To twist the words of the bard a bit, “If music be the food of horror, then scare on.” See, I rather think the music running underneath our darkest, loveliest genre is routinely overlooked. And I had just fired up my copy of Supermassive Games’ Man of Medan, (the second in the Dark Pictures Anthology horror series) this week when the weight of that hit me. Supermassive opted to tap composer Jason Graves for their score, and the choice turns out to have been pitch-perfect. The interactive scarefest puts us in the shoes of a small group of friends trapped aboard the SS Ourang Medan, a ghost ship adrift on open waters since the end of WWII. Pirates, ghosts, and madness all conspire to cut one or more of our reluctant heroes’ lives short, and Graves’ score helps bring all the tension to the forefront. The music is equal parts ethereal Uncharted adventure and twanging, industrial Saw-scape.
So, in the spirit of such successful pairing of horror content and chilling musical accompaniment—and in honor of the best holiday of the year creeping ever closer to our black hearts, reader—I went and made you a mixtape. Yes! A horror-entertainment mixtape drawing from some of the all-time best scores from movies and video games. None of that licensed music, here, no. It’s original material for you, sir or madam; you’re worth it. And nothing that would only be scary in the context of a visual (the ghostly heartbeat drumming behind some of The Last of Us’ most terrifying moments is scary, but without the gagging clicks of the Infected nearby, it’s just percussion, after all). It’s on the spot scary, and it’s all for you! I’ll be popping in after each entry to explain my choices and offer a bit of trivia here and there, so consider listening to each piece as we go.
Happy countdown to Halloween, my dears. Enjoy the liner notes!
1. “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” by Michael Abels (Get Out, 2017)
LINER NOTES: There’s no official way to assemble a mixtape, of course, but most audio-auteurs will tell you: open with a bang and set the tone immediately. That’s absolutely what I’ve gone for with the memorable opening song from Get Out. The title—chanted with eerie majesty throughout the track—translates to “Listen to the elders” in Swahili, as music professor and composer Michael Abels told “Crack” magazine, with other lyrics saying, “Brother, run! Listen to the elders! Listen to the truth! Run away! Save yourself!” Abels explained his shared vision with Jordan Peele, that the dead reach out to the living, “through imagery and emotion.” Regardless of how literally we take Abels’ thoughts, here is a coolly effective lead-in to a world of scares, and an appropriate warning: shit is about to get scary. Be warned!
2. “Voices in the Static” by Joseph Bishara (Insidious, 2010)
LINER NOTES: Remember the sorta-kinda Darth Maul looking demon in Insidious? The one director James Wan brilliantly inserted into a daytime scene, lurking behind hapless protagonist Dalton?
Whatever name it goes by in the series (Lipstick-Face Demon, Red Faced Demon, etc.), the powerful creature is played every time by the first film’s composer, Joseph Bishara. And in this short but wonderfully creepy track, we can hear why Bishara is able to step right into the cloven hooves of onscreen evil: he blends an unsettling siren of a musical floor with rising and falling strings that sink below our hearing, only for the frenzied plucking of bare piano wires that rack the sounds of unseen evil traveling with frantic speed to surround us. Well played, Sith-boy. Well played.
3. “Suspiria” by Goblin (Suspiria, 1977)
LINER NOTES: There’s a widespread belief that track three on any mixtape is the most critical of all. The fanfare of the lead-in song is gone, tone has (hopefully) been set and enriched by the second track, and track three bears the weight of a mixer going for broke. “You’ve made it this far,” track three says, plucking up its flying-V guitar, “Now let’s see if you can handle the real stuff.” And so I bring you something timeless, even ageless, in the form of Dario Argento’s unparalleled masterpiece, 1977’s Suspiria.
We’re off to the races for real now, and faint hearts will falter once Italian prog-rock band Goblin bring strange, breathy chanting to mingle with creepy child-like twinkling bells, and stir an otherwise sweet melody into something sinister and yet catchy in the most bizarre way possible. And there’s something for us to learn about high-quality horror there, too; like Claudio Simonetti and the rest of Goblin manage to pull off in the track, the best horror fills us with dread and intrigues, even tantalizes us to wander back, eyes wide, wanting more.
Appropriately, to this day, Goblin considers their work on Suspiria—the second but not last time they’d team up with Argento—to be their masterpiece.
4. “Silent Hill Theme” by Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill, 1999)
LINER NOTES: In a 2015 interview with music news magazine Fact, Akira Yamaoka, the original composer and sound designer for the Silent Hill game series pulled no punches discussing the state of horror video game soundtracks up to 1999. They were, he said, stuck in clichés. “There were certain patterns,” he said, “arrangements, and moods that everybody seemed to follow, and I wanted to change that.”
And change it he did, ushering in a hybridized Kraftwerk-Morricone moodiness, fusing mournful strings and—at the time, entirely unheard of in horror video games—synth-pop. The overall effect was a hugely flexible, ominous musical landscape that fit perfectly with the foreboding mists of the titular town, through which could come ghostly figures, malformed living dolls, or terrified allies. Tonal shifts ebbed and flowed with the strange, hellish setting, and Yamaoka’s music greased those nightmarish wheels perfectly.
I’ve offered up the main theme to the first game, here, as it fit well in the earlier stages of the mixtape. We’re pushing through the mists ourselves now, passing the yellow-and-black striped caution tape for parts unknown. Yamaoka brings players into the strange, Jacob’s Ladder-inspired town/world with an exotic balalaika strumming carrying us immediately into unfamiliar territory, with the deeper terrors inside hinted at with bending guitar chords and minor-key synth work promising dark fades hidden somewhere ahead. And now I’m doing it to you through his work. Aren’t you lucky?
5. “Michael Kills Again” by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies (Halloween, 2018)
LINER NOTES: If I’m completely honest with you, reader of mine, this entire soundtrack could easily have been nothing but John Carpenter songs. In the interest of variety, I opted not to do that, although his presence here was inevitable. But what could I offer up as the right choice from the improbably broad and deep horror music catalogue the composer/filmmaker has built over the decades? Something a bit less known like his darkly charming stuff for The Fog or Prince of Darkness? Something iconic from The Thing?
A Rolling Stone interview Carpenter did just before the premier of the 2018 Halloween sequel-reboot directed by David Gordon Green gave me the answer. As it happens, Carpenter only “endorses” his original film (justifiably; it’s far the best of the Halloween franchise, and a turning point in the genre itself) and the 2018 sequel. The sequels and their hullabaloo about Michael and Laurie being siblings, and druidic curses? Nope. Not approved by the maestro. The soundtrack for the 2018 film, he says, is of the quality he wished he could have turned out in 1978. But this time? This time he had all the budget he could want, and a pair of gifted family members—son Cody and godson Daniel—and he says it couldn’t have been better. So I chose what I consider to be the best track on the album: “Michael Kills Again.” Oh, I grant you, it’s not as iconic as the terrifying title track from every other non-Halloween 3 movie in the franchise (also featuring prominently in most horror parodies and parties in October since the Carter administration), but it’s perfectly chilling on its own terms. A crystalline droning starts the song, with spooky, echoing strains shifting in and out of the track for the first minute. But after that, darker themes win out, and the beat increases in intensity until the tune is a pulse-pounding, guitar-fueled cacophony of delicious fear. And it all ends with a somber hint of Michael Myers’ unforgettable theme music. Try it!
6. “The Alien Planet” by Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, 1979)
LINER NOTES: We end the second trio of songs with deep space horror’s crowning musical achievement: Ridley Scott’s incredible slasher-in-space that’s infinitely greater than the sum of its parts: Alien. And Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score is an indispensable part of modern sci-fi horror’s DNA. I also happen to think it’s plenty scary on its own, particularly the theme of the strange world the crew of the Nostromo are called to investigate (yes, yes, I know: LV-426 turns out to be one of a few moons orbiting Calpamos, but when the tune was written, it was a planet, so there!). Warbling, low-register notes bring the barren menace of the alien rock to the fore, while textures from creepy strings to a didgeridoo to a conch shell blow run through a tape delay machine weave throughout. All the various cogs combine into a horror slurry fit for a thrill-seeker or doomed Company-led spacer. Just, you know, keep your face away from any vaginal-looking eggs while listening and you’ll be fine.
7. “Killer Klown March” by John Massari (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, 1988)
LINER NOTES: Any good mixtape needs a break every now and then—a moment to catch one’s breath, and get ready for any mood shifts approaching. And since one is most certainly on its way—the darkening of the music is almost here! Rejoice! I offer a lovely moment in horror comedy: a funny-creepy track from the 1988 Kamp Klassic, Killer Klowns from Outer Space. I’ve got with the edgy-yet-silly electric-guitar march from the scene in which we see the murderous space-klowns slowly walking from their circus tent/spaceship into the sleepy town below, fog pooling every which way.
It’s a silly-saccharine treat, and we all deserve it. And, of course, this is our last stop before we dive deeper into scarier material…
8. “Apartment #604” by Howard Shore (Se7en, 1995)
LINER NOTES: These days, Howard Shore is linked inextricably to his sprawling work with the Lord of the Rings movies, and while the music of those films is inarguably magical, Shore will forever be enshrined in horror movie circles as the man behind some of the most spine-tingling soundtrack work of all time in a little movie from 1997 called Se7en. While it wasn’t his first major horror score of the 1990s (hello, Silence of the Lambs!), Se7en finds Shore at the peak of a very specific kind of dread-inducing atmospheric music.
I’ve delivered, for your enjoyment, a climactic moment from the soundtrack. The piece is taken from the scene wherein detectives force their way inside the murderous John Doe’s apartment. Inside is evidence of a religious extremist with meticulously planned brutality on his agenda and, clearly, the will to execute those plans to the letter. The scene drips with claustrophobic closeness to evil. Shore crafted the perfect audio counterpart to the visuals.
Even without any knowledge of the film, lacking the context of an expertly directed neo-noir criminal lair, Shore’s score is able to spark the oppressive sense of being overwhelmed by something—or someone—with terrible intent.
The mournful tones of the orchestra, heavy on the brass, swell in dark waves, the intensity gradually rising. Strings emerge and grow frantic. A piercing whistle shrieks, and the whole arrangement calms, slows. Maybe, it seems to suggest, the danger is past. Then the music rises again, louder this time, like worried thoughts scratching their way back into our heads.
The entire piece feels as though we stand on unsafe ground—like someone awful and dangerous was just here. And is likely returning all too soon. Which is to say it’s fantastic.
9. “I’ve Got You Devolving Under My Skin” by Jason Graves (Dead Space, 2008)
LINER NOTES: The emotional pitch of our mix now goes from threatening to outright terror; it’s the middle of the tape, after all, and so it’s time to raise the energy and take some risks before we head back into safer waters with the ending tracks. Remember Jason Graves, the composer behind the creepy-great music of Mind of Medan that I mentioned in the introduction? Well here he is, this time with the game soundtrack he’s best known for: that of a horror classic of its own right, Visceral Games’ 2008 magnum opus, Dead Space.
In the track I’ve selected, we hear some of the straining, echoing space-terror theme that haunts protagonist Isaac throughout the body-horror ridden ship he’s stranded on for the duration of the game. What makes this track mix-worthy is what happens at the 48 second mark, when gloom metastasizes to a frantic, nerve-scrambling panic of violins. This crescendo builds for nearly a minute, mirroring a horrific in-game scenario during which a scrambling alien with the look of an inside-out manta-ray latches onto a human corpse, setting off a hellish transformation of exploding bone and flaying skin until a Cronenbergian monstrosity of bristling gristle sets about tearing apart anything unlucky enough to be nearby.
At just past 90 seconds, the track incorporates violent, metallic clanging and atonal, minor-key horn blasts to evoke a sense of alarm unmatched in any survival horror soundtrack I’ve encountered. The danger, the confusion, the panic in the music transcends the game’s limits, and easily stands on its own as a gorgeously scary piece of music.
10. “The Murder” by Bernard Herman (Psycho, 1960)
If you have to ask, you clicked on the wrong article, friend.
11. “The Cellar” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Road, 2009)
LINER NOTES: The film version of Cormac McCarthy’s phenomenal post-apocalyptic novel The Road was bound to have some problems in translation. The source material is quietly intense for hundreds of pages, and is written in a form of mental dialogue streaming from the mind of a father desperate to save his son from the latter stages of a world gone to rot and madness. It’s poetic in a brutally clipped kind of way. That’s a tricky lift for any screenwriter. Any director. Any cast. And whattaya know, the movie ain’t that great. My biggest criticism of the movie was how the soundtrack just never let up; the underscoring is nonstop and often seems to be doing the emotional lifting that the screenplay, direction, and acting can’t quite carry off.
Separate the score entirely and listen to it as a stand-alone piece of horror music and suddenly it functions as an amazing counterpart to the novel. To hell with the uneven movie—let’s just take the soundtrack and run!
Why this track specifically? Again, we’re in the guts of the mix now, and “The Cellar” is an absolute adrenaline rush of terror. It’s nearly sensory overload, but the piece holds together with a blur of grating, shrieking music-noise that is sure to raise your hackles. What Nick Cave manages to instill inside a minute and eight seconds is the raw feeling in every sweaty nightmare you’ve had in your life. You know the kind. The ones that raise that acid in the back of your throat; that refuse to give way to your rational mind when you first wake up? If that feeling, that fight or flight terror had a sound, it’s “The Cellar” from the soundtrack to a movie you don’t even need to see. Listen to this and hear fear distilled into something you can almost taste.
12. Unreleased Hellraiser Soundtrack by Coil (Hellraiser, 1987)
LINER NOTES: Okaaaay, so. Gotta make a long story a bit short here, but if the bombastic sounds of the Hellraiser movies seems a little much? Maybe a little grand? A little, dare I say, overblown? That might be because while Michael Young does an admirable job giving a Hollywood-sounding soundtrack to a big-budget horror flick, the style is not at all what writer-director Clive Barker had in mind for the 1987 movie version of his novella.
His first choice to give musical life to Hellraiser was Coil, a British experimental rock band wholly unknown to any bigwig types in 1987 Los Angeles. The band members and Barker were pals, and Coil’s members may have inspired Barker’s story “The Hellbound Heart” with some of the songs and art pieces they excitedly exposed young Clive to in the early 80s.
Of course, we know “The Hellbound Heart” better by the name that got attached to its screenplay: Hellraiser. Yup—a band gives a writer an idea, the writer scores big, the band is tapped to write the music for the writer’s movie and… well. Synergy was thwarted when studio executives shot down the twisting, disturbing themes Coil submitted, and the rest is history.
Happily, fans can still find the contents of Coil’s first stab at Pinhead and company’s music, as they were able to release copies of their work not long ago—and the entire concept album is available on YouTube. And I highly, highly recommend it.
So much so that I’m packing this mixtape gift with the whole 30-plus minutes of Coil!
It’d be hard to separate out any given theme, as the entire album is ghoulishly fun. It swings from post-industrial drones to playful music box twinkling to hellish cacophony and back again. Atonal shifts and childlike themes that we hear fall into jangled ruin make the whole album a disturbing and beautifully creepy experience. The whole thing is able to, I’m delighted to report, stir the fears of its listeners, with or without a movie attached.
13. “Hide and Seek” by Shusaku Uchiyama and Zhenlan Kang (Resident Evil 2 Remake, 2019)
LINER NOTES: The coverage of the 2019 hit remake to the second entry in the Resident Evil universe is largely focused on the high-quality graphics, the increased depth in storytelling, and on a certain fedora-wearing killing machine that is clearly related to Fallout 4’s Nick Valentine. What is less covered, unfortunately, is the high quality score turned in by the small team of composers led by Uchiyama and Kang. The game demands a wide spectrum of horror themes to accompany its action, from street-by-street flights from undead hordes to massive industrial elevator systems plunging into the bowels of Racoon City, to protracted battles with grotesque victims of a mutagen-gone-haywire. Over and over, Uchiyama and Kang deliver, moving from compact droning hums to shuddering, percussive arrangements and beyond on a soundtrack spanning nearly three hours.
“Hide and Seek” (not to be confused with an identically-titled track from another great soundtrack in the series: Resident Evil 7. Maybe it’ll show up on Volume 2!) makes the cut here due to its ability to capture the sensation of helplessly hiding from a much larger threat than a listener could hope to overcome. The scene in the game is a tense one: young Sherry must hide from a murderous chief of police, ducking and bobbing behind furniture while he crashes through the room, bent on her violent end. Even removed from that palm-sweating sequence, “Hide and Seek” can set pulses racing with its bisected creepiness. The first half of the song includes bassy thundering “steps” tracking as if we’re being hunted by a towering presence. But at the 1:16 mark, a keening wail captures the terror of being found, and the track lurches into a high-speed chase atmosphere—the preternatural-sounding wail rising from the ferocious drumbeat, seeming to mimic the panic clawing its way up our throats, threatening to explode outward in a lethal scream. Good. Times.
14. “Main Title” by Charles Bernstein ( A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)
LINER NOTES: We’re approaching the station now. The cooldown has begun, and familiar, reliably effective tunes round out the audio odyssey. And what better to serve as our bridge to the finale than Charles Bernstein’s unforgettable second track from 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street? Schoolyard themes leer at us from the synthesized chords and electronic drums, echoing with smirking menace as they repeat. The ghostly feel of the entire track and the use of processed, pre-existing tunes whistled by kids since the dawn of western civilization give the main title the feeling of a song we’re remembering, rather than hearing for the first time. A bit like a particularly disturbing nightmare, huh? How about that?
It’s simple, it’s spooky, and it’s been an absolute winner for over 35 years. A must for our little mix.
Oh, and an interesting bit of trivia about this one: when Bernstein got his copy of A Nightmare on Elm Street to use in composing the score, no music was present (directors often have temporary tracks from pre-existing movies to use as inspiration, see, but Wes Craven didn’t send his along thankfully) except for the creepy jump-rope ditty sung by the children in the infamous nightmare sequence. Since Bernstein says he always lets films guide his scoring process without bringing preconceptions to the table, well, we can be thankful Craven didn’t opt to have the little girls singing the Monkees to one another or Elm Street might have been scored very, very differently.
15. “Who’s at the Door” by Harry Manfredini (Friday 13th Part 2, 1981)
LINER NOTES: Completing the unholy trinity of early slasher films was an absolute must, even as we are well past the usual one hour limit of mixtapes. And I chose for you, reader of mine, for this mix’s penultimate track… is the penultimate track from Friday the 13th Part 2. It’s a bizarre, dreamlike ending to a terrifically gory adventure in the film: handsome Paul and clever Ginny retreat from Jason’s cabin to their own, having unmasked and (seemingly) defeated Jason Voorhees. Paul sets Ginny on the bed but the two barely have time to breathe before a scratching at the door sends Paul searching. But, sweet relief, it’s only Ginny’s sweet dog. And in a classic twist before classic twists were yawn-inducingly obvious, Jason, horribly mangled face exposed, crashes through the window behind Ginny, dragging her into the darkness.
The movie smash cuts to a strange sequence—Ginny is loaded onto an ambulance as though the prior scene never took place, and yet boyfriend Paul is missing, and the final shot of the movie is on Jason’s favorite centerpiece: his mother’s mummified head, still on his makeshift shrine, suggesting the killer is still on the loose after all.
But what’s great about this single track is that it ends with the disorienting strings thrumming out at the listener, signaling the peaceful, pastoral sounds that take over with less than a minute left were all an illusion, and bone-chilling horror was closer than we thought all along. It’s a bold, jarring choice, and one perfect for leading us—perhaps not so safe or sound—to the final choice of my gift to you.
16. “Promise Reprise” by Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill 2, 2001)
LINER NOTES: Horror tracks—and, subsequently, horror mixtapes—tend to come up short in the “pretty tunes” department. But Silent Hill 2 is an exception (it usually is). And this time it stands out due to the haunting beauty of a repeated theme throughout James Sunderland’s time in the psychologically rich, viscerally, brutally resentful town of Silent Hill. A slow, deliberate melody rings out on a piano, soon joined by airy chimes. The notes wander up and down the keyboard, wistful and sad, and soon those chimes are awash in waves of buzzing, hissing wind effects. The song captures the best parts of any Silent Hill story in under two minutes: it’s deceptively simple, layered in unexpected ways, and conceals deeper menace behind what seems, at first, like something promising.
It’s almost as though we, the listeners, are on a seemingly normal road that leads to a place yearning to swallow us up, guided by some unfinished business in our own hearts. Now that’s some powerful musical mojo, yes? And to hear the song’s ending, with the piano drifting away, falling silent in a kind of Pied Piper way, beckoning listeners to follow it into the silence… That’s how a good horror mix ends; suggesting that there’s more. If we’re wise, we’ll stay put, thankful we made it this far. But, of course, we always end up wanting more. We always forge into the mist eventually, don’t we?
So there you are, readers! I hope you enjoy your gift. Let me know what tracks you’d absolutely, positively put on your first volume of essential horror music. And be careful out there. You never know who—or what—is listening!