The horror: fearless composers take on scary movies

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • October 21, 2015

One night last summer, I made a terrible mistake—I watched “It Follows” at two in the morning, alone and in the dark. For a movie about a monster that moves at a walking pace, it is genuinely terrifying. I watched most of it on the edge of my seat, with my hand over my mouth and my heart pounding. As with most horror films, it owes a lot of its suspense to the soundtrack; in this case a synth-driven work by composer Rich Vreeland, who writes under the name Disasterpeace.

In between the nightmares, I spent the days after watching “It Follows” trying to figure out what makes Disasterpeace’s score so special. For one, the music blends with the film’s deteriorating Detroit setting, with car alarms and clanging bottles becoming one with the synthesizers. It also has a slow, thrumming quality guaranteed to make any viewer anxious. Most interestingly, it resonates with audiences because it is referential; it borrows themes from famous horror movies like John Carpenter’s “Halloween”and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

The scores of scary movies, perhaps more than in any other genre, are all reminders of how crucial the relationship between imagery and music is. These compositions are eclectic, intricate, and intense; without them the terrors on screen would fall flat. For young composers looking to test their limits and produce new and compelling work, horror films are becoming an increasingly popular medium. 

It isn’t surprising that an emerging musician would be intrigued by horror. Scary movies are a memorable backdrop, and in many instances, the soundtrack itself haunts us. These arrangements transcend the film and often appear in our daily conversations. Anytime something remotely spooky happens, someone is bound to hum the theme from “The Twilight Zone.” The “Jaws” leitmotif is unmistakable. Just one mention of aliens is enough to cue the tune from “The X-Files,” and when you hear the music from “The Shining,” you are bound to cast a quick look over the shoulder just to check that Jack Nicholson isn’t there.

Horror is not as limiting as it may seem, and though it brings to mind darker and moodier sounds, there is a surprising variety of compositions in the genre. Some films opt for completely acoustic or joyful music, using juxtaposition to make things more terrifying. Others are composed almost entirely on a single instrument. “It Follows,” for example, heavily uses synthesizers, a product of Vreeland’s background in video games.

The genre has always been an experimental field of composition, and even the most bizarre instruments find a home on horror scores. Without “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the theremin may never have found its way into popular music. The Beach Boys couldn’t have produced their smiley, upbeat hit “Good Vibrations” without composers pioneering new instrumentation in scary movie soundtracks.

There is also an entire culture built around the music, with people who collect and sort and organize it. Much like in the subculture for horror films, there are many devoted soundtrack fans. It is almost a tradition around Halloween for publications and blogs to round up the best scary movie tracks, with lists that sometimes reach up to the hundreds.

A new crop of composers turning towards these bone-chilling films to make their mark in the music world is not necessarily unusual. Many composers got their start and found their sound writing spooky soundtracks. Howard Shore, best known for his peaceful and scenic arrangements for the “Lord of the Rings” series,got his start making choppy electronic soundscapes for scary flicks. In his score for “The Silence of the Lambs,” you can begin to hear him find his signature string-sound while still working in the horror genre. Even the mighty John Williams wrote the famous music of “Jaws” early in his film scoring career. 

Horror is a complex genre, and by unpacking it, we reveal a lot about the faults, insecurities, and fears of the society it comes from. The music that these films are set to needs to be just as meaningful. For an artist, this is the ultimate creative challenge.

So, keep an ear out during all of those Halloween movie marathons. Along with heightening the suspense, the music may be written by one of the rising stars of the scoring world. Composers who turn to horror as an unexplored venue for their work are a promising sign, both for the industry they’re in and for anyone who likes a good scare from a spooky movie in the middle of the night.