QUICK: Think about a scary theme song, a score. Go…
You have that earworm now? Some theme you will never get out of your head all day? That’s because of the impact it had on its genre and pop-culture as a whole. These tunes not only make your butt pucker when you hear them, but the scene or the slasher stays in front of you (or around the corner) for the next few hours.
That’s the power of a score — that theme to always let the audience trouble is looming, something wicked this way comes.
Here are the 10 most essential horror themes ever:
10. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Easily, one of the most haunting scores from its first note to the last harangue. Wojciech Kilar‘s opus is this theme — the entire score is meant to be listened to song-after-hypnotizing-song. Every melody on this score created an impending sense of dread, discord, and slight tinge of eroticism. It’s bone-chilling creepy and soul-swooning beautiful all at once. Francis Ford Coppola knew the music behind this film would be its legacy, and he was right. A lady whose wistful tones ends up going mad. A choir that believes instead of angelic hymns, they need to strum up a theme for mixed martial arts. It’s gothic horror at its best. And suck it, Twilight.
Admittedly, I know very little about this movie (that’s more these guys). There is a remake coming soon. It looks completely eerie but the 1979 production is legendary among horror fans, as is the synthesizer-gone-subliminal-panting tune by the Italian prog-rock band Goblin. The movie, in summary, is about an American ballerina tormented by a witch’s coven, so that’s random and lovely. As you listen to the semi-balanced melody, you hear the drivel of what could easily be toddlers who can barely speak, only they have rabies. And it works. You’ll get the chills so bad your toes will curl and maybe never listen to it again. Or, possibly download the album.
8. The Omen
Nothing creeps people out quite as much as evil children during All Hallow’s Eve. Now, have that kid performing hijinks in-beat with a high mass choir chanting in Latin, and you have butt-puckering terror. That’s Jerry Goldsmith‘s (only Grammy Award-winning) composition for The Omen. (And this dude made the theme to Rudy.) It’s like some docile Catholic church accompaniment went all manic, began tearing apart their robes Hulk Hogan-style and singing the melody “Ave Satani” (or “Hail Satan” for those not majoring in Latin). I would assume if hell had a waiting room, this is the tormented elevator music you’d hear in the speakers.
7. Rosemary’s Baby
What’s more beautiful than the connection between a mother and a child? It is created in-utero and is supposed to last into perpetuity. It’s lovely. It’s beautiful. It’s…possessed of a demon seed?! Why jack with it?! Because it will haunt you to your core. Imagine a lullaby “la-la-la-la’d” by the mistress of the underworld. Can you imagine how that would toy with your emotions and make you question everything that is sweet and innocent in this world? That’s what Krzysztof Komeda‘s “Sweet, Safe, and Warm” has done to most of the people who have seen — and heard — this terrorizing classic. And now, singing softly by the cradle is just the work of the devil. Thanks, Krys!
Those initial five notes announce Bernard Herrmann‘s avant-garde ‘Prelude’ as we all mentally enter the Bates Motel. Mind you, this arrangement is sounding off as a doe-eyed Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is just walking in the motel and signing in for a leisurely stay. She — nor we — have any clue of the shower scene set to screech and shriek, and plague our hygiene forever from this point. This composition is evocative. The stringed instrumentation alluding horror will not escape us, only keep us guessing as to when it hits. You can almost hear Norman Bates thinking out loud and switching personalities as this music cascades into our soul. Perfection.
5. The Thing
For a man known worldwide for spaghetti westerns, Ennio Morricone gets the heart beating faster with this ominous tune from John Carpenter’s masterpiece. That bass line — thump thump — along with the “chiming” of instruments helps build the presence of something, but just like with the shape-shifting oddity of The Thing, you aren’t quite certain just what the hell is going on. And it’s probably created to do just that. (And not for nothing, but to see how legendary John Carpenter is in horror, he has the next one on this list too.) The mastery of this Morricone theme is that it keeps you guessing when a crescendo is about to hit, much like the movie does to you as well. Sublime match through-and-through.
4. Friday the 13th
Say it with me, just like you have at least 1,000 times playing “scary guy” as a kid: “Kii-Kii-Kii. Maa-Maa-Maa.” You even whispered it, didn’t you? Of course you did! Whenever you hear that familiar cadence, some sort of horrific death awaits the person on the other side of the corner, door, wall, whatever. You may not have known that was actually “composed” by someone (the well-known Harry Manfredini), because how hard is it to make that?! While you may think it was “Chh-chh-chh. Haa-haa-haa,” Manfredini believed the score needed the “stalker’s perspective” so “kii-kii-kii” is taken from kill, and “maa-maa-maa” is borrowed from mama or mom. See, the original slasher wasn’t Jason, but his mother. Like mom, like son. Get it now? You only remember the whisper but you are scarred with it for the rest of your life. Moms do that too. At least in this damn film.
While this shark movie may not be considered “horror,” there’s no denying how it terrified millions of people after the iconic John Williams‘ build-up straddles your brain. “Dum-bum. [pause] Dum-bum.” Then, faster and faster because no one can swim that fast. The music gets louder and louder because you are about to become lunch. Then, when you are out of breath, and just when it’s too late, that’s when it dawns on you… you are taking a bubble bath safe at home just having a bad dream of a movie you saw two decades ago. That’s the power of imagination. That’s the skill of John Williams. That’s what this tune does to everyone. And will, for good.
2. The Exorcist
This one-time “new age” and “uplifting” tune called “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield became forever engraved in our hearts (and Baphomet mix tapes played in porches, parties, and the random coven meeting) thanks to The Exorcist. Just play it. The thing sounds like there is a sardonic presence in your room looming behind you. Like, right now. DUCK! Feel the panic attack coming? That piercing sound of those high keys getting thumped on the piano makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. There’s no choice: Sweat bubbles on your brow. The nerves get bunched. Your throat gets dry. And you start looking for the icy breath every time you exhale because you know what’s coming next. It’s death. It’s coming. You’re next. And so is that nasty split pea soup she spits up in the movie.
This theme makes “tickling of the ivories” as creepy as it gets. Arguably — and this is our argument — no theme is more iconic and used as pop-culture references to scare the bejebus out of someone than the title tune for the holiday itself. Everyone knows this theme of synthesizers and uneven rattling of stalking and leering. It races into our minds and brings instant stress. Michael Myers is coming. You have to look over your shoulder, and be honest, there’s nothing you can do about it. This classic John Carpenter theme took three days for the man to create. Yes, he did it personally — and it’s not even his day job! The swath of high-pitched dings solidifies one sole fact of desperation — you’re dead and this is usually the soundtrack that comes with it. Fitting John Carpenter wins this contest … too.