So much of our collective love of horror is grounded in the visual: A splash of gore, an inventive creature design, an image so startling and unexpected it lingers long after the lights come back up. It’s only right for a genre that takes our greatest fears and gives them shape (perhaps even The Shape). But there’s a frightening power in the unseen as well, and many of horror’s crowning achievements have demonstrated that nothing sweetens a scare or ratchets the tension of a chilling set piece quite like a good instrumental score.
Horror has long been at the forefront of innovations in makeup, visual effects, sound design, and cinematography, and its impact on film and television music is no different. One of the earliest electronic instruments, the theremin, gave otherworldly texture to “The Spiral Staircase” and “The Thing From Another World” before its synthesizer and sequencer descendants built the dread of “Halloween” (1978) and “The Shining.” The latter film surrounds original compositions by the “Switched on Bach” duo of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind with selections from contemporary classical composers like György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, proving, as “The Exorcist” had seven years before, that horror is a perfect fit for their pioneering experiments in dissonance. The tradition of filmmakers teaming up with pop and rock acts runs through the genre as well, from the fruitful partnership between Dario Argento and Goblin that yielded the witchy prog of “Suspiria” or the haunted new age Popol Vuh contributed to Werner Herzog’s version of “Nosferatu.”
We mention these titles above because none are highlighted below. Their status as classics in undisputed, but who really needs to be told to check out “Halloween” or “Suspiria” again? Definitiveness and comprehensiveness were not IndieWire’s aims in compiling this chronologically organized list; the adjective in the headline is “favorite” for a reason. These are personal picks, the films and scores we turn to when we want to hear something go bump in the night during this or any other time of the year.
This article contains contributions from Sarah Schachat, Jim Hemphill, Tom Brueggemann, Steve Greene, and Ryan Lattanzio