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 soundtrack in isolation, however, and its chilling power can be felt on its own. These 20, scores, then, are the best horror movie soundtracks of all time.
Best Horror Movie Soundtracks: 20 Essential Spine-Chilling Film Scores
20: 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 score to Vertigo captures both the psychological issues of the main protagonist, John “Scottie” Ferguson, and the twists and turns of the film’s unwinding plot.
Best track: ‘Prelude And Rooftop’
19: The Thing (Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter, 1982)
According to John Carpenter, Morricone recorded all the orchestration for The Thing without having seen any clips. When the music was cut into the film, Carpenter felt the tense moments could benefit from a different approach, so the director recorded some electronic instrumentation by himself to complement the movie’s atmosphere.
Best track: ‘Solitude’
18: 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 favour and listen to this with the lights on.
Best track: ‘Department Store Raid’
17: 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.
Best track: ‘Dracula’s Death’
16: Blade (Mark Isham, 1998)
Live orchestration collides with electronic elements to soundtrack the shadowy underworld of Blade. Marvel’s super hero 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 super hero genre.
Best track: ‘Intruder’
15: Near Dark (Tangerine Dream, 1987)
Prolific German electronica pioneers Tangerine Dream scored the soundtrack to vampire horror flick 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.”
Best track: ‘Mae’s Transformation’
14: 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.
Best track: ‘The Thieving Magpie’
13: 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.
Best track: ‘The Lament Configuration’
12: Zombi (Dawn Of The Dead) (Goblin, 1978)
The soundtrack to Dawn Of The Dead – or Zombi, depending 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.
Best track: ‘Zaratozom’
11: A Nightmare On Elm Street (Charles Bernstein, 1984)
Composer Charles Bernstein utilises synthesised orchestration to utterly chilling effect. With melodies that almost play like lullabies, but with a terrifyingly shrill consonance, the A Nightmare On Elm Street soundtrack is sure to trigger nightmares even without the sight of a man with horrific burns and knives for fingers haunting your sleep.
Best track: ‘Main Title (A Nightmare On Elm Street)’
10: 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.
Best track: ‘Title’
9: The Omen (Jerry Goldsmith, 1976)
Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen earned the composer the only 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.
Best track: ‘Ave Satani’
8: Rosemary’s Baby (Krzysztof Komeda, 1968)
There’s a distinct jazz flavour 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.
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 movie’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.
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 its relentless gore, however, is its Riz Ortolani score, which often nestles into jazz-funk, electro-lounge and folk-ballad territory.
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 recognisable pieces of music in cinema 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”.
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 movie, with the full soundtrack only made available with Alien’s 20th-anniversary edition in 1999.
Best track: ‘Face Hugger’
3: Eraserhead (David Lynch, Alan R Splet, 1982)
Though some might not consider Eraserhead to be strictly a horror film, 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.
Best track: ‘In Heaven (Lady In The Radiator Song)’
2: Suspiria (Goblin, 1975)
Italian prog rockers 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 soundtrack to the supernatural chiller.
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 film score. Upon employing all the tricks in the horror movie score 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.
Best track: ‘Halloween Theme’
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