Best Horror Soundtracks

What makes a great horror soundtrack? Well, there is always tension; usually between innocent melodies and the menacing sounds that slowly envelop them. Esoteric instruments galore – never has the theremin gotten so much love. You’ll find microtonal pitch changes on almost every single horror soundtrack on this list. Dissonant chords, of course, are front and center on many tracks. Working these chords into ungrounded atonal compositions is not easy – which is perhaps why there are so many cheesy sounding horror soundtracks. You won’t find any of those listed here. Perhaps most important of all is the concept of ambiguous etherality. You know, that feeling that something just isn’t right. The best horror soundtracks do this in subtle ways, slowly chipping away at that smug sense of safety and security you have.

Many soundtracks struggle when separated from their film counterparts, or at least lose some meaning and effect. What makes many on this list so exceptional is the fact that the music is more than just accouterments to what’s on the screen. Let’s just say that turning the lights off at your house and playing one of these as the soundtrack to your life makes for a gut-wrenching challenge. Which is perfect for the weeks leading up to Halloween.

Torture yourself with these ghoulish horror soundtracks and watch the films too – they’re all pretty good (except for maybe The Keep, you won’t miss much by skipping that one).

Philip Glass

Candyman

(1992)

Candyman Soundtrack Album Cover

Haunting chorus, backed by cautiously optimistic melodies, not dissimilar to tracks on Nils Fram’s All Melody on songs like Cabrini Green. The haunted voices of the chorus creep down your spine. Candyman is an urban horror story that roils and builds. And it features a soundtrack to match.

Release Notes: The 2014 pressing of this release was the first time the score was pressed on vinyl and it got some much needed love. The Candyman Soundtrack was pressed in Black with an obi strip, Bee Striped, Silver Mirror, and Translucent Yellow pressings were made.


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Riz Ortolani

Cannibal Holocaust

(1980)

Riz Ortolani Cannibal Holocaust album cover

Music so beautiful, movie so perverse. The juxtaposition of the senses, one harsh and disturbing, the other soft and oddly comforting is what makes this film so jarring. The free-flowing and often upbeat tracks directly parody the carnage happening on screen. There is always something just off about the deep, fuzzy synth sounds. The dissonance hardly registers while listening to the soundtrack alone.

Release Notes: Cannibal Holocaust was first pressed on vinyl in 2015, ten years after the film premiere.

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Disasterpiece

It Follows

(2015)

It Follows soundtrack album cover

Climactic builds into terrifying melodies, low and slow rhythms, bass that slithers in and pulses before disappearing. A truly modern horror soundtrack. There are absolute parallels with the immensely popular Stranger Things soundtrack. Heroic melodies that compete and slowly succumb to dark and mysterious sounds are just one example. The It Follows Soundtrack is at parts so heavy, the lows being so cataclysmically low, that it feels as if the music is dragging you down into a black pit. A horror soundtrack debut for composer Rich Vreeland (under the Disaterpiece moniker) and a great one at that.

Release Notes: There are some beautiful pressings of this on vinyl, including a two-toned blue and purple marble.


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John Carpenter

Halloween

(1979)

John Carpenter Halloween I album cover

John Carpenter did it all with a shoestring budget production of the first Halloween flick. He co-wrote the script, directed the actors, and, yes, even composed the soundtrack. An excellent early example of how a synthesizer could be utilized for a divergent tone. The clicking sounds! My god, how they can amp up the anxiety almost immediately after they start. You can feel the rushed tension created by their pace of nearly double the infamous odd meter of the melody. Loads of high end that will keep you on edge.

Release Notes: Originally released in just Japan in ’79, the first pressing w/ obi strip is exceedingly rare. So is the original cassette.


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Tangerine Dream

The Keep

(1983)

Tangerine Dream The Keep Soundtrack Album Cover

Who picked Tangerine Dream to compose a horror soundtrack? I guess they had done a few soundtracks before this, but nothing even close to horror. Not sure what was going on in that boardroom, but believe it or not The Keep‘s soundtrack is actually pretty good. It has elements of shimmering beauty that others on this list don’t even come close to. The first track, Puer Natus Est Nobis, is a great example. Tangerine Dream’s use of microtonal synth pitch changes prevail throughout the entire recording. And you know there are some grandiose synth melodies sprinkled in there. Despite the expected, the beauty of the soundtrack matches the aesthetics of the film, making it a well-developed accouterment to an otherwise bizarre narrative plot.

Release Notes: Incredibly rare. Not cheap! Want to know what a $345 CD looks like? Look no further.


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Ennio Morricone

The Thing

(1982)

Ennio Morrcone's The Thing Soundtrack Cover

John Carpenter let go of the reigns, choosing to hand them to famed composer Ennio Morricone (of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly fame). Who doesn’t love orchestral drones? Well, I do, but maybe it’s not the most pleasant thing for some. This soundtrack has by far the most drone in this list of the best horror soundtracks. It’s a perfect match for the desolate, icy landscape that dominates The Thing. Omnipresent ambiguous ethereality characterize these tracks.

Release Notes: Some beautiful repressings of this have come out in recent years, many playing off the white Arctic aesthetics with white vinyl. However, reviews of surface noise and high costs make the original ’82 pressings a great option.


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Goblin

Suspiria

(1977)

Suspiria Soundtrack Album Cover

Innocence & evil. It’s ironic how one cannot exist without the other. The Suspiria soundtrack, composed by Italian Prog Rock band Goblin, takes full advantage of this concept, intertwining the two early and often. It’s groovy, it’s full of life, it’s a classic for good reason. Having an Italian prog rock band score your horror movie takes some guts and I’m glad it worked out. You end up getting pretty comfortable with it, only to quickly realize that it’s slowly eating at you.

Release Notes: Original pressings are significantly cheaper than newer ones. There have been some limited edition releases, notably one from Light in the Attic, that are highly sought after.


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Various

The Shining

(1980)

The Shining Soundtrack Album Cover

An orchestral masterpiece. The atonality alone is enough to make your skin crawl. Somehow the violins float in what I like to imagine as a microtonal chamber. You can listen to this record and perhaps not even realize it’s the soundtrack to a horror movie, which definitely makes it an exception on this list.

Release Notes: This soundtrack hasn’t been officially pressed since it’s first batch in 1980! Which makes finding a copy extremely difficult…and expensive. Strange, considering its excellence. Keeping my fingers crossed for a repress soon!


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Jerry Goldsmith

Alien

(1979)

Alien Soundtrack 2017 Repress Album Cover

One of late composer Jerry Goldsmith’s best soundtracks. Esoteric sounds galore embellish nearly every track. A constant beating bass drum keeps the heart rate up. An archetypal horror soundtrack that laid the foundation for many in this horror soundtrack list.

Release Notes: This has gotten some repress love in recent years, most likely trying to capitalize on excitement around the sequels. Beware the recent Mondo box set. Though undeniably beautiful, reviews indicate there could be some surface noise regardless of condition.


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I’m only a minor-league movie buff and I’m sure some of you have mountains more knowledge than me. If there are horror soundtracks you think should be on this list, drop them in the comments to share with the community. Thanks!

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2 Comments
  • Oct 22,2018 at 9:07 pm

    Director William Friedkin first wanted Tangerine Dream to do the soundtrack for The Exorcist (1973), but for some reason it wasn’t possible just then.

    Later, Friedkin again wanted TD, for the Sorcerer soundtrack (1977).
    This time they made it happen.

    Sorcerer is not a horror movie, it’s mostly a thriller, but the soundtrack is still more frightening than the movie. Dark, desolate, and with a constant feeling of that ‘something’ is going on…
    Some parts are more calm and light, don’t worry.

    In my opinion the music is much better and far more interesting than the movie. I even got a bit disappointed when watching it for the first time (!).
    Maybe it’s because I had listened to the album so many times before I saw the movie?

    Sorcerer is a remake of the 1953 movie Wages of Fear, which is an adaptation of a novel by Georges Arnaud.

    To conclude.
    Ten years after TD were considered for their first horror soundtrack (or even their first soundtrack), they made the soundtrack to The Keep.
    This might not seem *that* strange after all now…? :-)

    https://youtube.com/watch?v=1hsHASCmuXc

    And thank you for this interesting list!

  • Oct 17,2018 at 9:41 am

    Very interesting read, I’ll have to check most of these out.

    I’d also recommend the soundtrack for the original Japanese version of “Ring”. Especially, the instrumental score parts by Kanji Kawai (tracks 2-5).
    https://www.discogs.com/Various-Music-From-And-Inspired-By-The-Ring-The-Spiral-Music-From-And-Inspired-By-%E3%83%AA%E3%83%B3%E3%82%B0-%E3%82%89%E3%81%9B/release/12568188

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