Just as important as any brutal horror stab scene is the music building tension behind it. As you’ll notice in the list below, a great horror flick isn’t only helped massively by a skin-crawling soundtrack—it requires it. And although we have shuddered our way through countless horror movies over at Paste, we’ve selected only the most identifiable, iconic horror themes for the list below.
Take a look at the list, and let us know your favorites in the comment section below.
Sure, maybe the height of the film’s intensity only features a few notes of music, but the piercing strings echoing throughout Psycho’s shower scene held more power than most movie music would for decades to come.
Nightmare on Elm Street’s original score featured tunes so warped, hazy and chill-inspiring, you’d think you were in one of Freddy’s dreams on the spot.
The devilish Omen theme was one that got plenty of mileage in the Kane household when I was younger, shortly after my dad discovered the tune on a compilation album. Take it from me, the aural representation of devil-child Damien’s ties to Hell is scary enough when Gregory Peck is dealing with it on-screen, but it’s even worse to be rattled from a nap when you’re 10 years old, or to hear as you enter your empty house after trick-or-treating.
Say what you will about its sequels, but for an original horror film, the first Saw did most things just right—soundtrack included. With the introduction of our Jigsaw villain (and his tricycled representative), the creators paired equally nail-biting, signature tones for its first theme. Much like the Halloween theme, Saw‘s composers paired clicking electronics with a simple piano melody to create the best musical representation of what it’s like to sever an appendage.
While Halloween stirred up an amazing set of eerie notes that set itself aside from its slasher peers, Friday the 13th defined the palette the modern slasher soundtrack would draw from with hushed whispers, drilling strings and heart-rattling low horns. What this tune lacks in ambient creepiness it makes up for with its pure, horrifying attack mode. Plus, who hasn’t re-created that “ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma” while alone with some friends in the woods?
Nothing in the musical dictionary quite says demonic possession like Mike Oldfield’s haunting “Tubular Bells,” taken from his debut album of the same name in 1973. The sparse piano solo invites as many uneasy feelings as you let it, drumming up innocent tones of piano, and later buzzing guitar, to draw you in before spitting green pea-soup-flavored terror all over the listener.
Two single notes never did as much work as it did when queueing up the intro of the ocean’s scariest predator. The Jaws theme, written and conducted by Hollywood legend John Williams, is (and will remain) one of the most recognizable, horrifying clips of music for decades to come. It’s also a great ringtone for fielding calls from the in-laws. And for those arguing that Jaws isn’t a horror movie—people are chewed to death by a giant (real-life) monster. Blood goes everywhere. Screams are had. It’s a horror movie.
Hands-down, John Carpenter’s terrifyingly minimal composition for the original Halloween is more than enough to strike fear into my heart after a few tinkering notes. The synth-enhanced tune, played in 5/4 time, was famously performed by the director—and turned Halloween from a eerie, oddly brutal horror flick to something so much more nightmare-inducing. Try driving home from the theater without hearing those dreadful low notes after a viewing of this one.