The Ten Scariest Film Scores Ever Composed
With Halloween rapidly stalking us, I thought I would invite you on a haunted tour of various film scores that I find absolutely terrifying. There have been a massive amount of magnificent horror scores written in the past hundred years; however, not all of them are, by themselves, inherently scary. These ten blood-curdling cinematic sin-phonies are unique in that they are profoundly frightening listening experiences on their own. A handful of these soundtracks I can’t even listen to when I’m alone in a dark room. Honestly.
Feel free to impale your ears with these film scores…if you dare!
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
If you were to ask me what I think the scariest film score of all time is, I would have to put Christopher Young’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose on my short list. I have serious difficulty listening to this music when I’m alone at night. It’s flat-out terrifying!
Composing a scary score can sometimes be erroneously perceived as being “easy” because all you need to do to elicit a response is weave ear-piercing bangs, crashes and screeches into a cacophonous mess. The skill in composing a well-crafted horror score of this nature is to impart an impression of cacophony, when in actuality, these textures are sculpted with an artistic precision that maximizes the fullest potential of fear from the narrative. It’s a delicate balance between what is visually and narratively frightening, and its aural counterparts.
Much like a good comedy, timing is everything. The setup is just as important as the payoff and every single second before or after is crucially important. Minute changes in timing have a vast effect on the overall success of the score. Anybody can create a loud bang after a prolonged period of soundlessness and elicit a jump or even a scream, but will that psychologically expose the audience enough to allow the terror to manifest itself within our own imagination? If music is not triggering our imagination, it’s not living up to its fullest potential.
This is one particular attribute in which Christopher Young excels. He’s demonstrated this power throughout his entire career, composing tremendously tormenting scores for films like Hellraiser (1987), The Fly II (1989), The Grudge (2004), The Uninvited (2009) and Sinister (2012). However, in my book, nothing compares to the paralyzing nightmare of Young’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It’s certainly one of the more cacophonic scores ever written; however, the chaos is completely controlled by the composer. Young traverses the narrative of the film utilizing a precise balance of extreme dynamics and aural intensity in order to bring out the scarier elements of the visuals. The audience never sees a manifestation of the antagonizing force which haunts young Emily Rose. The incubus has no visual characteristics unless expressed through the body in which it possesses. In this case, Young’s music is the demon. What we can’t see, we can certainly feel through the music, and our unbridled imagination fills in the rest.
Young’s music sends chills down my spine, makes my hair stand on end and leaves me feeling violated and vulnerable. I’m not exactly a textbook believer in demonic possession; however, when I listen to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, I completely succumb to the possibility.
The soundtrack is available on Lakeshore Records (LKS 33836).
Scariest tracks: 5). “First Possession” (5:27), 7). “Third Possession” (7:22), 9). “The Exorcism” (6:00), 12). “A Vision of the Virgin Mary” (3:31)
The Changeling (1980)
Herein lies another score that’s difficult for me to listen to when I’m alone. The music, by Rick Wilkins and Kenneth Wannberg (music box theme by Howard Blake), doesn’t rely as much on pure cacophony, but rather the use of surgically placed dissonance interpolated throughout textures that are intoxicatingly beautiful. As the music evolves with the narrative, it incorporates more dissonance. The elements used to elicit fear are more subtle and there are almost no hard musical “scare-gags” like you would find ubiquitous in modern horror. The music draws out inherently scary qualities in the sounds of every day objects such as an old rickety piano, a lilting music box, a squeaky wheelchair or footsteps on a towering wooden staircase. By themselves, they’re not necessarily frightful; however, combined with the music, these become terrifying aural elements within the film. The music serves as a surrogate for the anguishing spirit which haunts John Russell (George C. Scott). What we cannot see on screen, the music fabricates within our own imagination.
Wilkins and Wannberg’s music for The Changeling also taps into our predisposed fear of disembodied sounds of children (and adults as well). There are subtle jabbing vocalizations that are peppered throughout the score that really cause me to freeze with fright when listening. It’s as if the music is actually pleasant and suddenly you hear a whispering voice or grunt. “Was that in the music?” I nervously ask myself as I’m listening. Everything about this score exemplifies how subtlety can be an extremely effective vehicle for horror.
The soundtrack is available on Percepto Records (PERCEPTO-006XE).
Scariest tracks: 9). “Bathtub Reflections” (3:05), 11). “Up Into The Attic” (2:48), 16). “Seance • Talk To Us!” (7:15) 23). “The Chain Appears” (3:38)
The Omen (1976)
This is a no-brainer. Never in the history of cinema has a film score so brazenly violated all that is sweet and tender in this world. Composed for orchestra and chorus, composer Jerry Goldsmith recruited the assistance of his choir-master to help rewrite traditional phrases from the Latin Mass into a sinister Satanic celebration. The main title inverts the traditional Catholic words: “Hail Mary” into “Ave Satani,” which translates to “Hail Satan.” Other phrases like “sanguis bibimus,” “corpus edimus,” “tolle corpus Satani” and “ave, ave Versus Christus!” all translate to “We drink the blood,” “We eat the body,” “Raise the body of Satan” and “Hail, Hail Anti-Christ!” respectively.
These words are not buried deep within the texture of the music, or sent to the back of the overall sound mix. They are fully exposed as a signature motif characterizing the entire musical soundscape of the picture. It’s not so much the acknowledgement of evil itself that is most alarming, but rather the flagrant worship of evil as a singular destructive force manifested in the form of an innocent child. Can you even imagine a film score taking such a bold risk today?
All that said, Goldsmith’s music for The Omen should not be dismissed as simply an etymological gimmick. Even without these chilling words, the music Goldsmith concocted and the context in which he sets his text is disturbing, unnerving and relentless. The interpolation of consonance and dissonance (like in the beginning of “Safari Park”) adds a shadow of impending darkness to fleeting moments of tenderness. Goldsmith’s commanding use of harmony is also an integral ingredient for catalyzing impending doom.
This music is so unadulteratedly evil that I hope upon completing his score, the typically secular Goldsmith looked up to heaven, folded his hands, and uttered, “Hey, it’s just a movie.”
The soundtrack is available on Varèse Sarabande (302 066 288 2) and on vinyl by Mondo Records (MOND-021).
Scariest tracks: 1). “Ave Satani” (2:34), 7). “Safari Park” (3:23), 10). “Fall” (3:43), 13). “Dog’s Attack” (5:53), 18). “Demise of Mrs. Baylock” (2:54)
As terrifying as Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho is, it’s almost inaccurate to classify it as a pure horror score. It’s actually more of a psychological thriller. Yet you can’t escape the effectiveness of a few key scenes in eliciting the spinal-shots of terror Herrmann’s music evokes.
Composed entirely for strings to complement Hitchcock’s decision to film in black-and-white, Herrmann’s music is intensely psychological. Just one glimpse of the scene where Marion is driving through a torrential rainstorm and you realize how much narrative is revealed exclusively through music.
Whether you view Pyscho as a horror or psychological thriller score, you can’t deny the lasting impact of the infamous shower sequence which could easily be hailed as the single most terror-inducing moment in cinematic history. Herrmann’s ear-piercingly high strings cascading downwards in major-7th intervals is without its equal. It is the sound of the butcher’s knife slashing downward through the air toward its naked fleshy target. As the killer bolts, and Marion’s blood drains from her body (which we see very little of), the lower strings mimic an EKG measuring each weakening attempt of her heart to pump blood through her dying body. The music decelerates and ultimately “flatlines” to a final sustained note as her heart stops beating and her lifeless body tumbles to the bathroom floor.
Herrmann’s music for this scene is wholly responsible for transitioning Marion’s murder from an observational into an experiential moment. We’re not simply watching her die; we are, in fact, feeling her die! The throbbing strings allows us to feel Marion’s blood oozing from her body as it spirals down the shower drain as her heart struggles to pump the last few quarts of blood through her veins. Herrmann’s music is so successful in conveying the physicality of death that it renders each unsuspecting listener paralyzed with fear. It’s truly an unpleasant and horrifying experience catapulting this score as one of the scariest cinema has ever heard.
A re-recordings of the original soundtrack are available on Varèse Sarabande (VSD 5765) and on Unicorn-Kanchana (UKCD 2021).
Scariest tracks: 1). "Prelude", 17). “The Murder” (1:03), 24). “The Swamp” (2:05), 30). “The Knife” (0:31)
Altered States (1980)
This is an interesting score to discuss because I don’t necessarily believe the film in which this music accompanies is all that scary. There are certainly some freaky moments, but overall I doubt many would argue this is a horror staple. Film notwithstanding, the music by John Corigliano is sublimely frightening. Corigliano has scored a handful of films throughout his career, but he’s not a film composer by trade. He’s one of America’s most cherished composers of concert music and a distinguished professor of composition at the Juilliard School of Music (film composer Elliot Goldenthal was one of his former students).
Corigliano is well-known for composing aleatoric music and his control of atonal cacophony is unparalleled. This made him a unique and refreshing choice when Ken Russell offered him the opportunity to score Altered States in 1980. Even though it was his first film score, Corigliano attacked the material with the skill of a master craftsman creating an aural nightmare rivaling the most distinguished horror scores ever composed.
There have been numerous scores penned utilizing aleatoric and other contemporary compositional techniques; however, not many have repulsed my ears with such delight as Altered States. Perhaps the most interesting composer in the world, John Corigliano doesn’t always pen film scores, but when he does, he prefers to scare the shit out of you.
The soundtrack is available on La-La Land Records (LLLCD 1301).
Scariest tracks: 4). “First Transformation (Primordial Regression)” (3:40), 6). “Second Transformation (The Ape Man Sequence; Escape from the Laboratory; Stalking the Dogs and the Fight; The Zoo and the Final Hunt)” (8:07) 8). “The Laboratory Experiment” (Jessup's Transformation; Collapse of the Laboratory; The Whirlpool and Journey to Another Dimension; Return to Reality)
This is another no-brainer and perhaps one of the most unique inclusions in this article. Alien is a seminal film which has its tendrils in both horror and science fiction. Even though it takes place on a starship traveling through deep space, it’s difficult to argue that Alien is not one of the scariest horror films ever made.
If you’re a student of Goldsmith’s music and a champion of his unique voice in cinema, you can’t simply focus on the music he wrote. You also have to carefully examine each moment in the film in which he didn’t compose music. Half of Goldsmith’s genius is his penchant for clever spotting (deciding when and where music should go in a picture). There’s no better example of this than Alien. There are numerous moments where one might suspect music should naturally exist when, in fact, it is absent. There are also instances where music exists that one might surmise the obvious choice would have been to leave it out. For Goldsmith, it was all about setting up various key points within the narrative. This is how he manipulates the audience in order to maximize the terror unfolding on screen.
There’s no denying the chestburster scene in Alien is one of the hallmark moments of the film. Perhaps you’ve seen it dozens of times, but do you recall Goldsmith’s music in this scene? There is no music! The sheer absence of underscore has a direct effect on the audience in a way that no notes could ever evoke. His mastery of “tension-and-release” composition, through clever spotting decisions, permeates the entire film with Pavlovian results.
Goldsmith also employs the use of an archaic brass wind instrument known as a serpent to deliver bleating blasts of bone-chilling fury nestled amongst synth-infused orchestral textures. The titular alien emits no discerning sound while hunting humans, so one could argue Goldsmith’s uncommon instrument choice helps personify the beast and characterize its presence on screen without alerting its position to the characters in hiding.
It should be noted that there are countless accounts of Goldsmith’s score being chopped up and bastardized throughout post-production (large portions were even replaced with Goldsmith’s music from the 1962 film Freud). That being said, I’m not going to get into the minutiae of whose specific direction ultimately affected each creative choice. The resulting score, no matter how corrupt, is as frightening as you’ll hear anywhere in cinema.
If you’re curious, the Complete Edition of the Alien soundtrack from Intrada Records released in 2007 includes all the music Goldsmith composed for the film, including pieces that were replaced or omitted all together. It’s a must-have addition to any film music collection.
The soundtrack is available on Intrada Records (MAF 7102).
Scariest tracks: 7). “The Skeleton” (2:30), 9). “Hanging On” (3:39), 16). “It’s A Droid” (3:28), 21). “The Cupboard” (3:05)
Friday the 13th (1980)
Harry Manfredini’s score for the original Friday the 13th is proof that you don’t need a big budget or a large orchestra to terrify your audience. You just need a composer who knows what the hell they’re doing. Composed for only 13 musicians and recorded in a friend’s basement, Friday the 13th is a textbook example of how pure composition and a little bit of technical ingenuity can send chills up the most cynical spines.
The most recognizable motif which permeates the score focuses upon a harsh vocalization of “Ki-Ki-Ki…Ma-Ma-Ma” which Manfredini admits came from the first syllables of “Kill her” and “Mommy.” Manfredini himself spatted each syllable into a microphone and sent the audio feed through a rudimentary delay system. The result is one of the single most iconic musical ideas in all of cinema and a voice for one of the most beloved horror superstars in cinematic history.
As much as I appreciate the motif itself, it’s Manfredini’s use of extreme dissonance that really sets this music apart from other horror scores. It’s an extremely complex array of icy-cold blue-ish “colors” that keep a knife’s edge to the narrative throughout the entire picture. The score is riddled with musical “scare-gags” - however, Manfredini is astute in keeping each stinger relatively unique so that one does not overplay each instance with the same timing.
I also have to acknowledge the classic scene at the end of the film when we see Alice (Adrienne King) slowly waking up in a canoe in the middle of the lake following her hellish nightmare at Camp Crystal Lake. The idea of using music to relax the audience in order to set up one final hair-raising stinger was not new in 1980. It was almost as cliché then as it would be today. What Manfredini had to contend with was the complete and total expectation that the tranquility of the music was setting up a final stinger. He allowed the dream-like song to continue much longer than any film had allowed such music. It’s so long that anybody holding out for that final stinger was beginning to realize that perhaps this was indeed the final happy ending for the film. As the music descends from its climax and the audience finally lets their guard down, Jason rises out of the water in one terrifyingly glorious stinger!
I’ve been to countless screenings of this film and have even used this scene in many of my lectures and presentations. It doesn’t matter if the audience has seen the film a dozen times or not at all, everybody jumps (and many scream)! I know exactly when it happens and yet my heart still races and I jump every single time. Now that’s fantastic!
The soundtrack is available on La-La Land Records (LLLCD 1228).
Scariest tracks: 7). “Don’t Smoke In Bed” (1:02), 9). “Brenda In Lights” (4:33), 12). “Mrs V. Comes Clean” (5:57), 15). “The Boat On The Water • Closing Theme • Jason In The Lake” (2:26)
Jerry Goldsmith again? I think it goes without saying that Mr. Goldsmith knows more about scaring audiences out of their pants than any other composer. What I love about his score for Poltergeist is that it’s riddled with frightening music, but I’m also in awe of how terrifying the beautiful pieces are!
In the end title cue, “Carol Ann’s Theme,” the music is exquisitely beautiful, yet overwhelming unsettling. Why is this? From a production standpoint, the overall music mix is bathed in reverb which gives an overall spectral quality to the music. It also takes advantage of the inherent fear we have with the disembodied sounds of children. The chorus of children singing the primary theme doesn’t sound like a chorus of angels. There is an imperfection in their voices which really brings it down to earth. There are some slight intonation issues and the character is so stark and hollow that it feels cold and devoid of sincerity as if in a mocking manner.
Of course, this all leads up to one of the scariest aural elements in the film when, upon the conclusion of the closing credits, these voices stop singing and start to laugh collectively as the orchestra completely fades away. Creepy!
There are plenty of other reasons this score is so ghastly. There is an alarmingly grotesque trombone solo that rudely rips through the nocturnal stillness of the Freelings' bedroom as a mysterious ghost-like hand emanates from the television set toward young Carol Anne. Goldsmith also cleverly employs the use of a ratchet in several key moments of the film. This handheld percussion instrument delivers an ear-splitting ratcheting sound which was the perfect choice for the scenes involving Robbie and his gruesome clown doll. Goldsmith used a short foreshadowing burst of the ratchet in the first scene early in the movie when Robbie successfully covers the clown with his jacket. Later in the film when Robbie is finally attacked, the ratchet goes absolutely bezerk as it rips through the orchestra in what is truly one of the scariest pieces (and scenes) in the film!
This film and its masterful score worked a number on me when I was nine years old that I’m still feeling the effects of today. I have never been more terrified by a single film in my entire life. I remember vividly screaming at my parents not to make me go to bed after I begged them to let me watch it. It was one of the single greatest movie experiences of my life!
The soundtrack is available on Film Score Monthly (Vol. 13, No. 18).
Scariest tracks: 5). “The Clown • They’re Here • Broken Glass” (3:55), 7). “Twisted Abduction” (7:01), 13). “Night Of The Beast” (3:56), 15 “No TV • End Credits (Carol Anne’s Theme)” (4:23)
Evil Dead (2013)
I was really taken aback when I first saw this film and ultimately examined its score. Even though this is a relatively new score, I have no reservations whatsoever declaring it one of the scariest ever written. Like the scores for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Altered States, Roque Baños’ diabolical music for Evil Dead is a contemporary masterpiece employing almost every single compositional technique highlighted in this article. Baños skillfully employs a choir of banshees, guttural male chanting, aleatoric cacophony, extreme dissonance, chilling beauty, whispering voices, a liberal peppering of ratchet and its most distinguishing element…the siren!
I’ve heard the siren used in contemporary music before, but never to the degree that Baños utilizes it and not quite in the same context. Like a sonic tsunami, this ungodly wailing sound crescendoes like a jet engine slicing through the litany of orchestral textures. It’s so insanely effective at conjuring up terror.
Baños’ Mephistophelean score ended up as my fourth favorite of 2013 (you can read my full review here). He has set the bar for seriously scary film music so high that my own imagination finds it difficult to imagine the possibilities of what could possibly be scarier. I challenge all composers out there to try.
The soundtrack is available on La-La Land Records (LLLCD 1255).
Scariest tracks: 4). “Demon Possession (Extended)” (4:21), 6). “She Tried To Kill Me” (2:32), 14). “Abominations Rising” (7:00)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby might be one of the wackiest scary scores I’ve ever heard. At its core is a foundation of '60s-era jazz idioms impaled with disharmonic phrases that refuse to coagulate into an amorphous whole. Binding the entire tapestry of terror is an exquisite theme introduced by a single female drunkenly singing “La-La-Las.” The voice is imperfect and folksy which projects the music through a slightly askew lens. It’s tender and beautiful but we immediately feel that something is not right. It seriously creeps me out.
The jazz textures reek of an acidic form of freestyle where semblances of mellifluousness are fleeting. It’s as if each instrument is on its own trip and cares not of what the others intentions are. This results in a unique brand of cacophony that is nebulous and disjointed. There are wailing trumpets which sound like dying goats, arhythmic walking basses that have nowhere to go, screeching penny whistles and the ubiquitous chanting and vocalizations that discharge goosebumps all over your body.
On the flip-side of the coin, there is plenty of “normal” music peppered throughout the movie like lounge piano, bossa nova grooves, holiday music and even hints of a little tango. In the context of the film, this also radiates an inherently creepy vibe. While it appears that Rosemary is the one that is going insane and all of her neighbors are indeed righteous and kind, the reality of the situation is exactly the opposite which the music so aptly conveys. The boundaries of good and evil are so obscured by the music that you can’t discern which phrase is expressing which ideal. Out of this confusion, a unique brand of fear emerges and it is downright petrifying. It’s a fear centered around distrust and hopelessness. Good luck saving yourself from this one.
The soundtrack is available on La-La Land Records (LLLCD 1210).
Scariest tracks: 15). “Chanting” (0:39), 16). “Dream” (4:14), 25). “The Iron Bars • Elevator —Lift • Dr. Sapirstein and Syringe” (3:01), 28). “What Have You Done?” (1:31)