The SFCM Guide to Horror Movie Music
As Halloween approaches SFCM's Music Director and Strings Chair journey through the history of scary-movie music and pick their favorites.
By Alex Heigl
If you're looking for classical musicians with a pedigree in horror, SFCM's Music Director Edwin Outwater and String Department Chair Simon James should be at the top of your list.
As a violinist, James has played on the score of dozens of horror films, from entries in the Hellraiser and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises to Bride of Chucky and the parody Scary Movie series. Outwater is a huge fan of the genre and was just in Vancouver to perform a horror-themed "Symphony of Terror" with frequent collaborator, drag/horror icon Peaches Christ.
"Horror films are very musical," Outwater said, "in the sense that you feel them before you think about them. They go at you from a very instinctive, visceral approach, and when the images and the sound combine, it's amazing."
Journey through the spookiest musical selections Outwater and James—along with another horror fan, student Eddie Virtgaym (percussion, studying with Jacob Nissly)—could scare up for us below.
John Carpenter, Halloween
"An iconic, hooky synth soundtrack," said Outwater. "But it's quite empty, it's very sparse. I love soundtracks that match with the visuals, that enhance the overall vibe. The openness in the space of this score balances with a lot of the shots in the movie of these empty suburban streets. The way those two interact is the most elegant thing ever."
Outwater called the prog-rock-tinged mania of Italian band Goblin's score for Dario Argento's legendary giallo film Suspiria "hugely influential for me." "The over-the-top punk craziness of Goblin, combined with the over-saturated, baroque visual scheme of Dario Argento marry really well." Virtgaym also name-dropped Goblin, calling the band's scores for Deep Red, Tenebrae, and Opera as some of his favorites, saying "it turns the whole movie into a rock show!"
Bernard Herrmann, Psycho
"It's only strings," Outwater said, "but that really had never been done quite in that way. There are things in Profokiev that have that kind of crazy, screeching quality, but it is really an original thing. Especially in the context, it's such a horrifying thing, it goes beyond music into the realm of noise. Though, I've conducted it, and there is harmony, there's more than just screeches there."
"All of Herrmann's music is so distinctive," Outwater continued. "If you listen to the soundtrack to Taxi Driver or Vertigo, they're completely different. There was a kind of simplicity to what he did in a certain sense; it was very direct, and it wasn't trying to be anything it wasn't. It wasn't over-orchestrated or lush; it was music that was good for tense movies."
Philip Glass, Candyman
"Here's this downtown New York, sort of minimalist composer writing about a ghost in a Black neighborhood in Chicago," Outwater said. "It doesn't seem like it should work. And because the images in the film are so gritty, this austere music over it creates a really eerie contrast that does work, beautifully. The opening, which features aerial shots of Chicago, does remind me of Koyaanisqatsi, which Glass also scored."
Jerry Goldsmith, The Omen
"I want to give a general shout-out to Jerry Goldsmith," Outwater explained, "who scored, among many other things, Alien, The Omen and Poltergeist. In the modern era, he's one of the great lush, full-orchestra film scorers, in my opinion. They're all a little bit different: Whenever you see a movie he scored, the soundtrack is its own character. He is a maximalist that actually works; the music is very prominent but doesn't overwhelm."
Outwater also singled out Stanley Kubrick for bringing more avant-garde composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti into the mainstream via now-legendary films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining: "Now, those composers aren't just heard in a concert hall in Poland, they're heard all over the world. They're not as shocking as they were when they were introduced; they're just part of the vernacular now."
The Shining also utilizes pieces by Béla Bartók and, in its instantly recognizable opening scene, trailblazing synth pioneer Wendy Carlos' rendition of Hector Berlioz's setting of the ancient Catholic dirge "Dies Irae," from his Symphonie Fantastique.
Virtgaym doesn't mince words when it comes to The Shining, calling it "the best horror movie ever." "Kubrick always had these amazing soundtracks, and the way he used them, it's almost easier to understand them in the context of the movie than in the concert hall," he raved. "He had such an amazing ear for all the music he picked."
Colin Stetson, Hereditary
On the more modern side of things, Outwater (and Virtgaym) named Colin Stetson's haunting score for Hereditary as a recent favorite. "It hits all the buttons. The weird sounds, the kind of Wagnerian pastiche in the most ironic way," Outwater said. "I hope he keeps writing more horror soundtracks, because that was just a killer."
Virtgaym's other horror picks include Harry Manfredini's work on Friday the 13th and Disasterpeace's score for It Follows. He also has a two-piece garage rock band from his home town in Arizona, Glue Sticks, that draws inspiration from classic horror.
Meanwhile, James counts himself less as a fan of the horror genre in particular and more a fan of moviemaking and cinema in general, though he allows that the music for horror films "plays maybe a more significant role than it does in many other films." He mentioned iconic composer John Corigliano's (who was also James' theory teacher) work on Altered States as a favorite …
… and has good words about his work with Christopher Young, who aside from crafting the indelible score for the Hellraiser franchise, has scored genre hits James played on like The Grudge (James' personal favorite) and Drag Me To Hell.
James—who has a near-photographic recall of his resume playing in Hollywood—has some advice for young musicians who might want a future composing for spooky flicks.
"You can't dismiss the people who have been good at this before you. If you really wanna write good horror movie music, you should be listening to a lot of scores to see the technique, the things that actually scare the hell out of you. Steal from the best. Learn how to use silence. And so much of it is in the editing: I worked on The Usual Suspects, and the composer for that film, John Ottman, also edited it! Along with that, have some understanding of foley work and sound design. Notation and score prep are important: You've got to be able to write stuff in a way that can be understood quickly, because time is money in these situations."
Learn more about studying conducting, strings or percussion at SFCM. Listen to a playlist of these selections via Apple Music and Spotify.