Post Production

How to Score with Your Film Score

Film Scoring for Horror Movies

Photo by Vancouver Film School


The unseen monster in horror film music is a music cue that identifies its presence. This is a very effective mental cue for the audience and adds more dimensionality to the score. When you establish the cue, which must be early in the film, the audience will identify it with the monster for the remainder of the film. The most famous example of the unseen monster concept in music can be heard in John Williams’ famous score for JAWS (1975). When we hear that simple cue, we know the shark is swimming around somewhere and we grab our seats because we know something is about to happen. There is no need to see the shark, the music tells us it is present and hungry for all who trespass in its ocean.


Adding human voices to your score can add a fresh dimension and make it seem more organic, for example, the lullaby that opens and closes ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), or THE OMEN (1976), whose Oscar- winning score features male and female voices chanting Latin phrases such as “Ave Versus Cristus, Ave Satani,” or “Hail the anti-Christ, hail Satan.” Children’s voices can also be quite effective, especially because we generally associate children with innocence and purity. In the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, the audience knows Freddy Krueger is around when they hear the creepy children chanting, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock the door…Five, six, grab your crucifix…”


Stingers are short bursts of music designed to make the audience jump from their seats. They are very popular in slasher films. Horror director/ composer John Carpenter uses them a lot in his films.


Some horror filmmakers turn to preexisting music to get their vision across. This music could be a children’s lullaby, an old jazz song, a modern song, or a classical composition. The music may not be scary when heard by itself, but when set in a horror film scenario the music becomes eerie. For example, THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE SHINING (1980) use modern classical compositions by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and those are two of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. In HALLOWEEN II (1981), the 1950s hit “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes is used, which made me never hear that song the same way again. There is something very creepy about taking everyday music and associating it with the macabre.

I think it is very important for an aspiring filmmaker to study in detail great horror scores and make notes on what works and what doesn’t.


Music in horror films

A great indie band:

THE CHANGELING (1980) – Composer Rick Wilkins

THE HUNGER (1983) – Composers Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini

THE OMEN (1976) – Composer Jerry Goldsmith

PSYCHO (1960) – Composer Bernard Herrmann

HALLOWEEN (1978) – Composer John Carpenter

Excerpted from The Filmmaker’s Book of the Dead, by Danny Draven© 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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1 Comment
   JT Silvestri said on April 23, 2012 at 2:17 pm

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