I walked away from the television a few nights ago and on my way back the hair rose on my forearms and neck. What caused this? The end of a commercial for the new version of the horror film “Halloween”. It wasn’t anything but the date of the release on the screen. What caused my response was the simple theme from the original movie playing for the last five or ten seconds. Just hearing the simple piano theme elicited the suspense response. As I sat back down I began to think back and realize there are three other examples where the music does as much of the work as the villain.
Music is the unsung character in a horror movie. When the low sounds of cellos and violins begin to gain some momentum, we lean forward in anticipation. It has become a staple to let the music build the tension as the generally stupid person is about to meet a grisly end. I mention the strings because the first iconic theme has become synonymous with stabbing someone.
If someone starts going, “eee, eee, eee, eee” while stabbing at you with an empty fist they are using a musical shorthand from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 movie “Psycho”. When the killer of the movie stabs Janet Leigh’s character multiple times through a shower curtain the high-pitched strings are timed to each downward stroke. Even 58 years past its release it is part of our culture.
The same is true of the “da dum, da dum, da dum” when people do that it means there is something stalking you. On screen director Steven Spielberg was able to use composer John Williams’ simple two note refrain in the 1975 movie “Jaws” as a stand-in for their malfunctioning robotic shark. The audience knew there was something under the water and Mr. Williams had just the right audio set-up for allowing us to know someone was about to be eaten.
Three years earlier director William Friedkin took an avant-garde musical piece by Mike Oldfield and turned it into the theme of the devil in “The Exorcist”. Mr. Oldfield had made a long-form musical composition called “Tubular Bells”. After notes from the movie studio that they wanted a softer musical score Mr. Friedkin found this haunting simple piano melody that made up the first movement of the longer “Tubular Bells”. It is the simplicity of the piano which sends chills up your spine and makes you turn the lights on.
Which brings me back to where we started. In 1978 when director writer John Carpenter was making “Halloween” he didn’t have enough money or time to use a traditional score. So, he sat down at a piano himself and came up with the simple progression played in a sped-up 5/4 time. In three days, he completely composed all the music. “Halloween” would set the stage for the slasher genre of horror movies to come.
That all four of these movies are considered some of the best horror movies ever might have something to do with the music.