Soundtracking your nightmares

The soundtrack to any horror is vital. Jason Voorhees’ killing spree would hardly work as a horror if it was set to 80’s staple Girls Just Want to Have Fun. The legendary chestburster scene in Alien would be a non-starter if Freddie Mercury was belting out his desire to break free as it happened.

It is all too easy to say when a horror soundtrack wouldn’t work, but far harder to decipher what works in horror soundtracks. A definite sense of mood and purpose is the first matter which will determine the effectiveness of horror. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s soundtrack for Stranger Things is fleetingly mentioned overleaf, but special mention must be given to the care it entails. Using analogue synths to create the backdrop for an 80s-themed horror seems so obvious, yet not many would have aimed for it. However, Stranger Things deserves credit for its usage of the 80’s staples shunned in the introduction of the article. Toto’s Africa appears during one of the tensest scenes of the first season and it is this breaking of conventions, whilst respecting the mood and purpose of the source material, which makes it so effective.

Horror sits outside of the cinema mainstream. When treated with soundtrack conventions, such as in big budget horrors, the clichés come out in full force. Out-of-tune pianos, loud crashes and an attempt to create ‘fear’ (read into that as many quotation marks as you see fit) come to the fore. But the greatest horror soundtracks have never followed this trend. The theme to Halloween is fast-paced and slightly corny, Alien revels in a sparse but more traditional orchestral sound. Paranormal Activity truly bucked the trend and decided to have no soundtrack at all. Nothing in these films resembles the annual franchise horrors where reliability and predictability, in production and the inevitable poor reviews, pervade the culture.

The horror soundtracks which stick with us, in turn keeping the film or show with us, are those which understand the subject matter and break conventions to follow it. In such an unconventional medium as horror, there is room to play with sound, atmosphere and instrumentation. Those powerful soundtracks are the ones which decide to experiment. After all, slamming a piano lid down only works until it is the obvious conclusion to the scene.

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September 2021
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