Music composers intentionally mess with you to bring our most feared nightmares to life
(Jose Francisco Morales / Unsplash)
When I was 6-years-old, my parents went out and called my 13-year-old aunt to babysit me and my brother. We all waved goodbye, not only to my parents but the rules that go along with their supervision. The night was ours, Iit was heavenly until bedtime. After tossing and turning I met my aunt back in the living room. The lights were out but the blue lights of our TV stretched up the walls of our living room. She said I could stay but I can’t “tell my mom.” I sat, confused and anxious by the screen. She said to me, “you look like the girl, you both have long dark hair.”
We watched The Ring. The girl I “resembled” was Samara.
I would spend the next decade avoiding her on screens but still finding her in my nightmares. What terrified me was not even her appearance, in fact, I didn’t see her that night. But I heard her.
The low lullabies of death she sang served as a warning guide on when to shut my eyes and clasp my ears from the screams but looped in my head when in the dark.
Everyone can recall the first horror movie that terrified them, but what gives us this unretching twitch is not the character but the music that makes them. It manipulates the happy melodies usually fluttering in our heads.
Unlike other movies, horror scores have a very distinct intention. The goal is all the same: to trigger the deep fears that are buried in your brain.
According to David Poeppel, a professor of neuroscience at NYU, horror movies emphasize a specific kind of acoustic tune that ignites a fear-based scream. This is described as roughness and the increased roughness of a sound is what our brains interpret as fear.
The screeching violins, the abrupt thumps of piano keys. It's the heightened levels of untraditional chords that irritates us and brings about an unnerving tension.
The chilling and unforgettable score that haunts me was composed by Hans Zimmer and sung by voice actress Moneca Stori for “Samara’ Song.” When a composer successfully captures our worst fear, the music score and character transforms into an undeniably perfect duo to scare the shit out of you.
In Friday the 13th (1980), the canoe scene brings about this tension with a screechy ring contrasting a light piano melody. Jason is nowhere in sight, the movie is wrapping up, but you still feel an uncertainty.
The composer Harry Manfredini incorporated a technique known as dissonance. The music is telling us it isn’t over and it’s creating an environment that does not necessarily match with what’s on screen.
Then bam! A high pitch screech of the violin throws you off your seat, and all hope is lost and the girl is a goner in our eyes.
Horror movies tend to go in two directions: mickey mousing and leitmotifs.
In Rosemary’s Baby, the scene where Rosemary walks through the halls with a knife to her chest, the music is following her actions specifically. The rampant transition of the violin from steady to rush chords are intended to boost your anxiety and match hers. This focus around the character is known as mickey mousing.
Leitmotifs are short but recurring music that signifies an evil presence we don’t yet see. In Insidious, this technique is used heavily by composer Joseph Bishara to describe the spiritual demons that lurk the Lambert family’s home.
This is typically accomplished through a musician’s technique called the stringer chord. It is when the musician sharply attacks the chord to reinforce the surprise. This is commonly done by gliding the fingers up or down the neck of a violin (known as glissando).
Alfred Hitchkock’s Psycho, was one of the first to successfully execute this in the iconic shower murder scene.
When the killer Norman Bates shoves the shower curtain to attack Marion, the score does a sharp screech to indicate shock and then falls in rhythm with Marion’s screams. After being stabbed, the thumping of strings imitates her dying heartbeat and eventually stops at her final pulse.
Hitchcock originally did not want to use music in the scene, but later admitted “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music,” composed by Bernard Herrmann.
In other horror movies, lighter, more playful scores juxtapose the violent scenes that are about to happen.
This is very common throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise like in this bathtub scene when the victim is singing Freddy’s song.
The most common use is through non-threatening voices of children, like Samara. The soft, innocent voices, usually viewed as sweet, tend to only emphasize an eerie effect of our childhood fears when in horror movies.
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary opens with a child speaking and then the camera glides through the cemetery alongside the angelic singing of children.
The Omen also follows this motif. The music is accompanied by long dragging moans of the human voice, literally signifying the ideal sounds of hell. Composer Jerry Goldsmith successfully twisted our comfort in the human voice into an evil depiction of our dreadful post-life doom.
The music behind these fear tactics don’t even need to be complex. Another terrifying aspect to this art is that we have no safe spaces and simplicity is just as nerve-racking.
Jaws, the classic Steven Spielberg nightmare that kept all of us out of the water, would not have such a high status if not for the composer John Williams.
All it took was two notes. Williams only sped the tempo up to indicate the closeness of the shark (leitmotifs at it again). Despite knowing it was coming closer, we couldn’t look away and the repetitive nature of this score didn’t affect the level of freight we experienced. It’s a classic for a reason.
Horror movies are irresistible. To see our worst nightmares is what initially draws us in. But horror scores dictate your emotions and manipulate the tracks playing in your head. It’s telling you what to feel and you can’t help but follow blindly into the unknown.
If we can see it, we can fight it, right? But when we can only hear, all hope is lost.
To further ruin your sleep cycle, here's a list of honorable soundtracks to haunt you in your dreams… enjoy!
Dead Silence 2007
The Thing 1982
Sam is a staff writer at Rowdy Magazine. She enjoys long summer days, funk music and drinks her coffee black because she's a tough guy. You can follow her on Instagram @samanthax1999x or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.