The Movie GOATs: Best Horror Movie Themes
ScreenCrush’s latest series, Greatest of All Time, aka The GOATs, celebrates the best of the best when it comes to the movies.
A horror movie is nothing without a good score. A great composer can turn a mediocre scary movie into something chilling, and a great scary movie into a classic. You know someone will pop out from a shadowy doorway as the strings prickle on the soundtrack, or that danger lurks close by as a synthesizer broods loudly. The best horror movie music extrapolates the tension and dread at the center of a film, enhancing what we see onscreen with booming percussion, frantic strings, or a mournful piano melody.
In honor of Halloween, we’re ranking the five greatest horror movie theme songs of all time. It was a hard decision, and we had to axe a handful of great scores (see the honorable mentions at the end). Read on to see (and hear) our top picks for the freakiest, most unnerving horror themes to get you in the mood for All Hallows’ Eve.
5. Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”
From The Exorcist
Listening to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” sort of feels like the onset of a panic attack. There’s no slow introduction or build up; it immediately kicks off with a sharp, speedy piano melody full of urgency. Oldfield sneaks in random piercing notes that feel like mini electric shocks to an already jarring theme that fills you with a sense of unease. It doesn’t exactly evoke the demonic themes of The Exorcist, but conveys an air of anxiety that crawls under your skin. It’s also one of the simpler and cleaner-sounding scores on this list, using mainly piano notes, an organ and later electric guitar. It also helps that “Tubular Bells” is featured in a film that has no other music. So when you hear The Exorcist theme you have no choice but to feel unnerved.
4 Ennio Morricone’s “The Thing Main Theme”
From The Thing
While most contemporary horror films often use loud, jarring music cues to manipulate an audience into fright, some of the best music takes its time sculpting the tension underlying a movie. Ennio Morricone’s The Thing score is a thing of moody patience. It slowly eases you into the 1982 John Carpenter film as it slowly builds and gets louder and louder, almost like the rising volume of a Tibetan singing bowl. The resonant bass lightly staggers over the main theme and takes on an ominous energy. It conjures terror with a calm not often heard in most horror movies (at least horror movies not directed by Carpenter, or It Follows). It’s also the only piece of music on this list that’s unsettling and beautiful all at once.
3. Goblin’s “Suspiria Theme”
Goblin’s under-appreciated Suspiria score is one of cinema history’s most frightening and unique. The sounds of ringing bells played on a celesta evoke an inviting, ethereal quality, almost like something out of a fairy tale. But this theme is just as deceitful as the film’s dance academy setting. The delicate song quickly turns menacing as a voice growls the (absolutely terrifying) “la la la” over the track. Drums start banging and a hypnotic whomping tackles over and the song completely changes course as it turns into a alt-rock, synthesizer nightmare. It’s one of the freakiest horror movie scores I’ve ever heard, and yet I can’t get myself to turn it off. It captures the oddity and witchcraft at the heart of Suspiria, but is also so bizarre and enchanting you don’t want it to end.
2. Bernard Herrmann’s “Prelude”
The moment the Paramount logo fades from the screen at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Bernard Herrmann’s “Prelude” aggressively blares onto the soundtrack. There’s hardly a moment to rest as five jolting notes kick off the movie’s haunting theme. Long before we arrive at the Bates Motel with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane we’re already engulfed by the film’s sweeping terror from the music. It evokes a sense of inescapable danger, the stings foreshadowing the screeching violin to come in the film’s iconic shower scene. While most people associate Herrmann’s “The Murder” track as Psycho’s theme song, it’s “Prelude” that encapsulates the portentous nature of the thriller. It feels like the sonic equivalent of the violent madness thrashing inside Norman Bates’ head.
1. John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme (Main Title)”
John Carpenter’s Halloween theme is delicate and quiet, almost like a casual stroll down an empty suburban street. But it’s the rhythmic heartbeat thumps in the background, similar to what Goblin does with their Suspiria score, that introduce the presence of the sinister. Carpenter’s theme finds a way to marry the complicated chaos of Goblin’s score with the clean simplicity of Oldfield’s Exorcist music to create something that feels alarming and charged. Plus, it has the filmmaker’s signature use of synthesizers, which helps heighten the dread and atmospheric quality of the score. Just try listening to those piano notes without looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re not being followed.
In no particular order: Jerry Goldsmith’s “Ava Santini” from The Omen, Harry Manfredini’s Friday the 13th theme, John Williams’ Jaws theme, Charlie Clouser’s “Hello Zepp” from Saw, and Krzysztof Komeda’s “Rosemary’s Lullaby” from Rosemary’s Baby.