Sounds of Fear

Carnival of Souls

Sound of Fear: The Musical Universe of Horror

Date: 3 September 2011

Venue: Purcell Room and Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

More info at Vision Sound Music

A seeming paradox: some of the most experimental, some of the most daring and unusual film scores have been created for horror films – and yet, few genres offer a set of aural signatures so seemingly conventional that they are left wide open to parody. One can easily imagine a kind of shopping list of common tropes without the aid of which few horror film composers would know quite what to do with themselves. So closely identified has the visual manifestation of fear become entangled with its audio counterpart that a horror film might scarcely be recognised as one without certain key sonic signifiers. And so, the idea of a recipe for the Platonic ideal of horror movie soundtracks presents itself. What might the essential ingredients be?

Dissonance. Since the Middle Ages, the highly dissonant interval of the tritone – composed of two notes, six semi-tones apart – has been associated with the diabolus in musica. Wagner’s use of low, grinding tritones for the appearance of the dragon in his Ring cycle became the archetype for movie monsters from King Kong to The Thing from Another World. Extremes of unresolved dissonance became particularly noticeable in the 70s after William Friedkin drew on a whole raft of European modernists, from Penderecki to Anton Webern, on the hugely influential soundtrack to The Exorcist. From the late 80s, horror comedies like Beetlejuice and Gremlins 2: The New Batch would make use of the tritone in a self-reflexive parody of earlier conventions.

Organs. The pipe organ immediately situates us in the world of Gothic horror, and certain pieces of organ music – in particular Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor – have become scary movie clichés through overuse. From The Phantom of the Opera and Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the creeping uncanniness of Carnival of Souls and the camp Technicolor of The Abominable Dr Phibes, filmmakers will put grand old church organs in the most improbable of places in order to provide an excuse for featuring that distinctive full-bodied sound in their film.

Children’s choirs. Our greatest fears are no doubt those that recall us to childhood, and creepy children are just as present on horror soundtracks as they are in the image tracks. Mia Farrow adopts a childlike voice to la la la creepily over Komeda’s soundtrack to Rosemary’s Baby, and a real chorus of children is made terrifying use of in Children of the Corn. Most recently the trope was used in White Noise 2: The Light. But the prize here really has to go to Ennio Morricone’s wonderfully atmospheric score for Italian giallo (starring none other than former James Bond George Lazenby) Who Saw Her Die?

Strings. There can be few more recognisable soundtrack moments than the screeching strings from Psycho‘s shower scene. So immediately does the effect conjure up not just the plunging of a raised knife, which the musical movement seems to suggest almost of its own accord, but equally, by association, the themes of incest and unresolved Oedipus complexes, which dominate Hitchcock’s film, that Harry Manfredini could sum up the plot of Friday the 13th in toto with the Herrmann homages in his theme tune. But above and beyond this particular sound, orchestral strings offer a whole panoply of unusual effects to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Where would any self-respecting moment of tension be without the shudder of tremolando? Or an eerie moment of supernatural weirdness without the glassy harmonics of sul ponticello playing?

The Dies Irae. A 13th-century Latin hymn describing the mythical ‘day of wrath’ in which the souls of the dead are called before the gates of heaven and the damned cast to the flames of hell set to a distinctive melody in the Gregorian chant, the Dies Irae, and sundry variations thereof, appears in countless horror films. Most recognisably, perhaps, in Wendy Carlos’s synthesiser arrangement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for the opening sequence of The Shining, but also, slowed down, harmonised, somewhat disguised, you’ll find it in Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Poltergeist and in cult nunsploitation film Killer Nun. The Dies Irae was also a favourite of Hammer Horror composer James Bernard’s, who used it in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and again in his score for the (1997) reissue of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Help me complete this recipe for the perfect horror film score, along with Kim Newman, Stephen Thrower (from Coil) and Harry Manfredini, at Sound of Fear, the Southbank Centre, Saturday 3 September.

Robert Barry