20 Essential Horror Soundtracks
Iconic scores for films like Halloween, Suspiria, The Shining, and The Thing are among the best horror movie soundtracks of all time.
What makes the best horror movie soundtrack? Well, there is always tension — usually between innocent melodies and the menacing sounds that slowly envelop them. There are esoteric instruments galore — never has the theremin gotten so much love. You’ll find microtonal pitch changes on almost every horror soundtrack on this list. Dissonant chords, of course, are front and center on many tracks. Working these chords into ungrounded atonal compositions is not easy — which is perhaps why there are so many cheesy-sounding horror soundtracks. You won’t find any of those listed here. Perhaps most important of all is the concept of ambiguous ethereality: you know, that feeling that something just isn’t right. The best horror soundtracks do this in subtle ways, slowly chipping away at that smug sense of safety and security you have.
Many soundtracks struggle when separated from their film counterparts, or at least lose some of their impact. What makes many on this list so exceptional is the fact that the music is more than just a background layer. Let’s just say that turning the lights off at your house and playing one of these as the soundtrack to your life makes for a gut-wrenching challenge.
Torture yourself with the best horror movie soundtracks and watch the films too — they’re all pretty good (except for maybe The Keep, you won’t miss much by skipping that one).
by Philip Glass
Haunting vocals backed by cautiously optimistic melodies make up the main structure that runs through the Candyman soundtrack. The album is not dissimilar to tracks on Nils Fram’s All Melody, especially songs like “Cabrini Green.” The haunted voices of the chorus slowly creep down your spine. Candyman is an urban horror story that roils and builds, and it features a more than complementary soundtrack.
by Riz Ortolani
Never has music so beautiful been paired with such a perverse movie. The juxtaposition of the senses — one harsh and disturbing, the other soft and oddly comforting — is what makes this film so jarring. The free-flowing and often upbeat tracks directly parody the carnage happening on screen. There is always something slightly off with the deep, fuzzy synth sounds, making for a dissonant listen on its own.
The It Follows score features climactic layering, terrifying melodies, low and slow rhythms, and a bass that slithers in and pulses before disappearing. There are absolute parallels with the immensely popular Stranger Things soundtrack — heroic melodies that compete and slowly succumb to dark and mysterious sounds are just one example. The soundtrack is so heavy at times that it feels as if the music is dragging you down into a black pit. A horror soundtrack debut for composer Rich Vreeland (under the Disasterpiece moniker) and a great one at that.
by John Carpenter
John Carpenter made the first Halloween with a shoestring budget. He co-wrote the script, directed the actors, and, yes, even composed the soundtrack. Halloween is an excellent example of how a synthesizer could be utilized for a divergent tone. It’s a trick Carpenter picked up from Italian Giallo soundtracks by the likes of Goblin. The clicking sounds used throughout have the power to amp up the anxiety almost immediately. You can feel the rushed tension created by their pace — nearly double the infamous melody.
by Tangerine Dream
The Keep‘s soundtrack has elements of shimmering beauty that others on this list don’t even come close to. The first track, “Puer Natus Est Nobis,” is a great example. Tangerine Dream’s use of microtonal synth pitch changes prevails throughout the entire recording. The beauty of the soundtrack matches the aesthetics of the film, making it a well-developed score for an otherwise bizarre narrative.
by Ennio Morricone
John Carpenter let go of the reigns, choosing to hand them to Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Who doesn’t love orchestral drones? This soundtrack has more drone than any others included on this list. It’s a perfect match for the desolate, icy landscape that dominates The Thing. If you’re looking for omnipresent, ambiguous ethereality, give this one a spin.
Innocence and evil — it’s ironic how one cannot exist without the other. The Suspiria soundtrack, composed by Italian prog rock band Goblin, takes full advantage of this concept by intertwining the two early and often. It’s groovy, it’s full of life, and it’s a classic for good reason. You end up getting pretty comfortable with it, only to quickly realize that it’s slowly eating at you.
An orchestral masterpiece. The atonality alone is enough to make your skin crawl. Somehow, the violins float in and completely immerse you. You can listen to this record and perhaps not even realize it’s the soundtrack to a horror movie, which definitely makes it an exception on this list.
by Jerry Goldsmith
One of Jerry Goldsmith’s best soundtracks. Esoteric sounds galore embellish nearly every track. A constant beating bass drum keeps the heart rate up. An archetypal horror soundtrack that laid the foundation for many on this list.
by David Lynch & Alan R. Splet
Eraserhead might not strictly be considered a horror film, but this surrealist psychological creeper is guaranteed to give you the chills. Lynch played a strong role in creating the soundtrack to the film, like the Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks soundtracks he created with Angelo Badalamenti. If you could hear while floating through the black matter that makes up most of the universe, I’d imagine it would sound as raw and obscure as this soundtrack.
by Bernard Hermann
Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho laid the template for the sounds of soaring strings in horror films. The use of muted strings help add to the tension throughout the film, while the shrieking sounds of the unmuted strings during the infamous shower scene make for one of the most impactful uses of music in all of cinema. Beyond the masterfully built tension throughout, Hermann’s orchestral arrangements are also quite beautiful at times, making for a great listen with or without the film.
by John Williams
The Jaws theme has become the blueprint for inspiring dread and it achieved this feat with only a few notes! The alternating pattern is simple at its core, but its ability to signal impending doom is second to none. The rest of the score features many classic John Williams elements that balance suspense and adventure with the use of a full orchestra. The strings and horns are so effective that their threatening melodies may have you looking for a killer shark whenever you give this soundtrack a listen.
Friday The 13th
by Harry Manfredini
You can definitely hear some influence from Psycho and Jaws throughout the Friday The 13th soundtrack, but composer Harry Manfredini had a few original tricks up his sleeve. One of the most iconic elements of the score are the “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” whispers used throughout. By cutting up the words kill and mommy and using a tape delay effect, the whispering was meant to echo the voices that Jason Voorhees’ mother was hearing in her head. Watching the movie or spinning the soundtrack will get those whispers lodged in your own head for days.
by Christopher Komeda
Rosemary’s Baby features another score that uses the human voice in a way you won’t soon forget. Mia Farrow’s breathy vocals sing a somber lullaby and the occult chanting used throughout adds a dimension to the soundtrack that many have emulated since. The score also uses avant-garde jazz compositions that are sure to keep you on the edge of your seat and make you feel like you are descending into madness.
by Jerry Goldsmith
The soundtrack for The Omen is another one of Jerry Goldsmith’s finest works and the score that earned him an Academy Award. Choral voices sing Latin phrases over haunting strings, making you feel like you are in the middle of a black mass. Evocative, dramatic, and downright harrowing, the score for The Omen instills a sense of panic unlike any other. If you spin this one at home, you may want to leave a light on.
A Nightmare On Elm Street
by Charles Bernstein
Many 1980s horror scores relied on synthesizers to create an eerie atmosphere without breaking the bank. A lot of them sound pretty dated, but there’s something about Charles Bernstein’s score for A Nightmare On Elm Street that continues to feel timeless. The soundtrack’s use of music box melodies and playground rhymes elevate Freddy Krueger’s crimes to disturbing heights, while the dream-like quality of the synth textures further add to the terror of a killer that hunts you in your dreams.
by Christopher Young
After Coil’s “bowel-churning” Hellraiser score was rejected by the film’s producers, Christopher Young was hired to compose a more classical-leaning set of chilling tunes. Young moved away from Coil’s synth-centric approach and focused on orchestral pieces with ominous synth textures woven in. The soundtrack’s blend of sweeping romance and dissonance captures the film’s explorations of pleasure and pain so perfectly that vivid visions of the Cenobites will almost certainly enter your mind once you put this soundtrack on.
by Fred Myrow And Malcolm Seagrave
The Phantasm soundtrack casts a spell immediately and draws you into the strange and frightening atmosphere captured throughout the film. The piano in the main theme is incredibly memorable, and the soundtrack’s funk and disco elements help move the score and film forward without ever veering too far into cheesy territory. With funerary organs, synths, and drums, the music is sure to set an eerie mood, whether you’ve seen the movie or not.
Beyond The Black Rainbow
by Sinoia Caves
The soundtrack for this 2010 sci-fi horror thriller taps into the sounds of ’70s and ’80s synth scores while creating something that feels modern and refreshing. Even for those who aren’t familiar with the film, the album has come highly recommended since first being pressed in 2014. The dramatic ebbs and flows and the immersive yet soothing qualities of the various synth layers make this score essential listening for anyone interested in mind-altering electronic music.
by Fabio Frizzi
Fabio Frizzi scored multiple films directed by Lucio Fulci, but The Beyond has endured as one of the pair’s finest collaborations. Frizzi’s score has it all – elements of prog rock, funky basslines, and creepy keyboards that all come together to create something that is melancholy but also full of melody. This one fits somewhere between the aforementioned soundtracks for The Omen and Suspiria, but provides its own terrifying twists on the classic horror score formula.
Profondo Rosso (Colonna Sonora Originale Del Film)Goblin2022Rock, Stage & Screen, Soundtrack, Score, Prog RockVinyl, Album, Limited Edition, Reissue, Clear Purple
House By The Cemetery (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)Walter Rizzati2013Electronic, Rock, Stage & Screen, Prog Rock, Experimental, SoundtrackVinyl, Limited Edition, Reissue, Red
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