What does dread sound like? It’s not always easy to put into words, but the right music cues can conjure the feeling almost immediately. It only takes a few ominous chords of John Williams’ Jaws score—dun-dun, dun-dun—to convince you to stay out of the water, and Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings from Psycho will tell you that not even your shower is safe. Since the first time a score was written specifically for film—Max Steiner’s sweeping orchestral work for King Kong—music has been used to stir emotion within an audience. That’s especially true for the horror genre, which often relies on a soundtrack to create an eerie atmosphere and/or send viewers leaping out of their seats. Whether it’s the sparse twinkle of piano keys, the strange otherworldliness of the theremin, or the crash of cymbals at just the right moment, film composers have helped create some of the most unforgettably terrifying moments in cinematic history.
As the horror genre has evolved over the decades, its fan base has grown exponentially, with conventions, film festivals, and more bringing like-minded audiences together to celebrate the art of a good scare. Naturally, that fandom has created a market for horror film scores as well, which have taken on a life of their own, birthing successful record labels and turning composers into rock stars (and vice versa). So, why do we love horror scores? Why do we find ourselves revisiting the music of the genre long after the credits have rolled? And what is it about the genre that has inspired composers to create some of cinema’s most beloved and instantly recognizable music?
In the spirit of Horrors Week, The A.V. Club’s latest Why We Love explores the power of horror movie scores, remembering the times film music has gotten under our skin, and reflecting on the ways horror has—more than any other genre—pushed composers to experiment, innovate, and change the way movie soundtracks are made. For answers, we turned to an eclectic roster of horror fans and experts—stars like Scare Me’s Aya Cash, Hush’s John Gallagher Jr., Save Yourselves!’s Sunita Mani, and Drag Race season 12’s Crystal Methyd all weighed in on the scores that keep them up at night. Actor and master storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky was happy to reminisce on all the times he was frightened in the theater, while And That’s Why We Drink co-host Em Schulz and Horror Queers podcasters Joe Lipsett and Trace Thurman reflected on what makes scores truly scary. Elsewhere, veritable legend Lin Shaye (seen this fall in The Call, available on premium VOD and digital platforms on Oct. 30), Come Play director Jacob Chase, Death Waltz Recording Co. founder Spencer Hickman, Juilliard professor Michelle DiBucci, and Scored To Death author and podcaster J. Blake Fichera all shared their unique perspectives on the art form. And, finally, some of our favorite film composers shared their experiences working within the genre, including Michael Abels (Us, Get Out), Joseph Bishara (Insidious, The Conjuring), Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart of The Newton Brothers (The Haunting Of Bly Manor, Doctor Sleep), Sherri Chung (co-composer for Riverdale, Batwoman), and Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace (It Follows, Under The Silver Lake).
Graphic: Julie Mullins, featuring: Aya Cash, Lin Shaye, Michael Abels.