The Sounds of Fear

A good composer should not illustrate what you see on the screen, but rather what you do not see, what is deep down.
— Jerry Goldsmith, CNN interview (March 1998)

The 1970s produced a series of important horror films. Since then, critics and scholars have assiduously analyzed the movies’ designs and considered their commentaries on the era’s political and social structures. Typically left out of these discussions, however, are their outstanding musical scores. Just consider the resounding cultural impacts made by John Williams’ soundtrack for Jaws (Steven Spielberg 1975), Goblin’s for Deep Red (Dario Argento 1976), John Carpenter’s for Halloween (Carpenter 1978), and Jerry Goldsmith’s work on both The Omen (Richard Donner 1976) and Alien (Ridley Scott 1979). From symphonic to choral, electronic and progressive rock, these very different scores reveal innovation that is rarely found outside the horror genre.

The “otherness” of horror narratives appears to have motivated the composers to experiment with non-traditional styles and techniques. Characterized by atonal, cacophonic and dodecaphonic compositions, these scores also use pervasive minimalist rhythms, liturgical choruses, and sounds produced by obscure ethnic instruments. This is in strong contrast with the decade’s mostly conventional scores, compiling popular songs or recalling Wagner’s operas and Bach’s romantic-gothic-baroque pieces. Even next to other memorable scores (Saturday Night Fever, Star Wars, and Superman), these horror soundtracks stand out.

Such is the case of the soundtrack for The Exorcist (1973), one of the first films that tried to keep away from conventional scoring techniques. As the story goes, director William Friedkin rejected the first, bombastic score by acclaimed jazz-oriented composer Lalo Schifrin, in favor of an eerie mix — Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”, George Crumb’s “Night of Electric Insects”, Krzysztof Penderecki’s modern classical music, and Arabic chants — which perfectly enhances the film’s disturbing visuals.

While The Exorcist was a huge hit, there is little doubt that the most famous horror film score of the 1970s is Jaws, which transforms rhythm into a highly visual element. The famous main theme starts with distant chromatic rumblings of a double bass, followed by an ostinato, a two-note motif played quietly on low strings, and a second, equally ominous, tuba motif. Williams consistently uses this two-note motif to characterize the shark. Even when it is not visible, the music signals its presence, its primal brutality, while the persistent rhythm suggests its relentlessness. This two-note motif was not entirely original. Similar mechanical ostinatos were widely used in classical music and a strikingly similar two-note motif, composed by Sol Kaplan, accompanies the killer robot in Star Trek‘s “The Doomsday Machine” episode. Williams’ innovation lies in the gradual changing of the ostinato’s speed and volume, bringing them to a climax when the shark comes close.

Just as effectively, the music for The Omen creates a chilling atmosphere of ancient demonic evil. Even though this film features some gruesome deaths, its terrifying score creates most of the suspense. Dissonant and full of Stravinsky-like string ostinatos, the score’s highlights lie in liturgical Latin choruses. The main theme of The Omen, known as the “Ave Satani,” can best be described as a black mass’ chanting anthem, developed into a dirge with pipe organ and chimes, and undermined by polytonal, moaning string glissandos. Variations on the “Ave Satani” recur during the horror sequences, and the Latin choruses become increasingly sinister. In some cues, the chant transforms into unintelligible whispers, distressed screams, and even barking and hissing, creating a deeply disturbing acoustical experience. These menacing choruses conjure a sense of ethereal evil that surpasses whatever images might appear on screen.

The Omen, like Jaws, showcases the strengths of a large orchestra, out to innovative original uses. Other directors sought new instrumentation. Horror maestro Dario Argento’s Deep Red features a specifically “contemporary” sound. (Argento’s previous three films had been scored by the legendary Ennio Morricone, using a classical orchestra.) When Argento became dissatisfied with the jazzy score composed by Giorgio Gaslini, he hired the Italian avant-garde rock group Goblin, who combined chimes, groans, high-pitched screams, and heavy metal guitars.

The score for Deep Red — which follows a musician who witnesses a brutal killing and decides to track down the killer — consists of two main themes in distinct styles, so the soundtrack feels like a musical roller coaster. The first is a progressive rock piece that mixes low-key electric guitars with high-key keyboards. The second theme, inherited from Gaslini’s rejected score, is a childish lullaby melody featuring choirboys and chimes, associated with the assassin’s childhood memories. Additional layers of sound include rapid percussion, electric organs, jazzy pianos, bongos, and violins. This aggressive score might have overwhelmed another film, but Argento’s highly stylized violence forms striking thematic and visceral connections.

Budget restrictions drove John Carpenter to experiment with electronic synthesizers. The son of a professional musician, he put his background to good use in composing scores for most of his films. Inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho, for Halloween, Carpenter composed a minimalist score with a basic array of synthesized instruments, comprised of four principal cues repeated ad nauseam. The most famous of these is the main theme, with (synthesized) pianos and a string ensemble playing an ostinato and a three-note motif, followed by a Herrmannesque step-down modulation. The electronic ostinato is reminiscent of “Tubular Bells,” but the Halloween theme adds a frantic rhythm of an unusual 5-4 time signature (five beats per bar, one quarter note per beat). As most compositional rhythms rely on 2-4, 3-4 or 4-4 time signatures, this one sounds inexorable and unnatural, much like the unstoppable Michael Myers.

Where Halloween‘s score is impossible to ignore, Goldsmith’s compositions for Alien are an outstanding example of “transparent” film music, enhancing the visual narrative without drawing attention to itself. Even so, the music sounds “different” because of its instrumentation. For this film, Goldsmith used a large classical orchestra complemented by obscure ethnic instruments such as log drums, a “shaum,” a “didgeridoo,” and a “serpent.” Goldsmith also relied on weird orchestral effects, such as innovative bowing techniques. To avoid “futuristic” tonalities in this “postmodern” horror film, and with the exception of an EchoPlex, Goldsmith avoided electronic instruments.

He also circumvented traditional compositional structures, making Alien the culmination of Goldsmith’s experimental work with dodecaphonic and cacophonic techniques he developed while scoring Planet of the Apes, The Mephisto Waltz, and The Omen. Alien‘s central theme, introduced during the title sequence, starts with an ascending chromatic string motif and a trumpet solo, evoking a sense of isolation and recalling the film’s tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” From this quasi-romantic cue, the score turns strange and volatile, frequently associated with the movie’s sound effects. Goldsmith instructed the orchestra to play their instruments in unusual ways, creating a soundscape for the alien planet.

With its atonal melodies and unearthly howls, this score closed a decade of revolutionary horror soundtracks that were well received by a usually conservative mainstream and boosting the careers of their composers. Williams received his second of five Academy Awards for Jaws. The Deep Red soundtrack was at the top of the Italian charts for 12 consecutive weeks, and Argento and Goblin worked together on at least six other horror films, including George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979). Today, Carpenter is still scoring most of his own films with pounding electronic rhythms, his most recent, Ghosts from Mars (2001), in collaboration with the group Anthrax. And Goldsmith, having received an Academy Award for The Omen, remained a seminal force in the film music industry until his death this past 21 July.

One could argue that these soundtracks are products of their time. Just as the turbulent 1970s inspired a generation of screenwriters and directors to probe new grounds, this decade also stimulated composers to experiment, in ways that continue to inspire composers and filmmakers to this day.