Hollywood Halloween

A Halloween scene in 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.'Warner Bros.

Hollywood Halloween


October 01, 2022

In the month of October, there's nothing like a great scary movie — and behind every creepy film is a spine-tingling score. Use the player above to listen to an hourlong special with Lynne Warfel presenting some of the all-time classic spooky movie cues, then read on for Garrett Tiedemann's picks when you're ready to dive even deeper into the depths of dread that film composers have created.

Hollywood Halloween playlist

Selected and hosted by Lynne Warfel

William Walton, "The Ghost" from Hamlet (1948)

Bernard Herrmann, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir suite (1947)

"Unchained Melody," heard in Ghost (1990), arr. Alex North

Elmer Bernstein, Ghostbusters main title (1984)

John Williams, "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

Bernard Herrmann, prelude to Psycho (1960)

Danny Elfman, music from Beetlejuice (1988)

Danny Elfman, "This is Halloween" from A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Franz Waxman, music from Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

John Morris, "Transylvanian Lullaby" from Young Frankenstein (1974)

Modest Mussorgsky, A Night on Bald Mountain as heard in Fantasia (1940)

Further listening

Selected and written by Garrett Tiedemann

Benjamin Wallfisch, It (2017)

This year's version of It is the reimagining that should not have worked. The score speaks otherwise, and as many critics and viewers have come to say about the film as well, this is something of note. At times light with classical piano to draw you into the world, and at other times intense with aggressive sound design, this is terrifying music precisely because it is not always terrifying. It is also subtle, and beautiful as it sets a tone for these characters to navigate; a world just slightly askew from what others may consider to be normal. There's something inspiring in the fact that the remake has actually raised the reputation of Stephen King's 1986 novel, which was previously made into a 1990 TV miniseries.

Brian Reitzell, 30 Days of Night (2007)

30 Days of Night was an arrival film for composer Brian Reitzell. He put out a call to go record strange music in a cold place and got this Alaskan vampire film from a still little-known director, David Slade. He's said that he just imagined what it would be like to have someone run at you with a chainsaw and composed that. What you hear is a mixture of percussion and instruments he made for the film; the score works precisely because it sounds like nothing else you have ever heard. It is brutal, and cold, and everything that a film about vampires in Alaska during the month of no sun should sound like.

Elliot Goldenthaal, In Dreams (1999)

While many would rightly cite Alien 3 or Interview with a Vampire as examples of Goldenthaal's ability to instill fright and terror, this 1999 serial killer flick has some absolutely terrifying themes with orchestrations that have a balanced beauty. Many may not know of its existence, or of Goldenthaal's talent at these kinds of compositions, but it's worth returning to at least as music to scare up your Halloween adventures and remind you that not every score has to sound the same. Spooky music can be experimental too.

Christopher Young, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

There are a lot of films with exorcism as their title and story, but few work because they are always in some way a lesser-than version of The Exorcist. The Exorcism of Emily Rose avoids this by being more of a courtroom drama than an exorcism flick. We learn about the horrors through the voices of people recounting the events. This is effective, and allows Young to create a deep aura of sadness and dread that seeps into every movement of the movie, spreading like an infection. The music is so frightening that it's almost unlistenable, but Young is smart to always balance the scares with a beauty not always associated with these types of stories.

Roque Baños, Evil Dead (2013)

Another remake that was anticipated to fail. It's sort of a tossup as to whether or not the film itself worked, but the score by Roque Baños is awe-inspiring. The music is incredibly chaotic and disorienting as Baños incorporates warning sirens into incredibly aggressive mixes of percussion and brass; this is not music for the faint of heart, but if you are looking for something truly groundbreaking from a compositional point of view, and truly terrifying from an experiential point of view, this is your score.

Mica Levi, Under the Skin (2014)

Mica Levi's first film score put her on the map. She is now recognized as one of the most singular voices in the industry and is continuing to test the limits of what a film score is supposed to do. This effort, built on abstract sound components, strange percussion, and twitchy strings, lays the foundation for the very unconventional narrative. Levi creates an all-encompassing tension and unease for a world you think you know, set askew. How Levi did it is her mystery to unravel, but it certainly provides the entire framework for the film's success through its ebbs and flows of whirling madness.

Climax Golden Twins, Session 9 (2001)

What the Climax Golden Twins do here is pretty much against every idea of traditional composition. It's more like theater than traditional film scoring; through a use of tape loops, found sound, and destructive composition they arrived at something unworldly and unique. These types of scores are rarely supported in Hollywood filmmaking, and to hear it is to realize how much variety there is in what makes music scary.

Michael Giacchino, Let Me In (2010)

Johan Söderqvist's score for Let the Right One In (2008), the Swedish film that was the first adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's 2004 novel, is beautiful and you should immediately track it down to hear it. However, I also want to highlight its American remake. This film kind of came and went as it suffered from the immediate write-off of being a remake of a beloved film not made by Hollywood. However, the score may be one of the most daring of Giacchino's career, and manages to reach a certain depth and terror not in the original. With a full orchestra, Giacchino conveys a grandiosity that involves a lot of really low-end brass and percussion, yet still balanced with small moments of beauty and empathy.

Douglas Pipes, Monster House (2006)

If you are wanting a more traditional composition — a big orchestra handling fun and jaunty, yet also scary compositions — Douglas Pipes is your man. He is not a very well-known composer, but his work in cinema, and specifically Halloween-inspired cinema, is unparalleled. This effort was a major starting point for him to eventually compose Trick 'r Treat (2007), Krampus (2015), and Awaken the Shadowman (2017). It's not easy composing scary music that is also suitable for a kids' movie, but in the sheer size of this score allows one to fall into the world without losing sight of the fact that it's just a movie.

Marco Beltrami, The Woman in Black (2012)

This film kind of came and went for most people. It's actually a successful little horror film, but didn't get much audience despite Daniel Radcliffe playing the lead. Significantly, Marco Beltrami applies many of his aesthetics of clock percussion and drawn-out string palettes to create something that is truly gothic horror, yet modernized so as to not be too nostalgic. These compositions are all-encompassing and dread-inducing, yet Beltrami is such a skilled composer that in the dread one is also in awe of the skilled arrangements.