Best Horror Movie Soundtracks: 30 Essential Spine-Chillers

Essential to building tension, suspense and anxiety, the best horror movie soundtracks have a chilling power that can be felt long after the final credits.

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Best Horror Movie Soundtracks
Photo: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Music is intrinsic to horror films, more so than any genre other than perhaps musicals. A symphony of sonic majesty can evoke emotions, and movie scores are essential to building tension, suspense, and anxiety. The composers who do it best can even invoke memories of a standout moment – like the screech of violins in Psycho’s shower scene, or the staccato orchestration of the imminent great white shark attack in Jaws. Listen to a horror movie soundtrack in isolation, however, and its chilling power can be felt on its own. (Just ask the kids going out to trick or treat when they hear a bit of The Omen or Wicker Man soundtrack as they start to ring the doorbell.) These 30 picks, then, are the best horror movie soundtracks of all time.

30: The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)

Director Michael Mann described Tangerine Dream’s sound as “the cutting edge of electronic music,” and two years after working with Mann on the soundtrack for The Thief, the German electronic maestros composed the brooding, atmospheric music for Mann’s film The Keep, a chiller about Nazi soldiers awakening supernatural evil. Tangerine Dream, especially co-founder and main composer Edgar Froese, found the perfect creepy, moody, otherworldly music to accompany the dramatic action. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “The Night in Romania”

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29: The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Stanley Kubrick draws on potent music to heighten the tension in the terrifying scenes that pepper his magnificent psychological horror thriller The Shining. Kubrick and Gordon Stainforth, his music editor on this 1980 classic, created a chilling sonic landscape, using pieces from electronic music trailblazers Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, and also from a selection of pre-existing concert pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki, György Ligeti, and Béla Bartók. The discordant, modernist music informs the entire adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “De Natura Sonoris” (Penderecki)

28: Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann, 1958)

It’s the composer’s job to translate what they see on screen into sounds that heighten an audience’s emotional response to a movie. Bernard Herrmann’s dizzying soundtrack to Vertigo captures both the psychological issues of the main protagonist, John “Scottie” Ferguson, and the twists and turns of the movie’s unwinding plot. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Prelude And Rooftop”

27: Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

British electronic band Broadcast completed the music for the Berberian Sound Studio in the wake of their own horrific experience: the sudden death from pneumonia of 42-year-old lead singer Trish Keenan. The remaining band recorded 39 short tracks (the longest is under four minutes) for Peter Strickland’s horror film about a timid British engineer working in Italy in the 1970s. The evocative soundtrack is like a musical memento mori alongside the eccentric, unsettling images. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “Our Darkest Sabbath”

26: The Thing (Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter, 1982)

According to John Carpenter, Morricone recorded all the orchestration for horror classic The Thing without having seen any clips. When the soundtrack was cut into the movie, Carpenter felt the tense moments could benefit from a different approach, so the director recorded some electronic instrumentation by himself to complement the film’s atmosphere. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Solitude”

25: Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

Philip Glass, one of the most famous modern composers, was attracted to compose the score for Candyman because he was persuaded that the young director Bernard Rose was making an independent, arty adaptation of a short story by Clive Barker. Glass composed a beautiful Gothic score – full of his trademark minimalism with repetitive structures and themes, relying largely on a trio of piano, organ, and looped choruses – to go with the supernatural script. The producers decided Rose’s version wasn’t violent enough, however, and the film ended up as more of a “slasher movie,” leaving Glass reportedly unsatisfied. His score remains hugely effective within the movie, though, and works on its own merits as a haunting set of music. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “The Demise of Candyman”

24: Land Of The Dead (Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, 2005)

If ambient horror isn’t yet a genre, it should be. Ominous synths and electronics join a tornado of strings and menacing percussion for the soundtrack to the fourth out of six in George A Romero’s series of Living Dead movies. Do yourself a favor and listen to this with the lights on. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Department Store Raid”

23: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982)

Alan Howarth, John Carpenter’s collaborator on the soundtrack for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, said that, as the film’s producer rather than director (who was Tommy Lee Wallace), Carpenter was in a relaxed mood, and told him he thought that writing the soundtrack for the horror movie was like being “on vacation.” Carpenter, who had played music since he was a child (his father Howard was a professor of music), built on the work he and fellow 34-year-old Howarth had done for Escape From New York and created an atmospheric, sparse electronic soundtrack for the third instalment of the series about the murderer Michael Myers. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “Chariots of Pumpkins”

22: Dracula (John Williams, 1979)

John Williams is better known for his iconic work on blockbusters such as Star Wars, ET The Extra Terrestrial, and Superman. But he’s also dipped his toe into the murky waters of horror. For the John Badham-directed Dracula, the masterful composer perfectly exemplifies the dark romanticism of the title character. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Dracula’s Death”

21: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

As Tobe Hooper was making his directorial debut with the gory slasher horror The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he and Wayne Bell created a truly scary score. The texture of the music has a disturbing tone to it, something helped by their innovative use of multiple instruments – including an old five-string Kay upright double bass, a Fender lap steel guitar, lots of children’s musical instruments, a host of metal objects on which they banged tools and even animal noises – as they pushed the boundary between sound and image. “The soundtrack was doing the foreboding, you know, the anticipation of trouble,” said Bell. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “A Room of Feathers & Bone”

20: Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

Videodrome’s score was composed by Howard Shore, a close friend of the writer and director David Cronenberg. Shore composed the entire score for an orchestra before programming it into digital synthesizer, and the resulting offbeat mix of electronic and classical music is a memorable fit for a weird and violent film about protagonist Max Renn’s descent into video hallucinations. The soundtrack mix was done by Scot Holton of Varèse Sarabande, who emphasised the subtler elements of the horror movie’s score when he oversaw the release of the official album. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “A Slow Burn”

19: Blade (Mark Isham, 1998)

Live orchestration collides with electronic elements to soundtrack the shadowy underworld of Blade. Marvel’s superhero embarks on a mission to protect the world from vampires using the powers he has that replicate their own. Mark Isham’s soundtrack encapsulates the extravagant bombast of the comic book and superhero genre. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Intruder”

18: Near Dark (Tangerine Dream, 1987)

Prolific German electronica pioneers Tangerine Dream scored the soundtrack to vampire horror movie Near Dark in 1987. The film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, said, “There was a provocative, haunting, mercurial quality that just permeated everything that they did, and gave it a patina… that really transformed it.” – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Mae’s Transformation”

17: Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)

John Carpenter had funding problems during production, especially for the score of Assault on Precinct 13 and, incredibly, his powerful and mournful DIY score for this thriller horror about an attack on a police station in Los Angeles was made in three days and recorded on a synthesizer. The pulsating beats and eerie noises were ideally suited to the mood of terror and despair that pervades the film. The theme tune to this horror movie is one of Carpenter’s most memorable soundtrack pieces, and it was reportedly inspired in part by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” – Martin Chilton
Best track: “Assault on Precinct 13 (Main Theme)”

16: A Clockwork Orange (Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind, 1972)

Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1971 film was soundtracked by passages from symphonies by the likes of Elgar and Beethoven, interwoven with electronic transitions by composer Wendy (then Walter) Carlos. The music is intended as a glimpse into the lead character, Alex’s, mind, taking the audience deep into the delinquent’s disturbing psyche. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “The Thieving Magpie”

15: Hellraiser (Christopher Young, 1987)

Hellraiser’s soundtrack is unusual in that it relies more on a mournful, haunting beauty than chaotic orchestration. But then the theme of the movie revolves as much around love and desire as it does guts and gore. Composer Christopher Young provides an atmospheric soundscape to chillingly evocative effect. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “The Lament Configuration”

14: Zombi (Dawn Of The Dead) (Goblin, 1978)

The soundtrack to horror film Dawn Of The Dead – or Zombi, depending on where in the world you live – features a veritable smorgasbord of musical styles, few of which sound necessarily horrific. Nevertheless, horror electro-prog icons Goblin reflect the chaos of a zombie apocalypse through a collection of jauntily eclectic and daringly experimental compositions. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Zaratozom”

13: It Follows (Disasterpeace, 2015)

Composer Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, opted for a retro electronic feel for his 2015 film score debut. Rumbling, bass-heavy synths weave in and out of shrill orchestration and tranquil electronica as tension builds and subsides on a soundtrack that would do justice to any Hitchcock or Carpenter horror classic. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Title”

12: A Nightmare On Elm Street (Charles Bernstein, 1984)

Composer Charles Bernstein utilizes synthesized orchestration to utterly chilling effect. With melodies that almost play like lullabies, but with a terrifyingly shrill consonance, the A Nightmare On Elm Street score is sure to trigger nightmares. A horror film soundtrack classic. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Main Title (A Nightmare On Elm Street)”

11: The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

Argentine composer and jazz pianist Lalo Schifrin was originally hired to create the music for The Exorcist, but was taken off the film by director William Friedkin after recording only a fraction of the score. Schifrin was responsible for the six minutes of music that accompanied the trailer. “The mix of those frightening scenes and my music, which was also a very difficult and heavy score, scared the audiences away,” said Schifrin. He was dropped straight away, and Friedkin reverted to a minimalist soundtrack which included the opening piano motif to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” which became one of cinema’s most iconic horror movie soundtracks and a smash hit in its own right for the prog rock musician. Oldfield later joked: “I’m the godfather of scary movie music.” – Martin Chilton
Best track: “Tubular Bells”

10: Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson’s blank-eyed predatory alien is one of the most alarming characters in modern cinema. Mica Levi’s dissonant score for the film’s soundtrack, which matches the music to the visceral horror of her spree of violence around Glasgow, took inspiration from György Ligeti, whose work featured in The Shining. Levi, classically trained and known for her band Micachu & The Shapes, said she wanted the music to “feel uncomfortable” to suit the mood of a “dark film.” She cleverly uses violas and cymbals to capture the distress of an alien life form – and the alienation of the human victims. – Martin Chilton
Best track: “Lonely Void”

9: The Omen (Jerry Goldsmith, 1976)

The soundtrack to classic horror film The Omen earned Jerry Goldsmith the only scoring Oscar of his illustrious career. Whereas most of the orchestral compositions illustrate the unremarkable life of the Thorn family, the choral segments grow more chaotic with the narrative. The lead track features the ominous chant, “Sanguis bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani,” or, “We drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan.” Tasty. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Ave Satani”

8: Rosemary’s Baby (Krzysztof Komeda, 1968)

There’s a distinct jazz flavor to the Rosemary’s Baby score, courtesy of Polish composer and jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda. But, more than that, lead actress Mia Farrow lends her delicate vocals to the lead track’s haunting lullaby, underpinned by dream-like harpsichords and ethereal orchestration, offering a mere hint at the dark forces permeating the movie. One of the most effective horror movie soundtracks ever. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Rosemary’s Baby Main Theme”

7: Psycho (Bernard Herrmann, 1960)

The bulk of Psycho’s soundtrack is calm and soothing. However, tension builds throughout composer Bernard Herrmann’s score as the horror film’s narrative unfolds. It, of course, peaks with one of the most identifiable music scores in cinema and the piercing staccato strings of “The Murder,” where Janet Leigh meets her gruesome end in the shower. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “The Murder”

6: Cannibal Holocaust (Riz Ortolani, 1980)

Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust was shot in the style of a documentary, and was so convincing that Italian authorities believed it to be real. In stark contrast to the relentless gore of this horror film, however, is its Riz Ortolani soundtrack, which often nestles into jazz-funk, electro-lounge, and folk-ballad territory. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Cannibal Holocaust (Main Theme)”

5: Jaws (John Williams, 1975)

Though the key track from Jaws consists of only two notes, it remains one of the most recognizable pieces of music in horror movie soundtrack history: tense, foreboding and building a sense of imminent terror. Williams described the music as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do; instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.” – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Shark Attack”

4: Alien (Jerry Goldsmith, 1979)

Alien is considered to be one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best, most fluid film scores. The aim was to create a body of music that reflected the movie’s bleak and hostile feel. However, only parts of the score were used in the horror film, with the full soundtrack only made available with Alien’s 20th-anniversary edition in 1999. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Face Hugger”

3: Eraserhead (David Lynch, Alan R Splet, 1982)

Though some might not consider Eraserhead to be strictly a horror movie, it is every bit the psychological head-f__k you might expect from David Lynch. Its soundtrack isn’t strictly a film score, either; more a dark, ambient soundscape. Nevertheless, its suitably bizarro atmosphere reflects the surrealist nature of the movie’s narrative. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “In Heaven (Lady In The Radiator Song)”

2: Suspiria (Goblin, 1975)

Italian prog rock band Goblin were given carte blanche by director Dario Argento to set the atmosphere for Suspiria after reading a copy of the script. The avant-garde experimentalists let loose on Moogs, tablas and bouzoukis, the types of instruments not usually associated with horror films. The result was this classic movie soundtrack to the supernatural chiller. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Suspiria (Main Title)”

1: Halloween (John Carpenter, 1979)

Halloween was very much a DIY effort for John Carpenter: not only did he write and direct the movie, he also composed the score. Upon employing all the tricks in the horror film soundtrack playbook – the less-is-more approach to creating suspense, and jarring keyboard stabs for the element of surprise – Carpenter created a monster that will never die. – Caren Gibson
Best track: “Halloween Theme”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ron Earl

    October 31, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    How could you not put “Aliens” on this list?!

  2. Barry Stone

    October 31, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    Neither are really what can be classed as horror films by any stretch of the imagination, but the inclusion of Tangerine Dream reminded me of a couple of other TD Tracks which if not (as I’ve already said are scary, they do induce tension one is from the Sorcerer, the Remake of the French Classic “Wages of fear”, think the tracks called “Tropical Storm” and it’s the scene where they’re crossing the rope bridge, very tense. Another one, also by TD is from Thief, again I don’t know the track name but it’s toward the end where James Caan is breaking into the safe, really tense.

    Finally, if it’s spooky you’re after, then I would recommend that you check the soundtrack of 2001 A Space Odyssey. In particular the track “A Bicycle made for two” (Daisy, Daisy) Sung by HAL The onboard Computer, just as he’s being closed down. spooky

  3. David Lee

    October 17, 2020 at 2:19 pm

    For starters, I would add the Barrow-Salisbury score for Annihilation. And what about James Bernard’s work for Hammer?. Check out The Quatermass Xperiment, which has been discussed as an influence on Herrmann’s all-string score for Psycho a few years later. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te_gL5cSp3A

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