What Makes it Scary? The Six Most Influential Horror Soundtracks of All Time. Part 1

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

1 of 6 in this Series.

psycho-hitchcockShe is in the shower, vulnerable, unaware…a shadow appears on the wall, someone else is in the room, they pull out a knife, open the shower curtain, and suddenly….silence.

What would the shower scene in “Psycho” be like without the loud, screechy strings mimicking the violent stabbing of Norman Bates’ knife? Would we harbor such great fears of sharks if not for the menacing, minor second progression of notes that precede each attack by the horrifying Great White in “Jaws?”

Many believe that the soundtrack is the most important aspect of a movie; even a subtle change can turn a movie like “The Exorcist” in to a comedy, (try it sometime, it’s really entertaining). The following first two in the six movie soundtrack series has paved the way for composers to manipulate our perceptions of horror, reality and tradition. So, grab some headphones, a wicked bevy, and let’s find out what makes it scary!

The first and earliest soundtrack from our list is the 1960 horror movie, “Psycho.” Alfred Hitchcock had a horrendously low budget to work with, however he insisted there be music behind the madness.. After a long debate about pay and resources, Hitchcock finally convinced Bernard Herrmann (also known for his work on the movies “Citizen Kane,” and “Taxi Driver”) to compose the soundtrack. He wanted Herrmann to create a soundtrack using a jazz ensemble and some contemporary jazz writing; these were a very popular option at the time for films. Herrmann disagreed, pointing again to the budget, Herrman believing that the single “color” provided by the lone string ensemble would complement the contrast of the black and white filming of the movie.

psycho-liveHerrmann utilized a technique that was being popularized by the contemporary classical composers of this time which requested that the string players bow close to the bridge, using as much pressure as possible while bowing (basically sawing the instruments to death) as quickly as they could. The result is a tone quality that sounds harsh and unnatural. Herrmann then placed microphones right up next to the instruments which recorded the disturbing sound with a high, screeching that sounded like demented birds. In the end, the sound did two things; 1.) It scared the crap out of the listener, 2.) the screeching foreshadowed the fact that Norman Bates, the bird stuffer and collector was the killer, not his mother. Although Herrmann and Hitchcock had many disagreements during the scoring of this film, it is still listed as one of the greatest soundtracks, not just horror soundtracks, of all time. Which, in turn, has influenced film scores including those in “Halloween” and “Jaws”

Loves offbeat music and on-beat art. Composer, whisky-lover and horror enthusiast.

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