Coffin Hop Day 2: My Top Five Horror Soundtracks

Welcome back to Coffin Hop 2012 on Shaggin’ The Muse. If you’re here for the prizes, scroll on down to the bottom until you reach the banner with the book covers. You can check them out, I don’t mind. Go on, I’ll wait.

Back? Cool. Now listen, I’m a complete and utter music junkie. This is the sheer, unvarnished truth; I’m enough of a junkie that I’ve been dubbed the “Song Robot” when it comes to knowing songs by a few notes. I got into the whole mess because I find a strong link between music and writing – the right music can make such a difference in how well the words flow. It only made sense to make my second Coffin Hop entry revolve around music. This time we’re looking at…

Horror movies have long been defined by their soundtracks, dating back to at least Psycho, with its iconic theme that played such an important role in building tension and suspense. If a horror movie is doing its job well, the story sucks you in to the point that you’re less aware of its soundtrack/score as something attached to the story and more of the music as a “part” of the story. That’s what I’m trying to identify here: what movies used their music to such an extreme effect, and do they stand up to listens without the movie?

So, let’s have some fun. I’d love to see what movies you’d include that I haven’t listed here. There are so many that just didn’t make the cut – I’m sure lots of you can identify which ones you like the best. For now, here’s my list.

Oh, and just a note, I didn’t include Psycho for a number of reasons (in my mind, it walks a fine line between thriller and horror), but I have to at least include the shower scene as an honorable mention. Notice how Hitchcock weaves the soundtrack even as Janet Leigh’s character sits at the desk, dropping it away as she goes to the bathroom and then bringing it back in full-force with the attack. I’m so envious of this technique; I wish writers could do such things.

Awesome. Especially when you consider the state of the art at the time.

5. Suspiria. The Italian prog-rock band Goblin could quite easily fill most of these spots, and that’s saying something, given my general attitude toward progressive. Goblin is best-known for scoring films for Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, who is best-known for films such as Inferno (a personal favorite that I feel gets far too little credit), Phenomena, and The Mother of Tears. None of Argento’s films, however, are as well-known or beloved as Suspiria, and for good reason. The movie itself is about a ballet dancer who travels to Germany to enroll at a dance academy. While she’s there, she discovers some shocking secrets that I’m not about to give away. Just check it out if you love horror, seriously.

Argento is also known for his effective (albeit somewhat bizarre) soundtracks, and Suspiria might have the best of them all. Like Hitchcock, he does an effective job of weaving the soundtrack into the film, and the stuff stands up on its own, in a “what-the-hell-am-I-listening-to” way. Tracks like Sighs sound something like the soundtrack to Hell. Give this a listen and just imagine waking up to it in the middle of the night:

4. The Omen. Not many movies scared me as much as the Omen when I was a child. The idea itself sent shivers down my spine; there’s something primal about the innocent child who turns out to be not just a bloodthirsty killer but the harbinger of doom. Something about the idea of such innocence turned on its head really gets my creative juices flowing.

I submit, however, that this film would be nothing without Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic Oscar-winning score, the most memorable of which is “Ave Satani”. I can’t explain this better than Wikipedia: “The refrain to the chant is, “Sanguis bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani” (ungrammatical Latin for, “We drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan”), interspersed with cries of “Ave Satani!” and “Ave Versus Christus” (Latin, “Hail, Satan!” and “Hail, Antichrist!”).” Brrr.

3. Nightmare on Elm Street. And I’m talking the first one here, the truly scary film. One of the worst cinematic crimes ever committed was turning Freddy Krueger into a wise-cracking smart-ass. The Freddy that we see in the first movie and the final sequel, New Nightmare, is just a bone-chilling, calculating murderer with no remorse. I realize this is another film about loss of innocence, but is there really a more effective horror plot device? Possibly, but it’s a good one.

Charles Bernstein crafted the Nightmare on Elm Street score, and it’s a good one, featuring the effective use of synthesizers and percussive hits at just the right moment. I feel this one goes under-appreciated by a lot of people, including me, because of how deftly it’s woven into the film. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I listened to it on its own. Check out the main theme:

2. The Exorcist. More innocence lost! Alas. I’m a little too young to have quite gotten why this film was considered so terrifying at the time. I mean, yes, as a child it was quite scary, but I found other films far scarier than this one. I’m lacking the context that terrified so many people in its day, but I can appreciate their experiences second-hand and trust their judgment. I mean, I didn’t see Psycho back in the day, but I can respect it in the context of its time, so why not the Exorcist?

The soundtrack, though, that’s something that still resonates with me. Say what you will about Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and songs of its ilk, but that was the right sound and the right song for both its time and this film.

1. Halloween. I mean, come on. For awhile there, not only was John Carpenter on fire with film-making, but also music-making. I won’t praise the original Halloween too much here, as I’ve done it a lot in other places, but if you’re a horror fan, you have to at least know of this film if you haven’t seen it. For better or worse, it defined the direction that horror films would take for a good portion of the 80s, and some modern films still adhere to the formula that it established, which I think says a lot. It can seem somewhat dull and formulaic now, but again, you have to consider the film’s context. Thankfully, I was just the right age to get this film’s context, and love to relive that terror year after year.

That said, this was a tough decision. I could quite easily have filled three slots here with the soundtracks from the first three films, and might even be inclined to argue that Halloween 3 had the more effective score, but I’ve always thought that movie to be under-appreciated. In the end, I just couldn’t overlook the original score for all that it did.  It’s not just the haunting theme, which I submit as still one of the most effective film themes of all time. It’s little touches, like the thundering piano in this scene:

Yes, Halloween for Halloween. Fitting, I think.

So how about you? What films do you think might replace these? What other soundtracks should I dig into? Let me know in the comments.

Speaking of which, this year I’m participating in the Coffin Hop Blog Extravaganza, which brings together over 100 horror authors in a week deadicated (see what I did there) to terror, all leading up to Halloween, naturally. The Coffin Hop is not just about discovering new authors, it’s also about fun prizes. If you haven’t read to this point, here are the rules for entry: all I want is your comment. One comment is one entry, at a limit of one person per post. Don’t worry, I have at least five posts lined up for the next week so you’ll get at least five entries.

And the prizes…

Five eBooks from the Emissaries of the Strange. That’s package #1. I’m giving away three of these.

Package #2 is a complete collection of my works, including the Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of Room 3, due for release on November 12th. I’ll also happily replace your ARC once the book launches, but this is a chance to read something a bit early. I’m giving away five of these packages.

All entries must be in before Midnight EST on Halloween night. I’ll be drawing the winners on November 1st and announcing them right here. So be here for it all!

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  1. A good horror movie definitely needs a great soundtrack. Nice choices.

  2. My list would probably be:
    The Thing (1982)
    Suspiria (fo shizz!)
    Let The Right One In
    Argento’s Demons
    The movie that has yet to be made, but features an entire S/T of Godspeed You! Black Emperor

    • Nice list. The Thing almost made the cut, as did Demons – love that one, and the movie gives me the creeps. But this:

      The movie that has yet to be made, but features an entire S/T of Godspeed You! Black Emperor

      …go on. I love GY!BE. Where do I find this?

  3. You’ve got to love the “ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma” from “Friday the 13th”. It’s effective AND clever, at least in the first movie (though it doesn’t make as much sense when mommy’s not actually doing the killing).

    I’ve always loved the music–if that’s what you want to call it–from “Night of the Living Dead”. It was weird and unsettling and really set the mood for that film.

    And I don’t know if it counts in a discussion of soundtracks, but I think the most effective use of sound in a horror film was the 1963 version of “The Haunting” You didn’t have to actually see anything scary to be freaked out by that film: All you had to do was look at the characters’ faces and hear what they were hearing.

    And while they’re not movies, I would also mention the soundtracks from the first few Silent Hill games, Resident Evil REmake, and Eternal Darkness. I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite so freaked out by a soundtrack as I was playing Eternal Darkness for the first time, watching my sanity meter go down, and hearing a baby begin to wail as I hacked my way through some ancient temple, where a baby definitely didn’t belong. Sheesh!

    • Great list! Especially the video game soundtracks. I could do a whole post on great horror game soundtracks (the REmake is a personal favorite). Hmmm…

  4. These are all great scary movies. I don’t have a favorite. I’m torn between Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. And, then there’s Jason. Good lord!

    • Friday the 13th was *so* close to making the list. In the end it just missed by a hair. It’s really effective, though. Good choice.

  5. Not sure if it counts, but The Village is superb!

    • Not familiar with that one, but adding it to my list!

    • I was going to mention The Village, as well. My wife has choreographed to it. Mostly instrumental, but I think very well done.

      Love these choices. I was actually thinking about The Omen before I saw it, and I was thinking how the 70’s movies would actually do the happy music during happy scenes (like the montage when they are showing Damien growing up). Makes it a little creepier. Also, the theme from Nightmare on Elm Street is still freaky.

      I would also add (although I have the same questions of thriller vs. horror) that the soundtrack to Lost Highway is amazing. Produced by Trent Reznor with such greats as David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, Lou Reed, Marilyn Manson and many instrumentals by Angelo Badalamenti.

      Anyway, fun post. Hope the hop is going well.

      Paul D. Dail

  6. Silent Hill had a cool soundtrack from what I remember — but maybe I’m just getting it confused with the nightmares it inspired… Happy to enter your drawing!

    milojamesfowler at gmail

  7. I would have to add The Shining – the theme is soooo ominous. It sounds like isolation and very bad things to come. Also, Jaws. Da nah. Da nah. Da nah… the epitome of “Oh, shit – something is coming and it isn’t anything good.” 🙂

    • I had to look up the Shining and wow, it’s just like Nightmare on Elm Street – so effective I’d completely forgotten it. I still think the ones on this list are a little better, but that’s a good one!

  8. oooohhh… to many to pick from! Great list, I’d maybe add in The Changeling from 1980 – the tub banging still creeps me out with the little boys whispering voice telling his story! 😉

  9. Halloween, hands down. IT’s my ringtone on my phone as well.

  10. Pumpkinhead, pumpkinhead! Primal, evil chanting by a swarm of dirty children HAS to make the list! Fun post!


  11. I’m probably older than you. I remember what happened when “The Exorcist” was released. My mother wouldn’t let me go see it because she felt I was too young. There were lines formed around the blocks to see the movie. Linda Blair was the talk of the media. But the thing is, I’m a huge horror fan, and “The Exorcist” continues to be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. ~~ I like your choices. I would have included “Psycho.” I’m not big on labels like some authors are. There are too many arguments over them, and labels are used as a mean to separate, which isn’t always good. Horror writers think they’re better than paranormal writers. Romance writers think they’re better than erotica writers. I get sick of labels. Horror . . . thriller . . . who cares? I don’t. Psycho scared me, and that’s all I care about.~~ I’m also a big fan of the TV show “The Walking Dead,” and I love the music they use for the theme.

    Jolie du Pre
    Precious Monsters

  12. Wow. The Susperia song is reallly scary. I had never heard it before now and I have a serious case of the chills!!
    And I forgot how scary Halloween is! I jumped when he swung out of the closet.
    This was so fun! Thanks for this.
    And as for the Exorcist theme–it is just wrong. Something evil about it. Yeesh. But PERFECT.
    Happy haunting. Loved this.
    🙂 Pen

  13. Nice music choices.


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