In the realm of horror, often it is what’s heard, suggested and alluded to, rather than physically seen, that injects the lasting feeling of terror. Filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott embraced this with Jaws and Alien respectively, in which the terror of the titular monsters was reserved for the perfect time, when the audience’s guard is down. Instead, both of these films ingeniously heighten the tension using cinematography, clever lighting techniques and, most importantly, the soundtrack.
As Ridley Scott explained about the efficacy of horror while making Alien, “The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw”. As such, a great soundtrack will reflect the fear and intimidation that such a monster would inflict, in spite of the beast’s physical appearance on screen.
Embodying the atmosphere of the film whilst heightening the tension with careful synthesisers, percussion or an entirely more ethereal instrument, a great horror soundtrack has the ability to transport the listener back into a world of turmoil, even when they’re far away from the film itself.
From the likes of director and composer John Carpenter to the contemporary British composer Mica Levi, let’s take a look into the ten best horror soundtracks of all time.
The 10 greatest horror movie soundtracks
10. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) – Composed by Philip Glass
Released just as the horror slasher sub-genre was ebbing away from popularity, and entering into a new stage of revision, Bernard Rose’s Candyman was a film that very much took its slasher identity seriously, contextualising terror within a strong racial subtext.
For a fairly stereotypical horror tale, the narrative that Candyman explores throughout its runtime speaks of a more pertinent truth about mythmaking that exceeds its apparent slasher simplicity. This is typified by Phillip Glass’ mesmeric score that places Candyman within the realm of the fairytale, using choral voices and melodic piano to suggest something far more tragic than a by-the-numbers slasher.
9. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) – Composed by John Murphy
Giving an ‘infected’ sub-category to the zombie genre, and spawning a whole movement of zombie enthusiasts, 28 Days Later would become a cultural phenomenon with special thanks from the now-iconic opening sequence.
Following the ghostly Cillian Murphy around London’s desolate streets as he seeks answers from his waking nightmare, the scene is joined by ‘In the House, In a Heartbeat’ by John Murphy, one of the finest horror soundtracks of the modern era. Having been reused and repurposed multiple times since its release, Murphy’s song begins as an eerie classical score before breaking out into hectic violence, well reflecting the film itself.
8. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) – Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
Together with the titular Jaws in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece, Ridley Scott’s Alien created the blueprint for every great monster movie. The crux? Using tension as a tool, gradually cranking it up with every glimpse of the monster at hand.
This is a game of cat and mouse between the alien caught aboard the Nostromo and the crew of the ship itself, as Scott creates a space in which fighting back seems futile and the only option is to run. An unbearable tension is built up with the simplicity of just a few moving parts, with no ingredient more crucial than the score that carries hints of unpredictability in its ominous horns whilst also speaking to the grandeur of such an awesome and terrifying discovery.
7. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) – Composed by Jack Nitzsche
William Friedkin’s film, based on the novel and screenplay from author William Peter Blatty, is in part a dark tale of a young girl transitioning into adulthood with intense painful trauma, and on the other hand, a satanic possession story about two priests questioning their faith to save the same girl.
Such builds to create one of the most infamous and visceral horror tales of all time, punctuated by the flickering, ethereal soundtrack of ‘Tubular Bells’ acting as a religious omniscient overseer. Originally written by Mike Oldfield, the song was adapted slightly for the film to achieve an eerie, unsettling tone with effortless ease. Together partnered with The Exorcists’ other tracks that incorporate experimental sounds and religious undertones and a classic of horror is created.
6. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) – Composed by Ennio Morricone
Master of cult cinema and auteur filmmaking, John Carpenter was often as involved with his soundtracks as he was in the director’s chair. The Thing is a pioneer of cosmic horror storytelling; deftly entwining the terror of man’s paranoid struggle with the inconceivable horror of the unknown.
With help from the groundbreaking monster design from special effects artist Rob Bottin, The Thing exudes a shocking terror that remains as slimy, gruesome and disturbing to this very day. This is accentuated by a score from the iconic Ennio Morricone that oozes intensity, replicating the sound of a heartbeat with bassy guitar strings, accompanied by ethereal bells, drones and tingles. You can’t quite define it, much like the monster itself.
5. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) – Composed by Bernard Herrmann
A psychological thriller years ahead of its time, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror hybrid subverts cliches of the genre and leaves you on tenterhooks till its shocking, and now infamous final sequence.
Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) leads this masterclass in sustained suspense, as Hitchcock elevated the, then ‘trashy’, horror genre into what it looks like today, validating its existence by toeing the line between thrilling terror and well-constructed art. Such terror is heightened by an iconic soundtrack from Bernard Herrmann, using a hellish staccato theme, to stab itself with every beat into your mind and mentality.
4. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) – Composed by Mica Levi
Jonathan Glazer’s strange cinematic journey is a cornerstone of contemporary cinema, merging inconceivable visuals to form a very human story from the point of view of a curious alien life form.
Part sci-fi drama, part experimental horror, Glazer’s Under the Skin is a marvel of terror and bewilderment that in many ways surpasses the definition of genre. What can be certain is that Mica Levi’s ingenious score is a spellbinding audiovisual assault on the senses, a truly unique and inexplicably terrifying account of an alien invasion. Taking you to dark places of your mind you had not yet discovered, Levi’s music is truly transportive.
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) – Composed by Goblin
Dario Argento’s Giallo masterpiece, Suspiria puts style and emotion over reason in a fantastical dream world of saturated reds and neon blues where a coven of witches rule over a ballet school.
Dripping in European style and artistic influence, Argento’s film is bolstered by a creeping progressive rock soundtrack, narrating the film from its mysterious introduction to its violent conclusion. Highlighting the sinister, alternate reality of the film itself, the soundtrack composed by Goblin is strange, eccentric and enigmatic, inspiring panic, dread and disorientation. The legacy of its sound has surpassed the film itself.
2. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) – Composed by John Williams
For giving a whole generation a fear of sharks with just one iconic score, John Williams’ work on Steven Spielberg’s influential blockbuster Jaws is nothing short of inspiring, sparking an immediate sense of panic whenever it is played.
Perfectly capturing the film’s atmosphere, John Williams’ score lives autonomously of the film, acting as a constant sense of threat, even when the characters remain on dry land. Describing the main theme of the film, which is performed on the tuba, Williams explained he wanted the song to be “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable”. John Williams and Steven Speilberg both certainly succeeded.
1. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) – Composed by John Carpenter
Having created the soundtrack for Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, Escape from New York and the horror classic, Halloween, John Carpenter is well-known as a multi-talented filmmaker often writing, directing and composing the music for his own films.
Creeping up on the listener, the soundtrack for the classic Halloween is a careful, incessant staccato score, continuing without a pause to reflect the ceaseless energy of antagonist Michael Myers. Composed and created by John Carpenter himself, the director was inspired by both ‘Tubular Bells’, the theme to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, as well as the work of Italian prog-rock band Goblin, though the secret behind Halloween’s eventual soundtrack was from something far more elementary.