The Best Horror Synth Scores from the 1970s to Today

Electronically produced sounds have accented cinematography since the silent era. The synthesizer in particular has a special relationship with the onscreen image (especially in narrative cinema) in that it adeptly complements themes that some would consider to be strange and unsettling – tropes found in the horror and psychological thriller genres, for example. This list presents several films (classic horror but also some psychological thrillers) in which the synthesizer is utilized to create a spooky atmosphere perfect for a dark night at home.

The Exorcist (Dir. William Friedkin; USA; 1973)

William Friedkin’s 1973 horror sensation features one of the most recognizable theme songs of any horror film. The theme itself has gone on to become a staple of the American Halloween zeitgeist because of its sequenced orchestration, stark minimalism and creepy timbres.

Interestingly, Mike Oldfield’s composition is often cited by electronic music composers as heavily influential despite the fact that the instruments he used in his recording were primarily acoustic. Oldfield is credited with grand piano, glockenspiel, Farfisa organ, bass guitar, electric guitar, taped motor drive amplifier organ chord, mandolin, fuzz guitars, assorted percussion, acoustic guitar, flageolet, honky tonk, Lowrey Organ, and tubular bells.

The reason for this is likely due to the overall step-sequenced linearity of the song. Considering the historical juncture during which it was released, the soundtrack is prototypical of future synthesizer scores despite not containing any itself.

Suspiria (Dir. Dario Argento; Italy; 1977)

Dario Argento’s 1977 classic is a notable departure from orchestral horror film soundtracks, featuring a synthesizer-oriented score during a time when their usage at the forefront of horror soundtracks was still embryonic.

Goblin’s Claudio Simoneti composed the theme on a Moog Modular System 55 with a little assistance from Italian composer and synthesizer aficionado Felice Fugazza. Prior to the film, most soundtracks were done in an orchestral style similar to Oldfield’s compositions for The Exorcist. Goblin’s theme became prototypical for the synth-heavy horror soundtracks that followed.

More broadly, the overall soundtrack itself features a plethora of abyssal progressions juxtaposed against angular, acidic grooves that sound like The Lord of the Flies engaging in funky, psychedelic sex with The Goblin King. Wicked, wretched, wonderful.

The Shining (Dir. Stanley Kubrick; USA; 1980)

The score to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film based on the Stephen King novel of the same name features two compositions by Wendy Carlos, as well as compositions that Kubrick himself manipulated and reworked.

Carlos previously scored Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, won an Oscar for her work on Tron (1982), and is a household name among synthesizer enthusiasts for her album Switched on Bach. This album helped to popularize the synthesizer by reworking composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions on a Moog Modular synthesizer, simultaneously demonstrating the musical practicality and technological expediency of the instrument.

For Kubrick’s film, Carlos utilized synthesizers to compose the main theme, based on Hector Berlioz’s "Symphonie Fantastique," and another piece titled “Rocky Mountains.” Carlos composed more music for the film that Kubrick opted not to use. He instead reworked compositions by Bella Bartok, Gyorgi Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki, utilizing various time stretching and reverb effects. For what is arguably the most chilling of these compositions, see “The Awakening of Jacob.”

This combination resulted in one of the most formidable, often-imitated horror scores of all time with a chilling sonic palette that accentuated the equally unsettling imagery. The film’s soundtrack undoubtedly made an impact on horror aesthetics (not to mention the industry itself) that continues to be felt today.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Dir. Wes Craven; USA; 1984)

With Wes Craven’s 1984 horror film about the barbecued child molester/murderer who returns from the grave to slaughter the children of his killers in their dreams, Charles Bernstein created a poignant, all-electronic soundtrack that underlined the terror of progressing through a bad dream.

The instruments he used included the Yamaha DX-7, Oberheim OB-SX, Roland Juno-106, and EMU SP12, among others. To this day, Bernstein’s score evokes images of spectral landscapes and menacing phantasms, making it the quintessential ‘80s nightmare soundtrack.

Tetsuo: the Iron Man (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto; Japan; 1989)

If bad dreams are your thing, you want to check out this next film. Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk odyssey, Tetsuo: the Iron Man is a testament to low-budget, D.I.Y. production styles that still manages to be aesthetically effective despite financial constraints and resulting production setbacks.

The film is a visceral assault on the senses, and boasts an industrial soundtrack composed by Chu Ishikawa that accomplishes much of the same. The music is dark, raw, and industrial with jagged synthesizer progressions that devolve into angry percussion sections that sound more like metal smacking against concrete than any recognizable instrument. Think Einstürzende Neubauten but with more guitars. The whole thing combines the eerie and grandiose qualities comprising the spectrum of some of the best music of the ‘80s.

Mulholland Drive (Dir. David Lynch; USA; 2001)

David Lynch’s name is synonymous with weird and unsettling — and for good reason. His films have introduced some of the most twisted characters and situations ever committed to celluloid. With all this in mind, Mulholland Drive might be his most unsettling. While the film is a labyrinthine construct that plays with the spectator’s desire to discern the plot, its disquieting nature can be explained through its general use of music and, more specifically, through its deployment of the synthesizer.

The film features a variety of stylized songs that are unabashedly devoid of electronic instrumentation. From its utilization of Linda Scott’s “I Told Every Little Star” to Rebekah del Rio’s sobering Roy Orbison cover “Llorando,” many of the emotional pieces in the soundtrack rely on acoustic sounds organized around a sense of nostalgia. This contrasts with the film’s main theme, composed by Angelo Badalamenti on a synthesizer.

While there isn’t a definitive answer on which synthesizer was used, Badalamenti’s past proclivities indicate that it was most likely a produced on the Korg 01/w. The theme, which plays several times throughout the film, evokes a sense of pensive uncertainty, allure, and impending loss. It’s as if one conjures a fantasy only to watch it evaporate before their very eyes. There’s not a lot more existentially horrifying than that.

Bastards (Dir. Claire Denis; France; 2013)

Arguably the furthest film from horror on this list is Claire Denis’s 2013 masterpiece Bastards, though it is still undoubtedly a Boschian nightmare (and this reviewer’s personal favorite). The film’s dark color palette, esoteric references (to the Marquis de Sade, William Faulkner, and Akira Kurosawa, among others), and moody score courtesy of The Tindersticks, work in tandem with its bleak subject matter – which concerns family corruption and incest – to create an atmosphere characterized by lingering guilt, dread, and genuine uncertainty.

The film’s score is a key culprit in its chilling unwinding, as it provides a smooth contrast to Denis’s kinesthetic editing choices. The key track is a darkly-ironic cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me,” except The Tindersticks have reworked the song into a moody, 2-2, lo-fi structure with a driving synthesizer bassline and programmed drums organized around Stuart Staples’s haunting vocals. This is how you use electronic instruments to give people nightmares.

It Follows (Dir. David Robert Mitchell; USA; 2015)

This is probably the least polarizing film on this list and the safest to watch with someone who isn’t fond of horror per se. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is undoubtedly influenced by ‘80s horror films like Halloween and utilizes these influences to produce moments of genuine nostalgia. The film contrasts this with a more modern spin on horror, which it accomplishes through a clever subversion of the genre’s Old Testament conventions.

The film utilizes an ominous electronic score from Disasterpeace to slowly build a sense of dread, which ultimately severs any reliance on more typical genre conventions (i.e. jump scares and gore). At the beginning of the film, the music is very sparse but eventually grows more menacing as the narrative progresses. The full theme isn’t even revealed until the third act. Far from being a detriment, this lends to the film’s allure and promotes an atmosphere of tension and escalation that continues well into the third act.

Disasterpeace has stated in previous interviews that most of the sounds were designed using Native Instruments Massive in Apple Logic, a workflow indicative of the direction many independent horror films are moving toward as a result of the continual democratization of technology.

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