Arguably the most important element in a horror movie is its atmosphere. From spooky set design to unnerving creatures, atmosphere is key. One of the best and most effective ways to build atmosphere is with a chilling music score, and there are plenty of iconic horror scores that have spooked audiences. One of the best examples is John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween theme. Even those who have never seen Carpenter’s masterpiece can recognize his brilliant theme and picture Michael Myers stalking his prey.
There is an infinite number of horror films out there, and many of them have themes that are just as effective, yet they fall by the wayside. Horror hounds can match a movie with practically any theme, but the fact that the mainstream audience may not know of them is as scary as any monster movie.
10 Main Title (A Nightmare On Elm Street) – Charles Bernstein
While better know than the other entries, the main theme to A Nightmare On Elm Street has yet to receive the status of Jaws or The Exorcist, even though it is more than deserving of it. While the nursery rhyme “1, 2, Freddy’s Coming For You” is known by practically everyone, Charles Bernstein’s opening theme is chilling and almost dreamlike, which is more than fitting.
The haunting piano almost reminds one of a nightmare they once had, yet can’t remember. Freddy Kruger is one of the most iconic faces in horror, and it is nothing short of a shame that his theme hasn’t reached the same level outside of the horror circle
9 Main Title (Amityville Horror) – Lalo Schifrin
A movie about an eerie haunted house deserves an equally eerie soundtrack to match. The tone of the film is set in the opening credits, with only the house in front of a red sky and this chilling score.
Lalo Schifrin, who also composed the classic Mission: Impossible theme, shows that he understands how to use music to frighten audiences. The opening credits unnerves the viewer, and that feeling sticks with them throughout the film. When anyone watches this movie even just once, it is difficult to think of a haunted house without also thinking of Lalo’s music accompanying it.
8 The Boat On The Water (Friday The 13th) – Harry Manfredini
What makes this piece stand out from other horror scores, is that it isn’t used to scare. In fact, it is used to do the exact opposite. The music plays during one of the last shots of the film. Alice, the final girl, is taking some much-needed rest in a boat floating on the lake after a traumatic night of terror.
Harry Manfredini composes a piece that allows Alice, as well as the audience, to take a breather. The music is calm and hopeful and almost gives a sense of victory. Alice sees the police arrive on the shore as the music swells to a happy ending. As anyone who has seen the movie knows, however, this false sense of security is building to one of the scariest shock endings in history, and the music exemplifies that.
7 End Titles (Child’s Play) – Joe Renzetti
Oftentimes, the best tracks aren’t ones that play during the events of the movie, but the ones that play during the credits, while the audience processes what they just witnessed. The song that plays over the end credits of 1988’s Child’s Play is a prime example of this.
The song plays like a demented track from a child’s toy radio, with an almost whimsical tune that also sends chills up the listener’s spine. Chucky’s first outing was one that left viewers on the edge of their seats, so a song that lets the experience sink in is the perfect ending to a chilling film.
6 Main Title (The Shining) – Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind
There is little that can be said about Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining that hasn’t already been said. One aspect of the film that isn’t as celebrated as it should, is the terrifying theme that plays over the opening credits. The opening of the film is a long shot over a winding mountain leading to the haunting Overlook Hotel, and the accompanying song gives the viewer a hint of what is to come.
The track has not one, but two composers that know exactly the kind of isolating feeling to invoke in the viewer. The track is scary and almost seems to be building up to something sinister. While not gaining the credit it deserves, the song made a welcome and unexpected return in the sequel, Doctor Sleep.
5 Gremlins Rag (Gremlins) – Jerry Goldsmith
Seemingly cute and innocent with a surprising mischievous and crazy interior can be used to describe both the Mogwai and this track from the ’80s classic, Gremlins. The track starts out soft and childlike, then turns incredibly fun and fast-paced, which perfectly fits the tone of the film.
While not a typical horror film, any movie that has insane creatures wreaking havoc and causing violent mayhem during Christmas is certainly a step in the right direction. This track is reminiscent of something from an old Halloween special, sounding spooky and almost dance-worthy at the same times, and is just as fun as the movie itself.
4 Pennywise (It) – Richard Bellis
In 1990, the two-part made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It premiered. The special was a success, due in part to the fact that one of the biggest phobias are clowns. Pennywise is perhaps one of the most famous terrifying clowns in history, and his theme in the miniseries is just as terrifying.
To those who are not afraid of clowns, the song may just seem like a generic circus anthem, but to those who can’t even look at Pennywise without shivering, the theme is just as menacing as he is. The almost overly happy tune seems like just the thing an evil clown would use to lure his victims, and it is upsetting a variant wasn’t in the newer adaptations.
3 Zepp Eight (Jigsaw) – Charlie Clouser
Whenever horror fans begin to figure something out, the theme “Hello Zepp” from Saw may play in their heads. The song plays during the finale of the film, as the big twist is revealed. A variant of the theme was in each subsequent film during their respective twist scenes.
After the seventh entry, Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, the franchise laid dormant for several years until 2017’s Jigsaw. When the film began to reveal its own twist, a new suspenseful song played. While this song is very well done, the classic “Hello Zepp” appears at the very end to remind audiences of the true king of twist songs.
2 Ave Satani (The Omen) – Jerry Goldsmith
Damien Thorne is one of the scariest children ever put to film. The literal anti-christ deserves a theme that strikes just as much fear as his very presence, this is where Jerry Goldsmith comes in. The theme of The Omen is haunting and unnerving to even veteran horror buffs. It uses a choir to sing what sounds like a song straight from the depths from which Damien hails from.
The song doesn’t sound like a build-up to something terrible. Instead, it is as if that terrible thing is already here and all hope is lost. This is exactly the kind of song a horror movie deserves, and it is criminal it is not spoken in the same breath as the Halloween theme.
1 Lullaby (Rosemary’s Baby) – Krzysztof Komeda
One of the most unnerving things for many is scary children. Even an innocent lullaby may seem frightening for some, so a lullaby intended to be terrifying is enough to put anyone on edge.
This track has a soft guitar with an almost light rock feel, accompanied by a chilling voice singing a lullaby. To some, this song may not be scary in the slightest. But imagining it playing in a mostly empty room with nothing more than a lone baby cradle in the center will send chills down even the spine of even the most hardened horror buff.
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