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Horror Film: Soundtracks of the Modern Age

The Use of Sound Makes All the Difference

As we in the filmmaking/film student sector have known for a while, there are many ways to make a film stand out. For example: Wes Anderson's great use of palette and colour scheme in the film The Grand Budapest Hotel is one way to make your work pull the attention of the audience, another would be Kubrick's use of madness and those very, very slow camera pans that we are so accustomed to from The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. But, in horror film, we tend to get the same violin-stricken music every single time. Whether it be the orchestra masterpiece from Nosferatu or whether it be the scratchy violins in The Exorcist to the Tiny Tim song "Tiptoe through the Tulips" (which gives every kid nightmares) in the film Insidious Chapter 2 - it is always pretty much the same violin style. Today, I'm going to show you some strange songs you could use in your horror film - or even simply sample, providing examples of similar sounds from other horror films and how effective being different actually is in this collection of striking modern horror (which is making its resurgence). 

You're Next (2011)

Soundtrack: "Looking For the Magic" by The Dwight Twilley Band

A brilliant song to use for a horror/thriller film as it has that piano beginning (which is quite striking), mixed with those almost scratchy and low vocals that are so much associated with rock music that we almost get the vibe of something about to happen. The guitar riffs and arpeggios are unexpectedly major and slowly - we get this build up of drums. Our typical rock song with casual high notes here and there with a convincing fade-out. A brilliant and odd choice for a horror film in order to take the pace to the next step and gives the whole atmosphere a new modern vibe that makes it feel realistic.

Therefore, after using a more swinging rock track, you would get almost an anti-vibe. This would have more of a psychological effect seeing as now what would have been expected through the dark tones of an orchestral violin track would now be completely unexpected as the racy rock track has set the pace but changed the vibe. It is a very new and modern take to have on the horror/triller soundtrack.

Other soundtrack suggestions in this style could be:

  • "The Diary of Jane" by Breaking Benjamin
  • "Paradise City" by Guns'n'Roses
  • "Tombstone Blues" by Bob Dylan
  • "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" by The Darkness

The Strangers (2008)

Soundtrack: "The Sprout and the Bean" by Joanna Newsom

An odd folk song to have as the soundtrack to a potentially disturbing intrusive horror/thriller film, but also a good choice to make the film and its associating themes stand out. Remember, when making a film (especially horror) you want your themes to stand out more than your characters do. This is because in horror, unlike other genres such as romance, you need to be concentrating on atmosphere and the best way to do that is to flesh out your themes in things such as cinematography, mise en scene, costumes, lighting and soundtrack. Newsom's epic folk song "The Sprout and the Bean" was a perfect soundtrack for this film because of the theme of intrusion. Being a very personal and quiet almost a very soothing song, it took the theme of intrusion to the realm of personal space and invasion. This is done through the use of the harp and the guitars (whichever you deem fit for purpose) and the style of scales and arpeggios in a quiet and formative way.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about the song and thus, it presents the film as being something invasive of personal space by its lack of normative views on the theme. What I mean by this is that the soundtrack subverts the theme away from the storyline of the film, leaving the whole thing up to the audience's imagination. It is a perfect device to use when looking at themes of invasion of the home, family tragedy and even child curses, household monsters and child exorcisms.

Other soundtrack suggestions in this style could be:

  • "Always Like This" by Bombay Bicycle Club
  • "All Along The Watchtower" by Bob Dylan
  • "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro
  • "Days Are Gone" by HAIM 

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Soundtrack: "I Started a Joke" by The Bee Gees

Another greatly odd soundtrack that was used in a horror film for the effect of being something serene and unexpected. Again, it is that concentration on normative lifestyles that takes the anti-horror expectation into account. In this case, the serene soundtrack presents and embodies the family that live in the film and their lifestyle being "serene" - as to present the theme of the everyman. This presentation of the everyman theme is fleshed out by the soundtrack and thus, when the film presents us with a haunting that was proclaimed to be "based on a true story" the anti-horror in the track becomes the horror and the focal point of it. The marriage of the everyman theme and the true-story horror makes for a much more psychologically disturbing horror than the essence of CGI horror in the film itself.

Therefore, this concentration on the theme of the everyman family is very effectively done through the use of soundtrack - there's some obvious thinking into the theme that has gone on. The use of the soundtrack in compliance with the film's concept also makes the audience aware of the regularity of everything and thus, when things become irregular, the audience become even more aware of whatever fantastical tropes that are taking place - no matter how cliché or how twisted they may be. It's not about the irregularity, it is about how the audience recognise and respond to it. If your soundtrack can help you out with that then all the better.

Other soundtrack suggestions in this style could be:

  • "Across the Universe" by The Beatles
  • "Desolation Row" by Bob Dylan
  • "Is It Scary?" by Michael Jackson
  • "Little Clowns" by Robert Downey Jr. 

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Soundtrack (one of many): "Be By Myself" by Asher Roth

A rap/rock song as the soundtrack to a horror film is something almost unheard of, but the question here is: does it work? The answer is, to an extent yes it does. The idea that rap/rock songs do and do not work in horror is a big one since they are so underused and there is so little evidence for them working. In this case, the rap/rock song of Asher Roth relies on the bass being both heavy and pounding but not overly loud, in order to create that theme of the unexpected. We expect rap songs to have this driving bass, and when this song does not - it psychologically disturbs our sense of regularity and thus, we expect the unexpected. This is probably one of the most perfect soundtrack styles to use for another invasive horror film, the theme of invasion and the unexpected being at the focal point of the whole movie is present through the use of soundtrack.

Therefore, this soundtrack would make the film's regularity become distorted in the realm of irregularity. Basically, the opposite of the previous one but then again, working against the grain within horror is always an experiment and thus, becomes more cult than anything else - it is still respected.

Other soundtrack suggestions in this style could be:

  • "Bleed it Out" by Linkin Park
  • "Break Stuff" by Limp Bizkit
  • "Lighters" by Bad Meets Evil
  • "Run This Town" by Jay-Z
  • "Space Bound" by Eminem 

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