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How Horror Movies Scare Us with Music

How Horror Movies Scare Us with Music

Earlier this week, Slate published a “guess the scary movie score” quiz to test your knowledge of horror movie music. It’s a fun quiz (I got 12 out of 13…damn you, theme from “Child’s Play!”), and it shows how a truly great horror movie score can burn itself into a viewer’s memory and creep them out even when it’s been removed from its context.

Over at Pitchfork, musicologist Marianna Ritchey wrote that she tries to pay close attention to what a score is doing and how it’s affecting the viewer when she’s watching a movie, especially during horror. She knocks a number of “predictably stupid” scores for being little more than “a music box slowly winding down; cheap ‘mickey-mousing’ where the score goes BOO! when a ghost jumps out” (last year’s overrated “The Conjuring” comes to mind), she also highlights some of the best. Here’s her take on a couple of the most famous scary movie scores, Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings from “Psycho” and John Williams’ foreboding “Jaws” theme:

There is a lot to like about the theme from “Psycho.” That screeching glissando repeats itself, never progressing or developing. It’s as though the music is an aural mirror of Norman himself, trapped in his weird Oedipal mother-lover stabby-murder loop. Another example is the theme from “Jaws.” It’s simply a minor second ostinato in the low strings of the orchestra, repeated incessantly, whenever the shark is about to chomp somebody.  Void of any significant melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or even dynamic content, the theme can only repeat the same action again and again until stopped by some outer force. It’s a musical evocation of mindless repetition—the quality that makes a shark, or Norman Bates in stabby “Mother” mode, so scary.

Then again, it doesn’t take an original score to effectively creep the audience out. Ritchey also tackles the use of diegetic music, how it informs the viewer about the personality and taste of the boogeyman in question, and how it suggests where their fate lies.

A prime example: in “Silence of the Lambs” Hannibal Lecter “uses” the elegant, mathematical precision of the Aria from J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” as a means of underscoring his intellectual superiority, while poor old Buffalo Bill dances to poor old one-hit-wonder Q Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses.” These musical choices foreshadow which of the two serial killers will ultimately triumph (hint: it won’t be the working-class one).

“Goodbye Horses” is also a smart choice for another reason. “The Silence of the Lambs” came under fire from some LGBT groups upon its release for its depiction of a bisexual and transgender character as a murderer, but the film takes great pains (even having it stated by Hannibal Lecter) to underline that he’s neither, someone who acts out of hatred of women and of himself rather than self-expression and self-discovery. The melancholy of “Goodbye Horses” underscores how pitiful Bill’s existence is, showing him trying to be something he’s not just to get away from what he is.

Still, little can top a truly nerve-jangling score, and Ritchey covers one of the best with Goblin’s score for Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”:

What is it about this theme that makes your skin crawl? It’s got a pretty complex texture (mandolin, tabla, drums, crazy experimental washes of synth noise, echoing hateful whispers, bells) even though the rest of its content is very simple. Like the themes from “Jaws” or “Psycho,” it never develops musically or harmonically in any way, but, unlike those themes, it has its own perfect circular logic, like a snake eating its own tail—almost as though it can’t develop or progress, like it’s musically evoking the feeling of being immobilized (like when you fall into a room inexplicably filled with barbed wire, for example, which is something that happens in this movie). 

And with that (and the “Suspiria” theme coming onto my Spotify playlist immediately as I started reading that section, effectively creeping me out for the rest of the day), we’ll leave it to you to listen in on how John Carpenter’s “Halloween” score uses repetition and an unconventional time-signature to unnerve viewers, or how Stanley Kubrick uses the percussive, screeching strings of Krzysztof Penderecki to approximate the feeling of going bonkers. Happy Halloween!

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