October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best original horror scores is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Look, I appreciate a severed limb as much as the next girl, but when it comes to horror films, what really gets me in the mood is a t m o s p h e r e. And one of the main ingredients in a film’s atmosphere is its soundtrack. I guarantee it: if you swap out any given original horror score out for, oh I don’t know, the smash hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” you’re going to have a hard time getting in a spooky mood. While silence certainly has its place, original horror scores play a big part in why the genre gets under our skin the way it does. OSTs give voice to the subconscious terror rhythms of the genre: to the implacable sensations of mounting dread, suspicion, anxiety, and repulsion. Without them, horror just wouldn’t be as horrific.
In celebration of all the marvelous original horror scores that keep us up at night, we put our ears together and came up with a definitive ranking of the top ten original horror scores of all time. Keep reading for a look at the top ten original horror scores as voted on by Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Kieran Fisher, Rob Hunter, Valerie Ettenhofer, and myself.
10. Jaws (1975) by John Williams
John Williams‘ indelible Jaws score is a beloved part of soundtrack history for a reason. The Academy Award-winning original soundtrack pulls off an aural miracle by using just two musical notes to manufacture much of its off-the-charts suspense. Williams has called the score “instinctual, relentless, [and] unstoppable,” and it’s true that the sound itself, as much as the images on-screen, helped form our collective cultural image of sharks as deadly predators.
Aside from the famous duh-duh, duh-duh’s of the main theme, the Jaws soundtrack also includes ten other tracks by Williams, including several that convey curiosity and adventure, calling to mind the composer’s work for Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and other action-packed films. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
9. It Follows (2014) by Disasterpeace
Trying to hum along to Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows is like trying to sing-along to a dubstep song; ultimately, you’ll sound like an amalgamation of power tools and air raid sirens. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The alter ego of Richard Vreeland, Disasterpeace mixes strange nondiegetic noises into a brooding synth beat that sways back and forth between melodic and ominous to strike a perfectly suited tone for a movie about desperate teens trying to save themselves.
The score in a way becomes a metaphor for the messy emotions of adolescence, a theme primary to the film. The music sounds incohesive, scattered even, but it’s a controlled chaos that is just constantly on the edge of spinning out like in the track “Old Maid.” Throughout this discordant soundscape, there are beautiful sections like “Jay” that get towards the innocence of youth, evoking the mood of a strange summer morning. The unparalleled score to It Follows literally pulsates with intensity, accomplishing something so few soundtracks do: actually scare us. (Jacob Trussell)
8. Mandy (2018) by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson turned in the Mandy OST one month before his death, which makes listening to it quite a sad experience. Especially considering that some of the compositions are quite downbeat, atmospheric, and sad. At other points, it’s strangely uplifting. Here, Jóhannsson’s ethereal soundscapes are complemented with a doom metal sheen that will make you throw up the horns and drink vodka in a toilet.
“Children of the New Dawn” is the standout track; it’s a post-metal masterpiece that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cult of Luna album. But it also makes you wonder why more filmmakers don’t turn to post-metal to add some oomph to their movies. “Chainsaw Fight,” on the other hand, is the musical equivalent of tearing your own hair out and throwing it down a sink. I mean that as a compliment. (Kieran Fisher).
7. Psycho (1960) by Bernard Herrmann
There is perhaps no sound more formative and imitated in horror film music than the screeching alien strings of Bernard Herrmann. While the majority of Psycho’s soundtrack is melancholic and calm (dare I say soothing), the tension eventually escalates to a piercing (haha) staccato. A sinister score for a sinister film, Hermann deftly wields his breadth of experience to make his limited string orchestra sound agitated, ugly, and violent. Mission accomplished, I’d say.
Supposedly, even Alfred Hitchcock himself is said to have conceded that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” A bold concession from the man who originally wanted his Freudian slasher to be set to jazz (no, really). Maybe Hermann is the real “Master of Suspense” in this seven-picture partnership. Oh, and look, Re-Animator fans, you didn’t make the list but if you just imagine there’s a kick drum during Psycho’s prelude, it’s quite literally the same thing. (Meg Shields)
6. Suspiria (1977) by Goblin
Few director-composer combos are able to match that of Dario Argento and progressive rockers Goblin. Their most famous collaboration came in 1977 with the release of Argento’s landmark Suspiria. It’s impossible to see a single shot from the film without the main theme kicking off in your head. Even those sad souls who have neglected to watch Suspiria are likely to be familiar with it.
It’s a staple at horror events everywhere, with my local cinema, The Hollywood Theatre, playing it before nearly every movie. The song even made The Pitchfork 500 and has been sampled by various artists and repurposed for other films. Goblin’s own Claudio Simonetti has dubbed the soundtrack as the band’s masterpiece and it’s not uncommon to catch him on the road (in pre-COVID times) with the most current incarnation of Goblin playing it in its entirety. (Chris Coffel)