35 Greatest Horror Soundtracks - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

35 Greatest Horror Soundtracks: Modern Masters, Gatekeepers Choose

Composers, reissue-labels and synth-savvy musicians pick best in fright

Beyond being dark and diverse mood-setters for thriller nights, horror film soundtracks have quietly changed the world like a virus. They’ve established and maintained a teeming culture around analog synthesizers, provided generations with dissonant gateways into the heady worlds of 20th century composition and musique concrète and influenced bands like Portishead, Boards of Canada and Animal Collective. More recently, they’ve become objets d’art thanks to a slew of reissue labels repressing them on colorful vinyl underneath eye-popping sleeve designs. To celebrate the renewed interest, we’ve compiled the 35 greatest soundtracks of all time as chosen by an esteemed panel of 14 reissue record label owners and indebted musicians.

The Panel:

Geoff Barrow (Portishead; Invada Records)
Kevin Bergeron (Waxwork Records)
Kyle Dixon, Mark Donica, Adam Jones and Michael Stein (Survive; Stranger Things)
Ryan Graveface (Black Moth Super Rainbow, Casket Girls; Terror Vision Records and Video)
Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recording Company & Mondo)
Steve Moore (Zombi; composer, The Guest)
Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas; composer, The Place Beyond the Pines)
Sebastiaan Putseys (One Way Static Records)
Jeremy Schmidt (Black Mountain, Sinoia Caves; composer, Beyond the Black Rainbow)
Jonathan Snipes (Clipping.; composer Room 237, Rebirth)
Adrian Younge (composer, Luke Cage, Black Dynamite)


‘Phantasm’ (Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, 1979)

Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave, both classically trained composers and rock music fans, combined their collective influences for a slow, sinister version of prog bombast. Based mostly around that memorable eight-note theme, their battery of organ, piano, Mellotron, clavinet and synths ran the gamut between moody rock, church organ, drone and noisy atmosphere where director Don Coscarelli says they were, "employing almost the entire percussion section" to get an array of scrapes and booms. "We have a lot of melodic stuff that worked with the action, but just some bizarre sounds that were harder to get back then," he told IGN. "The synthesizers we used back then were so primitive that you couldn't repeat something; you would program the synthesizer, which means setting all of these dials to create a sound, and you went back and tried to get it again and forget it – it was impossible."


‘The Beyond’ (Fabio Frizzi, 1981)

Master of the moody, gore-filled Italian giallo, Lucio Fulci pivoted from westerns and farcical comedies to make some of the grimmest horror films of the Seventies and Eighties: The Beyond reigns one of horror's bleakest. The story of a portal to hell creaking open underneath a New Orleans hotel is full of face-melting, eye-gouging gore that's offset by the score of frequent collaborator Fabio Frizzi. Frizzi's dramatic cues teeter on the ludicrous, full of Mellotron lines, choirs and unseen forces. It's a crazy mix of rubbery bass, flutes and prog-orchestral ominousness, but as the film nears its grim end, Frizzi's score also darkens, growing heavy, underlining the inescapable fate of the characters. "The distinctive aim of the film's soundtrack was to achieve an old goal of mine," said Frizzi in the notes to the recent Death Waltz reissue. "I wanted to combine two different instrumental forms I had always loved: the band and the orchestra. When I started writing music some years before, I had learned to combine these two sounds; but for many reasons, the roles of strings and wind instruments were mainly created by keyboards. This time I decided to get serious."


‘The Shining’ (Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind, Krzysztof Penderecki, et al., 1980)

Lightning failed to strike twice when electronic-music trailblazer Wendy Carlos and her producer and collaborator Rachel Elkind reunited with director Stanley Kubrick after the success of A Clockwork Orange. Most of the music Carlos created, with Elkind credited as co-composer, went unused apart from the title theme (a syrupy reworking of the traditional "Dies Irae" liturgical chant) and a second cue, "Rocky Mountains." But you hardly can complain about the way Kubrick and music editor Gordon Stainforth cherry-picked maximally queasy passages from works by a clutch of Eastern European mavericks: "Lontano" by György Ligeti, the Hungarian genius whose music gave 2001: A Space Odyssey its unearthly atmosphere, and even more importantly Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish radical whose strangulated strings, barbaric brass yawp, clatter-bone rhythms and hissing choruses in "Utrejna," "De Natura Sonoris," "The Awakening of Jacob" and more provided the Overlook Hotel and its denizens with an appropriately unhinged environment.


‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (Krzysztof Komeda, 1968)

The main theme of Rosemary's Baby would seem to be innocent enough – just some slowly loping strings or harpsichord and lovely la-la-la vocals sung by a young Mia Farrow. However, innocence is not in high supply in director Roman Polanski's breakout hit. The music was scored by Krzysztof Komeda, a Polish compatriot of Polanski's who made his name as a progressive mind in Eastern European jazz. Some of that is evident in Rosemary's Baby, including in the lilting saxophone ballad "Making Love in the Apartment," but subtle otherworldliness is the main register as Komeda mixes styles with wild imagination and control. 


‘The Omen’ (Jerry Goldsmith, 1976)

Much of the reputation of Jerry Goldsmith’s Academy Award-winning score to this 1976 box-office smash can be attributed to its main theme, “Ave Satani,” as well as the Gregorian and choral chants that are this soundtrack’s dark backbone: They’ve become among pop-culture Satanism’s all-time greatest hits. Goldsmith, whose Hollywood work spanned five decades (and included such classic, tense scores as Planet of the Apes, Chinatown and Alien, among dozens), penned a handful of Latin phrases that pervert those of the Catholic mass, gave ’em to an evil choir and seeded them underneath screeching, tension-filled sautillé strings and brass fanfares. Still, the ascending opener “Ave Satani” (naturally, “Hail Satan” – and a nominee for Best Song) is the unquestioned centerpiece, wherein the National Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, armed with questionable Latin grammar and Wagnerian pomp, usher in capital E evil unto the Earth. Said Goldsmith, who was nominated for the Best Original Score Oscar eight times earlier with zero victories, “I was very surprised when I won for The Omen since I didn’t think it was the kind of film Academy voters would go for.”


‘Nosferatu the Vampyre’ (Popul Vuh, 1979)

While director Werner Herzog would later go on to seek out the horror inherent in nature and the human condition, in 1979 he recast F.W. Murnau's Expressionist vampire classic as Nosferatu the Vampyre, featuring the manic Klaus Kinski as the rat-toothed blood ghoul. Some of the film's shot are explicit homages to Murnau, but the film's score is a distinct break. Known for their serene and elegant album work, Florian Fricke and his Popul Vuh bandmates contribute a most somber and evocative score that works with sinister reads from Wagner's Das Rheingold and Georgian folk songs. For horror soundtrack fans, Nosferatu is atypical: garlands of acoustic guitar, sitar and Fricke's piano make for a cyclical, meditative piece that anticipates their move towards new-age placidness by the end of the decade. As a study in contrasts though, it is classic, a beautiful tracing around Kinski's grotesque vampire that provides sympathy and pathos for the most monstrous.


‘The Thing’ (Ennio Morricone, 1982)

With his intense 1982 sci-fi flick about researchers in Alaska succumbing to parasitic alien DNA, director John Carpenter broke from the tradition of scoring his own films. To capture the paranoia the researchers felt, he hired one of his heroes to pen the score: king of spaghetti westerns and giallo veteran Ennio Morricone. The main theme, "Humanity (Part 1)," begins with understated swelling strings and horns playing melodies that swoop upwards, adding to the anxiety. Elsewhere in the score, sweet melodies play against discordant chords, violinists pluck their instruments chaotically and more than a few progress from sparkly quiet notes into spooky, funereal sounds. Morricone, who later won an Oscar for his music for The Hateful Eight by repurposing leftovers from The Thing, told Rolling Stone that Carpenter had played him the film but left before they could discuss it so he had to figure it out himself. Carpenter has said the one thing he did ask for was "fewer notes," and it's that minimalism and the slow-moving tension that made both the soundtrack and its effect on the film masterful.


‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (Riz Ortolani, 1980)

The dreamy, lazily romantic orchestral swoon of Italian composer Riz Ortolani plays in sharp contrast to the ludicrously bloody Cannibal Holocaust, a film that made waves for its "found footage" look in the pre-Cloverfield Eighties. It wasn't the first time Ortolani's used the trick – director Ruggero Deodato loved how his songs anchored the "mondo" shock docs of the Sixties – but Cannibal Holocaust's merciless gore, mistaken by Italian authorities for film of actual murder, made the juxtaposition one of the most unsettling in horror history. There's also no shortage of porno-funk, sinister synth pulses and errant pounding here – but the bittersweet beauty of orchestral swells and acoustic guitar remain the most iconic part. "The soundtrack to Cannibal Holocaust almost surpasses the film itself," says Deodato in the liner notes to the Death Waltz/One Way Static reissue. "Many of my fans tell me that they were engaged or married to the music Ortolani created."


‘Suspiria’ (Goblin, 1975)

Before filmmaker Dario Argento began work on Suspiria, his nightmarish and gory 1977 portrayal of a dance school that is hiding a sinister secret, he needed music that would set the mood. He'd previously worked with Italian prog-rockers on Profondo Rosso, so he read them his Suspiria script and gave them three months to write a soundtrack that would make the film's witchy theme linger with audiences and could be utilized on set to establish the tone of the film. They experimented with instruments atypical of soundtracks at the time – tabla, bouzouki, Moog synthesizer – and came up with the movie's iconic, chilling music-box–like main theme, as well as tense exercises in rhythm, dissonance and bizarre funky prog, before ending on the original LP with its creepy "Death Valzer." Over the years, the music has become horror canon and would give horror-soundtrack reissue label Death Waltz its name. 


‘Candyman’ (Philip Glass, 1992)

Music by classical composer Philip Glass has been used in so many movies (and ripped off in so many more) that it’s surprising Candyman and the franchise it spawned has been his only serious brush with contemporary horror – surprising, that is, because his trademark hypnotic repetitions and remorseless momentum feel especially well-suited to a genre that thrives on chases, wrong turns and traps. Glass, it’s reported in the liner notes to the Candyman CD that inaugurated his own Orange Mountain Music label, was disappointed by the film: What he’d presumed would be an artful version of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” had ended up, in his view, a low-budget slasher. Still, there’s no question his score – an unusually creepy mix of huffy organ, choral chanting, wistful piano and chilly glockenspiel – is potent and appropriate … and, with characteristic pragmatism, Glass concedes even now in interviews that having scored Candyman continues to yield fiscal benefits.


‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ (John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1982)

You can trace synthesizer sophistication in the early Eighties by how John Carpenter and Alan Howarth's Halloween themes changed with each sequel. For 1981's Halloween II, the iconic theme got baroque with a little bit more synth-pop, and for 1982's Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the theme is a screwed smear of dread that doesn't even touch on the original's famous melody. It's fitting for an installment that doesn't feature Michael Myers and was originally penned by sci-fi fatalist Nigel Kneale (writer of Quatermass and The Stone Tape, a horror movie all about acoustics) involving Celtic rituals, Stonehenge and space. Other tracks similarly reimagine Carpenter and Howarth's sparse style: rushes of electronic noise on "Starker and Marge"; metal-on-metal murmuring on "Robots at the Factory"; and ambient burps on "The Rock." And the familiar Halloween melody gets contorted on Vangelis subtweet "Chariots of Pumpkins," a jittery version that turns theme into a jagged anxiety attack.


‘Halloween’ (John Carpenter, 1978)

In 1978, when nascent “horror master” John Carpenter made Halloween, the slasher flick that upended the genre for the next decade, he was 30 years old but still running things like a college student, doing everything himself. He co-wrote the script, directed the actors and wrote one of the most chilling, minimal scores in all of horror. Taking inspiration from Goblin’s eerie Suspiria music and Bernard Herrmann’s expressionistic Psycho score, he built tension from the onset with a rattling piano melody for the main theme, played in 5/4 time, a rhythm he learned as a teenager from his music-professor dad on bongos. “In thrillers or horror films, you’re trying to create suspense,” he told Rolling Stone of his minimal approach. “Think of the Jaws theme. It’s two notes. It keeps you in suspense.” Other sections of the score contain what he calls “cattle prods” – piercing keyboard stabs to make moviegoers jump – as well as sparse, descending piano lines, contemplative melodies and fuzzy, off-kilter discord. The main theme would get drastic facelifts throughout the series and it would be adopted by hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. but it has always maintained an uneasiness rooted in its scary simplicity. “It has to be because I’m playing it,” Carpenter once said. “I have minimal chops as a musician.”

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.