The Sound of Horror

Jon Butler’s first blog looking at iconic horror scores

It’s hard to imagine some of our favourite horror films without the iconic music that goes along with them, imagine Jaws without that infamous music. Can you picture The Exorcist without the iconic addition of Mike Oldfield’s haunting Tubular Bells?  Argento without Goblin anybody? Anything by John Carpenter without his legendary electronic scores? Recent horror classics have taken a lot of influence from Carpenter (to put it mildly) and modern classics like It Follows, Neon Demon and Maniac (2012) all feature excellent electronic scores that are well worth searching for.

The point I’m trying to make is that while the image is important, when a score is just right, sometimes even just a piece of music set to a scene, there’s a chance for that collaborative effort to take on iconic status and become something more. Some of these scenes go beyond merely “film” and become a part of our shared culture. Just look at this example:

When the Simpsons are spoofing you, you know you’re part of the wider cultural landscape.

I had an idea initially to take a look at some of these films and discus the music in them, but when we sat down and spoke about recording it as an episode, we thought that it might not really work, we just talk about a scene or film and then play some music? We came to the conclusion it may work better as part of the blog. Some of the great collaborations I want to talk about have helped launch these films from their home on the silver screen into our collective consciousness.

A good a place to start as any is with the ‘Master of Suspense’ himself Alfred Hitchcock and his frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann. It seems an obvious one but it makes sense really, it’s hard to talk about horror without talking about Alfred Hitchcock.


Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann worked on seven films together, starting with 1955’s “The Trouble with Harry” and 1964’s “Marnie” being their final film.

The films that Hitchcock and Herrmann collaborated together on would be some of the greatest films ever made, one of them,”Vertigo” is actually now considered the greatest film ever made, according to the BFI anyway.

Herrmann was born in New York in 1911. Encouraged into a life of music by his father from an early age he would eventually attend the prestigious Juilliard music school in New York. He began working for CBS as a composer for radio dramas in the late 30’s, this brought him into contact with a certain Orson Welles. Herrmann worked with Welles on a few projects, namely the infamous live broadcast of “War of the Worlds”, and a couple of his films, “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” you know, just some small time stuff!


Herrmann had a classical music education, many critics talk of Wagner inspiration for the Vertigo score but he certainly wasn’t afraid to experiment and be innovative, his score for 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” featured a ground-breaking score using electronic instruments such as the Theremin. Supposedly Danny Elfman says that Herrmann’s score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was what got him into film composing.

Just for fun, have a listen to the Psycho soundtrack and then have a listen to the music for Stuart Gordon’s 80’s gory masterpiece Reanimator. More than a little influence there I’d say!

Herrmann would go on to have a huge influence on film in the years to come, composing some of the greatest and most well loved film music ever. If you’re even a casual film fan, you’ve no doubt heard some of his music before, whether it was the rousing, bombastic upbeat scores for the campy Saturday afternoon fantasy epics such as “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” to gritty thrillers like “Cape Fear”; which you usually hear nowadays when Sideshow Bob appears in the Simpsons. Not to mention Herrmann’s final score, the great “Taxi Driver” which he finished composing one day before he died.


1958 saw the release of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” based on the French novel “D’entre les morts”  by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, rumour has it that the novel was written specifically for Hitchcock to adapt into a film.

Vertigo sees James Stewart as former Detective John Ferguson, “Scottie” to his friends. Forced into early retirement  by crippling acrophobia and vertigo, Scottie is hired as a private investigator by Gavin Elster, a former acquaintance to follow his wife, who has begun to act strangely.


Scottie begins following Elster’s wife Madeleine played by Kim Novak, who may or may not be possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes, who tragically committed suicide many years previously. On one fateful day Madeleine takes herself down to Fort Point in the shadow of the Golden Gate bridge and proceeds to throw herself into the Bay. Thankfully Scottie has been tailing her and manages to save her from drowning.


I won’t go into a full review and spoil the film. It’s on Netflix as we speak so if you’ve never seen it I would highly recommend giving it a watch. Is it the greatest film ever made? I personally have an issue with the ending, I understand why the ending is what it is but I always feel robbed when I watch it, I know what the ending is but every time I watch I always hope for a different one, so far, that’s never happened. That said though, it is certainly up there with the greatest films ever made. It was Vertigo that gave us the legendary “Dolly Zoom” shot, later called the “Vertigo effect”, and then the “Jaws Shot” and  probably now “That zoomy thing”

James Stewart - vertigo

One of the things that helps cement this film for me is the score, Bernard Herrmann’s emotional score compliments and enhances the gorgeous images perfectly, it’s so hard to separate them, when you hear the score you can’t help but see the images from the film.

Herrmann was disappointed that he was unable to conduct his own score for Vertigo. He composed it but a musician’s strike in the US at the time meant Scottish conductor Muir Mathieson conducted the score. The iconic scenery of San Francisco, combined with Herrmann’s beautiful score and Hitchcock directing would ensure “Vertigo” a place in film history.

Also, if you’ve ever seen the full video of Lady Gaga’s  Born This Way, you’ll know she’s a fan.

The fake “supernatural” elements of Vertigo aside, it’s not really a horror is it, a psychological thriller at best, so it is maybe a bit of a stretch to include it, although I have no doubt Hitchcock’s entire body of work influenced the Giallo genre that emerged in the early 60’s. Psycho on the other hand, is certainly deserving of being called a proper horror film, maybe even the first slasher, feel free to email us to argue about that at


Released in 1960 and based on a novel by Robert Bloch the film tells the story of Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, deciding to steal $40,000 dollars from the real estate company where she works to pay her boyfriend Sam’s debts. She jumps in her car and heads out towards California to meet Sam with the money, getting caught up in a storm she decides to stop at a motel she finds on the way…


Here she meets the proprietor of the motel, one Norman Bates. I’m sure we all know what happens next, even if you’ve never seen the film you know because the scene has become one of the most famous in the history of film, I believe, in no small part to the score that accompanies that scene.


A bit of background on Psycho before that. The novel Psycho was released in 1959. Hitchcock acquired the rights to adapt the novel into a film. Paramount on the other hand didn’t want to part with their cash and made it hard for production to begin. Hitchcock apparently slashed the budget several times and eventually waived his directing fee, agreed to film in black and white, used the crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show and film it in a TV studio. The estimated budget being about $800,000, pretty modest, wonder how many episodes of West World or Game of Thrones you’d get for that?

One other significant drawback was the effect this penny-pinching had on the score, with a reduced budget Herrmann could not afford a full orchestra for his composition so he decided to write for string section only. Herrmann’s belief in this being that he could set a darker, more monotone atmosphere to match the harsher black and white film.

The interesting story about the infamous scene is that Hitchcock originally never wanted any music to accompany the shower scene – it was supposed to be silent. Herrmann saw the shower scene during production and decided to write a cue for it, he showed it to Hitchcock and he approved, for a perfectionist and control freak like Hitchcock, this must have been a big deal.

It’s no real surprise when you see it now why it’s so effective, the short, stabbing screeching of the violins perfectly mimic the frenzied stabs we see on screen, once the murder is committed the ominous low notes of the cello join as we see the blood flowing down the plug hole. It’s seem so simple now but it would go on to be the iconic scene of the film. A film that is copied and spoofed and imitated without end.


“There’s Mother now”

Herrmann and Hitchcock’s collaboration came to an end over an argument for the score of Torn Curtain. Studios were becoming more focused on using jazz and rock music for their scores as the 60’s progressed, the days of  using an expensive full orchestra’s was on it’s way out. The poor box office of some of his recent films and perhaps his age had led Hitchcock to think that he was becoming irrelevant or “out of touch” with younger audiences. Herrmann perhaps saw this as Hitchcock “selling out”, of pandering to the studios instead of sticking with what he knew.

One infamous scene in “Torn Curtain” Hitchcock had requested “No music”. Herrmann, once already ignoring Hitchcock and improving a scene, ignored this suggestion also. Hitchcock was furious and Herrmann was fired on the spot, if rumours are to be believed right in the middle of a recording session.

A sad end to such a productive relationship.

Herrmann’s legacy will live on and no doubt continue to inspire generations of composers and film-makers for many years to come.

As ever let us know what you think of the blog and the podcast by emailing us at, or get hold of me here on twitter:



3 thoughts on “The Sound of Horror

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