Music in Horror Movies – A Brief History of Fear

Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock originally intended for the shower scene in Psycho to have no music? Try to imagine your favorite scary movies without their eerie-yet-delicious soundtracks and think whether they would still have the same effect on you. 

Each genre of film employs specific techniques when it comes to scoring. Comedies are usually accompanied by upbeat music, adventure or action movies use dramatic effects and loud, powerful scoring to keep viewers engaged, while dramas play on our emotions with scores and harmonies that make us feel uplifted. 

When it comes to horror films, things are very different. More often than not, what horror movies present us with are not pleasant images or situations, eliciting tension, fear, suspense, anxiety, and even revulsion or terror. Composers certainly don’t have it easy, as the right score can make or break such a movie. Imagine films like Halloween, Jaws, or Suspiria with different music – it’s virtually impossible, that’s how iconic these soundtracks are by now. 

We’re big fans of horror movies at Cutting Room Music, and we’ve even scored a few of them. So, in the spirit of ‘sharing is caring,’ we wanted to present you with a brief history of horror film scores, as well as some techniques that composers use to elicit (much enjoyable) fear in their audiences. 

In the beginning, there was (mostly) silence

The horror genre has been around since the very beginning of cinema. Obviously, during the silent film era, there were no soundtracks to begin with, and film directors had only the visual aspect to rely on for horrific effect. That all changed when sound was introduced to movies, and the first horror movie to have a soundtrack was 1922’s Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau. Unfortunately, the original score has been lost, replaced in 1997 with new music by James Bernard. 

In the early days, horror films didn’t really have a proper soundtrack composed by scratch. Instead, directors and composers repurposed existing pieces of classical music to get their desired effect. King Kong (1933) was the first to break out of that mold. Initially, film studio RKO instructed composer Max Steiner to stick to repurposing existing music for budgetary reasons. However, director Merian C. Cooper disagreed, thinking that such an epic movie deserved an original soundtrack. He paid Steiner to compose and record original music for the film, which he did – in just six weeks and with the help of a 46-piece orchestra. Luckily, the folks at RKO loved the end result, and so King Kong became the first feature-length musical score written for an American movie. It was also the first movie score ever to be recorded on three separate tracks: music, sound effects, and dialogue.

1930’s to 1950’s: The golden era of horror movies

You know how people refer to the stretch of time between 1910 and 1960 as Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age?’ These were the most glamorous decades of Hollywood cinema, and the horror genre was no exception. Everything was grand, majestic, loud, and in-your-face. Including horror movies. 

When it comes to horror films, we could refer to this golden age as the age of ‘obvious’ horror. Think of movies like Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula (1931), or Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). They all had grand, impressive scores to go with the big scenes happening on the screen. These now-classic movies all featured bombastic, operatic orchestral scores, and not much in the area of sound design or effects. But that was about to change, thanks to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The landscape of horror films took a hard turn in 1960, when the iconic Psycho was released. Not only did Hitchcock’s masterpiece employ never-before-seen directing techniques, he also changed the way horror movies were scored. Bernard Hermann wrote the eponymous score for Psycho, and Hitchcock himself stated that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” 

We all know that infamous shower scene and the shrieking violins that accompany each stab of the knife. Hermann had a tight budget to work with, so he had to make the best of the resources available. He didn’t have the means to employ a 40-piece orchestra, so he made due with a small string ensemble and a lot of creativity. The result is probably the most recognizable sound in horror history. And to think that Hitchcock initially intended to have no music for that shower scene…

1970’s & 1980’s: An experiment in fear 

The Golden Age of Hollywood started losing its glamorous appeal in the 1960s, and soon enough, gone were the massive studio productions with huge budgets and majestic scores. There were, of course, some notable exceptions. In 1974, Steven Spielberg released Jaws, which featured an epic score by composer John Williams. The now-classic soundtrack earned Williams an Academy Award, even though it was a rather simple theme focused around just two notes. Two very unsettling notes. 

During the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, film directors and composers, especially those new to the scene, often had very limited budgets at their disposal. There were no 46-piece orchestras to record movie scores with, so they had to improvise and find other ways to elicit the desired reactions in movie audiences. 

The limited resources forced composers to experiment, and the result was another golden era of horror movies focused on synthesizers and electronic music. The best example from this time is John Carpenter’s Halloween, released in 1978. Carpenter only had $300,000 to make the movie, so there was no budget to hire a composer, let alone an orchestra. So, the director took matters into his own hands, creating the entire score himself in just three days on his keyboard. The Halloween theme has since become one of the most iconic film soundtracks of all time, with Carpenter even releasing a revamped version for the 2018 installment. 

The 1970s and 1980s were basically an experiment in fear, with composers constantly churning out new takes on traditional horror film scores. The emergence of electronic music and synthesizers allowed composers to play with sound design and come up with innovative scores that pushed the horror genre into new territories. Notable releases during this era include A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omen (1976), The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), The Thing (1982), and Videodrome (1983), just to name a few.

Modern horror film scores – the best of both worlds

Horror movies have come a long way since the days of Frankenstein or Dracula. Plots and scores alike have taken a darker turn, and innovations in technology and cinematography have pushed the fear and tension to new highs. Think of modern-day classics like Get Out, It Follows, Insidious, Hereditary, or A Quiet Place; these movies are tackling complex, unusual, and often highly disturbing matters, and their soundtracks match the level of complexity. 

Nowadays, film composers are no longer constrained by limited resources, particularly when it comes to the technologies they use. While horror movies no longer rely on dynamic orchestration and symphonic themes, composers still manage to hark back to the old days by mixing classic and modern techniques. In fact, the earliest example of mixing and matching different composition styles was Videodrome, back in 1983. Howard Shore starts off with classical orchestral music and gradually incorporates electronic music and synthesizers as the main character starts to lose track of what’s real and what isn’t. The two tracks are mixed and played in tandem, in an attempt to convey the character’s confusion. 

Composers and directors now tend to focus more on sound design and sound effects to create the right atmosphere. It’s not all about the jump scares anymore. Found-footage-style movies like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity don’t even have proper soundtracks, as they focus on ‘reality horror’ to elicit fear and tensions in viewers. Other movies employ LFEs, or low-frequency effects, to create an unsettling atmosphere and prolong the suspense. 

The future looks bright (or dark, if we’re going to stick to the theme here) for horror movies and music alike. It remains to be seen what composers come up with next, and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to see new and innovative scoring hit the big screens. This year alone there are some exciting launches in the works, including A Quiet Place 2, a new Conjuring movie, Don’t Breathe 2, Candyman, and last but not least, Halloween Kills

If you’re an aspiring or established director looking for talented composers to breathe musical life into your projects, reach out to Cutting Room Music to see if we can help. Let’s work together!

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