangements to present a sonic depiction of the deranged developments at the Bates Motel. Even without watching the movie, the soundtrack tells the demented, tension-filled tale. And never has there been a series of high pitched, staccato violins, and sliding notes that so effectively illustrated the sound of a shower murder and its aftermath.
2. The Omen - Jerry Goldsmith
"If something frightening happens to you today, think about it. It may be 'The Omen'" was the slogan for this timeless 1976 horror film about a boy who is born as the Antichrist and the terror he inflicts from his birth. The music for the film reflects the entire storyline, expressing everything from the joy of birth to the realization that all is not what it seems in this nursery of Hell. The climactic theme, with its reverberating tympani, sinister choral passages, and haunting strings, helped make this one of the most powerful and terrifying original scores in the history of horror.
1. Halloween – John Carpenter
While he's best known as a director, John Carpenter wrote music for all of his films. But none was better than the simple, keyboard-rooted score he composed for Halloween. The main theme combined a primitive drum machine, ominous keyboard, and a minimal melody that many have imitated, but never presented with the effectiveness of Carpenter's finest. The simplicity of the few chilling notes sinks to the core of the viewer without the need for complex orchestration or multi-textural arrangements. Every movement in the score is a variation on Carpenter's formula, using different melodies to convey the same sense of dread. In the case of Halloween, both visually and aurally, simplicity is the most horrifying form of expression.