All October, we’re spotlighting horror! From classics of the genre to counting down the many elements that make horror into one of cinema’s most vibrant genres, we’re diving deep all month long.
Effective horror sets a distinct mood in order to envelop audiences and chill them to the bone. And while camera work, themes, and acting are all major components of effective mood setting, film scoring plays a massive role. And within that, main musical themes play a crucial part in creating a unique sonic identity for a horror film.
While many horror films resort to interchangeable droning bass and screaming strings to achieve a well-worn and overly familiar musical identity, the best of the best forge new ground and becoming unmistakably unique. From humming keyboards to blaring orchestras and even a few rock n roll bands, the best horror musical themes stand toe to toe with the best of any film genre. The following 13 horror theme songs have helped to shape the genre’s score and have firmly planted themselves in the hearts and minds of horror fans everywhere.
13. Cry Little Sister – Gerard McMahon
Like the film itself, the theme for The Lost Boys, “Cry Little Sister” by Gerard McMahon, is about equal parts cheese and quality. But it’s super atmospheric, very ‘80s, and has enough menace to work just right for this teenage vampire horror comedy. The creepy kid chorus, pained vocals, and heaps of synthesizers work well in this gothic film that is a staple for fans of the decade. It’s intertwined nicely throughout the film’s creepier moments and is definitely one of the better horror themes to feature lyrics, even if it’s not quite as good as a few others to appear on this list.
12. Hello Zepp – Charlie Clouser
This is one of the very few modern horror themes that can stand up to the greats from other decades. That’s thanks to its escalating tension and ties to the many twists throughout the films of the franchise. With just a small amount of electronic drumbeats offsetting the traditional string elements of the theme, “Hello Zepp” feels at home in the early 2000s but not dated like many other scores that leaned on the musical trends of the time. Big fans of the franchise of particularly fond of this theme, but even non-fans should be able to appreciate its recognizable and chilling sound.
11. Nightmare on Elm Street – Charles Bernstein
The best entries into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise keep the inherent creepiness of the series at the forefront, while still embracing the fun thrills of the concept. Once the franchise became a cheesy joke factory, it went downhill. Bernstein’s theme for the series is heavy on the creepiness and most definitely influenced countless horror scores to follow. Using just a fewing cascading drumbeats, off kilter synths, and a boatload of atmosphere, this theme really works. While it’s not ambitious enough to rank higher on the list, it’s most certainly one of the greats in a genre that has produced thousands of dread-inducing themes.
10. Phantasm – Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave
The theme for Phantasm almost feels like a classic horror theme straight out of the Universal Studios monster era but filtered through the late ‘70s/early ‘80s synth-heavy era. Most importantly, there’s a focus on strong melody here that makes it far more than most horror themes. It’s an unfortunate trend that a vast portion of horror scores are just droning, bass-heavy, interchangeable mood pieces that are purely meant to invoke fear and never be remembered. Phantasm’s theme is strong, unique, gothic, and enjoyable as just a standalone piece of music that also enhances the film and its sequels, as well.
9. The Omen – Jerry Goldsmith
The official name for the theme to The Omen is “Ave Satani” and that is certainly most appropriate. Filled with dread-inducing Latin choir vocals done in a Gregorian chant style, this is certainly one of the most outright creepy horror themes. And that’s before you translate the Latin lyrics to English and come to find out that this is a straight up demonic ode to the Antichrist. Yes, it’s perfect for a film that is actually about the Antichrist. It’s also the least likely to be played for listening pleasure outside of a list like this. But that’s what makes it so powerful.
8. It Follows – Disasterpeace
This is some serious throwback, moody masterful scoring. Electronic and chiptune musician Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, pushed heavy into synth-focused composition for the 2015 horror film It Follows. His John Carpenter-influenced sound is exquisite and just right for the throwback style of the film itself. Fluttering synth kicks off a sense of creeping dread into crescendoing into a robust and thrilling climax, before retreating into the darkness once again. Feeling simultaneously at home in a bygone era and fresh for the genre, this is the best of both worlds. Any fan of ’80s horror scoring and the current retrowave genre will fall in love with the theme to It Follows and the soundtrack as a whole.
7. Dream Warriors – Dokken
Somehow, a cheesy metal theme is perfect for the third entry into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise: Dream Warriors. Full of thrashing guitars and power vocals, “Dream Warriors” works well for a sequel that was all about upping the stakes, action, and crazy dream sequences. And the cheesy lyrics work well, too, tying into the ideas of the film and its plot points without having to recite the occurrences of all three acts like some older movie themes felt compelled to do. All in all, it’s a pretty fun time and is certainly stronger than almost every other metal movie theme song from the decade.
6. Young Frankenstein – John Morris
As part of one of the all-time great horror comedies, composer John Morris’ score to Young Frankenstein helps set a very authentic tone for the parody to come. Thanks to its earnestness and the perfect, Universal Horror style instrumentation, a fantastic, genre-accurate tone is set for the wild genre-busting comedy to follow. But the theme to Young Frankenstein works well simply by itself that those unfamiliar with the film would be hard pressed to recognize this as the theme to a comedy. Best of all, the mournful violin of the theme becomes an integral part of the film’s story, making this one of horror’s most complete and intelligent musical themes.
6. The Fog – John Carpenter
While The Fog isn’t Carpenter’s best horror film, its theme is one of his best. And the pure atmosphere that oozes from this main theme blends perfectly with the atmospheric cinematography of the film, which are most certainly the strongest elements of the film. The burst of organ-like synths and thunder at the start sounds incredibly similar to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theme to The Phantom of the Opera (which this predates) and the cascading synth notes and echoing rhythmic percussions that follow drip with an almost hypnotic atmosphere. This is definitely one of Carpenter’s more classical sounding themes and is often overlooked by fans of the genre, which should merit its reconsideration by anyone who loves horror.
5. Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield
While Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” was written for his own instrumental album, its inclusion in The Exorcist has brought it widespread notoriety and a far creepier connotation than what was likely originally intended by its creator. While composer Lalo Schifrin had created a complete score for the film, director William Friedkin tossed it out due to studio dislike and chose to use preexisting classical compositions. But it’s the unmistakable tripping piano solo that bursts to life at the start of “Tubular Bells” and continues throughout this progressive rock composition that has been most burned into fans’ memories. It still commands attention today.
4. Psycho – Bernard Herrmann
While it’s pulsating orchestra and shrieking strings are instantly recognizable and more commonplace today, Herrmann’s terrifying and off-kilter score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was far more out of the ordinary at the time of its debut. This theme includes both the galloping, looping strings that play over many of the film’s beginning scenes as well as the horrifying, ear-piercing violin shrieks that punctuate the infamous shower scene. Together, they form a frightening and cohesive whole that helped shape future film scores, yet has never been matched in terms of classical terror.
3. Jaws – John Williams
Is Jaws a horror movie? That’s debatable. It definitely has horror elements, and that includes it’s iconic, dread-inducing, instantly-recognizable-in-two-notes theme. And while movie themes don’t get much simpler than the initial beats, Williams score is much more than that. In fact, the initial dread eventually gives way to a much more adventurous tone, just like the film itself. That blend of lurking fear and the visceral thrills of a sudden attack manifest within the music itself. And the theme to Jaws is a huge part of what makes the film so scary at times, with the shark itself often hidden and the theme working as its voice. It’s just one of Williams’ many iconic scores, but it is certainly one of the greatest in the horror genre.
2. Suspiria – Goblin
Dario Argento’s Suspiria works so well because of the creeping dread that works its way into the minds of viewers, slowing getting into their heads before outbursts of technicolor ultraviolence burst onto screen. Prog rock band Goblin’s score is one of the main reasons for that. Their entire score to the film is filled with strange, mind-bending Moog synthesizers, swirling drums, and haunted vocals and their wild main theme is the best of all those tracks. This is crazy, moody, weird, expertly performed prog horror scoring and the result is something utterly unique and pulsating with life. The theme to Suspiria is unsettling and dread-inducing while still being electrifying and fun. A rare feat for any horror theme.
1. Halloween – John Carpenter
Horror themes don’t get any more iconic than writer/director/composer John Carpenter’s score for the original Halloween. Composed of a very simple piano melody backed by a sinister keyboard, there is actually very little to the Halloween theme, yet the score captures a sense of lurking menace so perfectly that there is nothing more actually needed. It’s meant to send a shiver down your spine, get under your skin, and stay in your head. It does all three at once without ever getting overly ambitious or complex. Even listeners who have never seen any of the Halloween films know this piece from the moment it starts because of its unmistakable, one-of-a-kind nature. And that’s what has made it into a lasting piece of film score and easily the greatest horror movie theme ever made.
Honorable Mentions: Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Bride of Frankenstein, Ghostbusters
What are your favorite musical themes from horror films? Put yours in the comments section below!