Illustrations by Ben Ruby
Ever since the dawn of mass-produced commercial synthesizers a little over half a century ago, electronic music has been intertwined with the history of horror films. While experimental composers, psychedelics enthusiasts, and dancefloor destroyers were busy figuring out the boundless possibilities of electronic instrumentation, the film industry saw this new technology as a practical way to soundtrack its pulpier, more cheaply-made productions. Rather than hire a whole cast of musicians and composers, the invention allowed them to churn out affordable musical accompaniment made by a solo composer, or in many cases, the film's directors themselves.
Both because of this functional consideration and the unlimited possibilities that the instruments offered, synth compositions became a go-to source for striking fear in the hearts of motion picture audiences over the course of 70s and 80s, and sparked a fated relationship between electronic music and genre films that lasts even to this day. As a new crew of nostalgists operating both inside and outside the film industry take influence from the genre's classic square wave savagery, there seems no better time than now to look back on the music that's sprung out of horror movie soundtracks over the last few decades, from sauntering, sulky funk music to interstellar ambience to crushing industrial terror. So as an early Halloween treat, THUMP has compiled the 31 best horror scores composed on electronic instruments.
The soundtrack to a film about a malicious dentist needs little more than whirring drills and mechanized suction to leave most people weeping in fear. But riotous 1996 film The Dentist did one better, setting scenes of oral horror over sleepy strings, chattering percussive elements, and the nauseous drone of composer Alan Howarth's trademark synth stabs. Howarth is hallowed for his many collaborations with John Carpenter and his work on a number of Star Trek films. Some of the scum's been wiped off his work here in comparison to his earlier material, but that only serves to make the score more petrifying—as if after all these years you're finally seeing the evil in full focus.—Colin Joyce
You'll never hear Dwight Twilley Band's gratingly upbeat "Looking for the Magic" the same way again after watching this low-budget horror film. But You're Next did more than make a hit single feel fresh again: It proved American indie filmmakers like Adam Wingard could bring something new to the home-invasion genre through invoking 80s horror tropes. Multiple musicians worked on the score—Kyle McKinnon, Justice Lee, Mads Heldtberg, and Wingard—and while they all worked on different tracks, the collection of swirling synthesizers is seamless and a perfect complement to Dwight Twilley's recurring power-pop. The score is the musical equivalent of groupthink terror, as if the musicians are sitting in the dark telling each other ghost stories—simultaneously scaring the crap out of the audience, too.—Tina Hassannia
By turns menacing and propulsive, Charles Bernstein's sterling A Nightmare on Elm Street score helped make many of the elements now synonymous with 80s slasher music iconic. Using reverb-drenched percussion, prickly synths, shrieking strings, and minor-key piano runs, Bernstein creates a near-believable facsimile of acoustic instrumentation while unnerving listeners with unnatural noises—a feat that feels thematically fitting for a film that blurs the line between dreams and reality. The crowning achievements here—which would form the franchise's musical bedrock—are the film's inquisitive ascending/descending theme and a taunting two-note figure that mimics an eerie children's rhyme. Like a nightmare that leaves you rattled long after you wake, this music lingers.—Sean Egan
Due to the technological limitations of the time, most early 80s synth-driven scores are either harrowing ambient pieces or jaunty, percussive bangers. Susan Justin's work on the faux-Alien flick Forbidden World is special in the way that it oozes between the two. The score's most memorable moments come from its plucky synth lines, but they're all the more affecting for the way they slowly emerge from the slime.—Colin Joyce
Though deeply silly, Killer Klowns From Outer Space nonetheless manages to tap into the universal, increasingly self-evident truth that clowns are really fucking creepy. John Massari's music deftly toes that line between between humor and horror, offering the perfect accompaniment to the movie's campy, neon-vomit creepshow aesthetic. Massari gives the keys a carnivalesque chromatic workout, favoring blocky horn patches, faux-electric guitar, theatrical snare rolls, and chintzy, toy-like voices; the resulting woozy waltz sounds always moments away from spinning out of control. Our lesson: Throw in a little dissonance here, quote a familiar circus melody there, and you've got a score that shows just how little separates laughter from terror.—Sean Egan
Synthesizers that ring like gently struck wine glasses became a hallmark of the genre over the course of the 80s, but Tim Krog's score for 1980 supernatural slasher The Boogeyman is frostier than its peers. Brittle synth leads shimmer like freshly rolled up snowballs; sighing ambience plumes outward like fogged breath on a car window. This one might give you goosebumps even without the jumpscares.—Colin Joyce
Six-time Grammy nominee and Academy award winner Jerry Goldsmith handled soundtracks for a seemingly impossible number of films during his nearly five decades in the industry, but he's most famous for his harrowing ones. The bristle of his work for The Omen netted him that Oscar, and his panicked atmospherics on the Alien score has won him a coterie of admirers in the experimental electronics community. Yet, it's his score for the Tom Selleck-meets-murderous-robots film Runaway that features his most memorable synth excursions. In contrast to the paranoid atmosphere he lent Alien a half decade prior, his work here is shockingly sweet, full of bright, buoyant keys that feel a universe away from the terror they're meant to accompany. Maybe the fact that music this moving emerged from machines is scary enough.—Colin Joyce
Once not-so-lovingly described by a reviewer as "an utterly brain-liquefying synthesizer insanity fuckpocalypse," this score offered an early instance of madcap Moog programming used as shorthand for the barely explainable horrors unfolding onscreen. Composer Phillan Bishop's approach to the instrument is maximalist by 1973 standards, piling asynchronous and out-of-key synthesizers into ecstatic chattering buzz that's as much chainsaw as beehive—something fitting given the amputative violence that drives the film forward.—Colin Joyce
Unlike many of the contemporary composers working in horror films, the Polish musician Wojciech Golczewski is not a nostalgist. He employs a coterie of synthesizers on the 2015 haunted house flick We Are Still Here, but the grayscale grind is dark and oppressive rather than the playful fabulism of many of his peers. These pieces more often recall the vast existential angst of ambient composers like Biosphere and Lustmord than the composers who largely work on film music—they don't just accompany evil on-screen, they look to the sky and wonder why.—Colin Joyce
When not doing inventive production as one-third of the experimental rap group clipping, Jonathan Snipes can be found working behind the scenes, scoring various television series and films. His meticulous work for Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer's Hollywood nightmare Starry Eyes is easily one of his most affecting works to date. The film's dark portrayal of the cost of fame goes to some uncomfortable places, and Snipes' soundtrack helps plunge viewers into an abyss of paranoia, nodding to 80s horror movies themes while offering stretches of ambient, dread-inducing noise.—Ian Stanley
There's some levity baked into Ken Wiederhorn's nightmarish depiction of water-dwelling Nazi zombies Shock Waves, but the film's bracing score is enough to stifle your laughter. Conjured by the composer Richard Einhorn, the soundtrack is a brutal, burbling collection of grayscale synth pieces—a version of industrial music as conjured from the depths of a shipwreck. Few thoughts are more crushing than the idea of death at the bottom of the sea, a fear that Wiederhorn lightly pokes fun at on-screen, but that Einhorn takes gravely seriously. So, uh, all aboard this pleasant cruise upon the River Styx.—Colin Joyce
Bob Clark's darkly comic anti-war parable Deathdream was an early example of electronic music's power to turn horrific imagery into something totally surreal. Composer Carl Zittrer introduces strange electronic textures and layers of analog synth to accompany the film's undead killer, the maliciously vacant Vietnam vet Andy, as he wanders through small-town Brooksville, Florida attacks otherwise innocent bystanders. Wherever Andy skulks, tension-raising, warbling leads follow; during the starkly staged kill scenes, synths whirr themselves up into a buzzing, deafening atonal frenzy. But Zittrer's is an expressionistic rather than a literalist use of sound, heightening the horror by putting viewers inside the disturbed head of the killer, and rendering already upsetting sequences (like an early-movie dog strangling) nearly unbearable.—Sean Egan
Goblin is mostly known for working closely with the color pallette-obsessed giallo filmmaker Dario Argento, but their influence on the horror genre has continued to reverberate since their 70s heyday. As such, directors looking for the Goblin touch frequently tapped founding member Claudio Simonetti to sling his particular mix of dancey synths and organic instrumentation. Simonetti lent one of his most playful scores to Lamberto Bava's gonzo romp Demons, blending new wave and heavy metal tropes as a reminder that horror movies don't always have to scare—you can fun watching them too.—Ian Stanley
Harry Bromley Davenport's pulpy aliens-among-us flick Xtro is about the secret perils embedded in our daily life, where even seemingly innocuous children's toys can come to life as murderous weaponry. So it's fitting that the score, provided by Bromley Davenport himself, operates in kind. Genteel ambience wrangled from squirmy synthesizers is largely the rule, but when percussive, Carpenter-indebted electronics slice into the mix with a start, it's hard not to think of the frights that lurk around even the most innocent-seeming corners.—Colin Joyce
Like the film itself, composer Howard Shore's score for David Cronenberg's psychosexual cautionary tale Videodrome is a bifurcated experience, delicately treading the line between man and machine. Conspiratorial-sounding mechanisms hum, click, and crackle arhythmically, as low- droning tones linger on. When melodies do emerge, they plod out as legato funeral dirges. Shore occasionally employs live strings, but more often than not, it's the synthesizers that feel human: bass thumps turn into heartbeats; synthetic wooshes approximate breathing; distant, waterlogged arpeggios evoke the womb. It's a carnivorous aural landscape you can let yourself be consumed by. Long live the new flesh, indeed.—Sean Egan
Even before the music for the beloved Netflix show Stranger Things shone a light on the current generation of synthesizer-slinging soundtrackers, Staten Island-based composer Disasterpeace's score for David Robert Mitchell's It Follows used a similar sound palette to help reignite mainstream interest in the music of horror movies. Disasterpeace mastermind Richard Vreeland has openly admitted that he doesn't even watch horror films, let alone listen to their soundtracks, but It Follows' retro-minded synth score mirrors its uncanny ability to recall the horror genre's past in a way that feels fresh and updated—not to mention terrifying.—Ian Stanley
Zombie Flesh Eaters—like most of Italian composer Fabio Frizzi's 80s scores—is as itchily synthetic as dollar store rayon, but therein lies its charm. With its passages of polyrhythmic hand percussion—no doubt employed to recall the film's vaguely Caribbean setting (it was shot in part in the Dominican Republic)—and brutally artificial synth patches, it's painful by design, the sort of score that none of the current crew of synth nostalgists would, or could, attempt to copy. That's part of what makes it feel so fresh: that no one with any good sense would try to replicate it.—Colin Joyce
There aren't many compositional choices you could make to soundtrack an injured man's hallucinatory, dehydrated flight through a desert after surviving an attack from a monstrous pig that don't leave the whole thing feeling like a farce, but such is the triumph of Australian musician Iva Davies work on the 1984 film Razorback. For the scene in question, Davies aims light, riding a celestial analog synth patch that's a fair bit brighter than any of the post-kosmische composers scoring B-movies in the same era. His way of overcoming the campiness, by and large, is to to soar above the wild boar attacks and grim Australian thugs with names like Dicko—which gives the film an endearing surreality, one that its goofy concept might not suggest.—Colin Joyce
The freaked-out cues that appear in the director's cut of Andrzej Zulawski's Possession are almost universally spine-prickling, but toward the end of the film there's a hint at something a little more multi-dimensional at play. Just before a climactic chase scene, composer Andrzej Korzynski lets loose the kind of gentle drum machine rhythm and neon-tinged electro synth lines that wouldn't sound out of place banging out of clubs in the few years following the film's 1981 release.
It's one of the few bright moments that made its way into the score, but the reissue label Finders Keepers uncovered the fact that Korzynski initially recorded about double the number of cues that actually made it into the film, which were eventually compiled into the genre-agnostic romp that is the soundtrack's 2012 reissue. The pieces included there were some of Korzynski's first forays into electronic composition, but his efforts seem to anticipate the fair amount of synth-based club music that'd come over the following decade. It's hard to speculate why Zulawski eventually excised them from the film, but perhaps he decided its alien sex scenes were already sulky and seedy enough.—Colin Joyce
Renowned minimalist composer Philip Glass has provided hypnotic soundscapes for films like Koyaanisqatsi and The Hours, but he hasn't done much work in horror cinema aside from Bernard Rose's Candyman. This score's a bit of an exception on the list since it's not a synthesizer score strictly speaking, but the gasping pipe organs and piano parts both run parallel to the tradition of synth horror music that came before it and proved steadily influential to the host of experimentally minded film composers that followed.
Candyman's titular boogeyman appears when someone chants his name five times in front of a mirror. To echo the premise, Glass uses choral chanting to haunt the viewer throughout the film. Glass' signature orchestral sound introduces us to the "safe and normal" world of academia as a graduate student protagonist works on a thesis about urban legends. But its whiff of the gothic lures the viewer into the violent underbelly of the city and exposes the supernatural and animalistic violence of the Candyman. The effect is more intellectual and removed than your average horror score, but the music has a slippery, hallucinatory quality that renders Candyman's menacing voiceovers all the more terrifying.—Tina Hassannia
Delia Derbyshire's most famous work—the electronic rendition of the Doctor Who theme that served as the show's opening jingle for 20 years (and for which, incidentally, she was not formally credited)—was only the beginning of her dalliance with the supernatural. Her collaborator Brian Hodgson downplays her involvement again on the score for The Legend of Hell House, but whatever the division of labor, the pair unite here to explore the synthesizer's potential for conjuring the otherworldly. Most cues are high frequency, atonal, prickly washes of electronic static. It's fitting for the paranoid atmosphere in the film, one of many in a genre where the environment's often the real enemy.—Colin Joyce
Klaus Schulze's score for the murderous Austrian film Angst is a rare case where a soundtrack's dizzying charms—and relatively widespread availability—have rendered it more famously idiosyncratic than the film it was commissioned to soundtrack. That may be because it's something of an anxious outlier amid in Schulze's collection of drifting synth work. Perhaps to evoke a bit more panic than usual, he allows himself a bit of propulsion on tracks like "Pain" and "Surrender," bringing in the mechanistic punishment of a few drum machines to ground his oft-astral synth work. It's unsettled in its own way, an example of the way reckoning with the unspeakable can change you irreparably.—Colin Joyce
There are many reasons why Phantasm is a flagship late-70s horror film. Not only was it the first real hit for talented filmmaker Don Coscarelli, but it also birthed the legacy of the Tall Man, the evil, iconic mortician with his sentinel spheres of death. Coscarelli's friends Fred Myron and Malcolm Seagrave handled the soundtrack, writing a score that flirted with Goblin's prog rock sonics and love of recurring motifs. The music created a distinctly otherworldly atmosphere, one perfect for the Tall Man and his minions to inhabit.—Ian Stanley
Franck Khalfoun's 2012 grisly retelling of William Lustig's 1980 Maniac is a masterclass of sorts on how to successfully remake a horror movie: take an original conceit, spin it around, and look at it from a completely different angle. Scored by French musician Robin Coudert, aka Rob, the film examines the dirtiest corners of Los Angeles through the eyes of a serial killer; in fact, the entire movie shot through his murderous POV. It's a dark, brutal adventure that pulls no punches with what it shows the audience. Rob's score—reliant on throbbing beats and haunting melodies—goes a long way in helping it frame its explicit violence in a darkly beautiful way.—Ian Stanley
With The Fog, the percussive synthesizer pulsations that had by that point become John Carpenter's signature serve a greater purpose than just atmosphere. As the ticking clock in the opening sequence suggests, The Fog is a film obsessed with time, or slowly running out of it—and as the titular horrifying mist gets closer and closer to engulfing the characters, the score ratchets up the momentum with each harrowing Moog figure. Carpenter utilizes intermittent spurts of atonality and noise as indicators of the amorphous evil's supernatural nature, with longer chords to echo the crawling, blanketing nature of fog—crushing reminders that in these sorts of movies, after time runs out, there's no escape.—Tina Hassannia
A film about malfunctioning robot security guards going on a rampage through a shopping mall couldn't be anything but pure fun, and composer Chuck Cirino's sickly funk score for Chopping Mall appropriately leans into the absurdity. The clanging percussion and woozy synth work only echo the techno-dystopia of the concept, but it's hard not to feel giddy when the odd rushes of caffeinated arpeggiations and rapid-fire synth bells come in during the films tensest moments. It's a work of unrestrained, un-self-aware, unapologetic joy that's as chemically sweet as the red-hued corn syrup that's often serves as fake blood in gory romps like these.—Colin Joyce
While she's put out numerous experimental pop records with her band Micachu & The Shapes and collaborated with everyone from Dean Blunt to Toddla T, Under the Skin marks classically trained UK multi-instrumentalist's Mica Levi's first foray into film scoring. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the 2014 sci-fi flick stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien succubus, luring hapless Scottish male travellers into a primordial black ooze. Levi's score is appropriately otherworldly; slowed and pitch-shifted throughout, clashing microphone recordings, minimal percussion, and screeching viola strings provide a jarring backdrop for Scarlett Johansson's bewitching character.
In a 2014 interview with THUMP, the composer said the director's advice to her was "to follow [Johansson's] character in real-time." "He had his ideas as to what he thought music should be, and I had to get really immersed into that," she said. "I had to relate to her; what feelings she might be having, and to think like her—ultimately, to do the right thing for her."—Max Mertens
Day of the Dead was to be George Romero's masterpiece. After setting the stage with Night of the Living Dead and later, Dawn of the Dead, Romero was prepared to make his grandest cultural statement on human nature yet. A small budget, slashed in half during pre-production, and tepid reactions from critics and fans muzzled the film's intended impact. But in the decades since its release, Day of the Dead has slowly found an audience, at least in part thanks to filmmaker/composer John Harrison's strange score. Following Goblin's hodgepodge soundtrack for Dawn (featured exclusively on the Dario Argento-cut Italian release), Harrison's calypso-tinged offering stands out mostly for its recurring motifs but also because, beyond the horrifying context of the film, it really sounds quite pleasant.—Ian Stanley
The score by Italian prog-horror band Goblin for Dario Argento's hallowed Suspiria is so married to the film, it's almost too scary to listen to on its own. The band pays homage to Bernard Herrmann's needly orchestral music for Psycho and the strange vocal effects from The Exorcist, but the band creates its own cacophony of torturous tones and supernatural sounds. These electroacoustic compositions mark an early appearance of synthesizers on horror scores, and heighten one of the horror genre's most enduring sources of terror: the sensation that something evil lurks under the everyday, if you're willing to peer under the dark corners.—Tina Hassannia
The German composer Florian Fricke lent his shape-shifting talents to a number of Werner Herzog's existential films, but for 1978's Nosferatu, Fricke's band Popol Vuh attempted more complex material than they'd experimented with before. The score largely crystallized the celestial choral motifs and spiderwebbing sitar figures that became the band's wheelhouse, but also made room for their early electronics experimentation to creep back in. Amidst all the compositional grandeur, Fricke's few Moog pieces feel especially sparse and lonely. The creepiness is all in the context—in knowing that these pieces should be full of life, but aren't.—Colin Joyce
The malleable nature of Tangerine Dream's synth compositions made the German electronic music collective an easy fit for a nearly uncountable number of movie soundtracks. But few of the group's scores are as affecting as their work for Michael Mann's The Keep. Some may attribute The Keep's acclaim to its rarity—only around 300 copies were officially released, and only bootlegs have filled the gap since. Mann himself has disowned the film since its release, and licensing rights make it hard to catch a version with the original score intact. But the music that makes up the soundtrack is some of the most diverse that Tangerine Dream has ever released.
There is, of course, their signature: the weightless, existentially probing synth runs still imitated by composers to this day, extended here into outright delirium. There's dizzy harmonized guitar solos, disco-adjacent percussive percolations, and hellish descents into atonal static. It's goofy and grim, joyful and panicky, in equal helpings—the sort of measured, sculpted, and revisionist vision of the genre that happens whenever auteurs choose to shoulder the weight of decades of convention.—Colin Joyce