An Orchestral Soundtrack for Halloween

In much of America, Halloween has a fixed rock and pop soundtrack: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbuster’s,” and “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Picket & the Crypt-Kickers. The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” might also haunt a few iPods.

Rarely does classical music shake up a Halloween dance floor.

An orchestral soundtrack, however, can make even the steel-stomached fright-night fan shudder, tremble, and squirm.

The concert hall has its Halloween classics: Mussorgsky’s “Night on The Bare Mountain,” “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565,” and “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saëns. The Yale Symphony Orchestra, to name one venue, performs classical numbers at its popular annual Halloween Show.

Bach’s “Toccata” features the organ, an instrument that proves itself again and again able to summon the holy and unholy in the imagination.

“Aquarium” from Saint- Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals is a lesser-known classical cut with spooking potential. It’s highlighted by a creeping piano theme. The clink of the ivories evokes a nighttime visit to the aquarium–perhaps a group of teens breaking into a room of water tanks and finding silent, grotesque creatures long thought extinct.

Hollywood film and television music is likewise a fount of fright waiting for a patient listener to discover it. The masterpieces of the genre can stir deep-dwelling fears and anxieties.

Film composer Bernard Herrmann long reigned as Hollywood’s original Halloween maestro.

With Psycho (1960), Herrmann established one of the signature colors in scary orchestral music: the screeching, slicing strings. For The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), he used the alien vibes of an instrument called the theremin to evoke outer space visitors.

The infamous shower scene. (Shamley Productions)

With two relatively obscure scores, On Dangerous Ground (1951) and Hangover Square (1945), Herrmann challenged the boundaries of 40s and 50s film noir. The first film is defined by “The Death Hunt” cue, where frenetic brass blasts alternate with slams against a steel plate. Hangover Square features Herrmann’s “Concerto Macabre,” a piano-driven piece that careens between madness and misery. It’s a kindred spirit of Saint-Saëns’s “Danse Macabre.”

Herrmann’s final score, Taxi Driver (1976), compliments Martin Scorsese’s New York City psychological drama. The score consists of two main themes, a percussion-led theme that suggests the labored breathing of the city, and a saucy saxophone theme for the city’s nocturnal life. The sax slinks along like a frisky alley cat. The score stirs imagery of steam rising from the streets and neon electric signage for a peep show. And it’s beautiful music to boot.

New generations of film composers have produced new classics of the mystery and macabre genre—tunes fit for playing under a Harvest Moon.

The primary theme to Ghost Rider (2007), composed by Christopher Young, slowly builds to a racing trumpet anthem. Acoustic guitar adds a Western flair to the main title. The chorus adds a religious aspect. All sides of the story are voiced. The rhythm of the piece itself suggests a motorcycle growling to life and accelerating into Hell.

The opening theme to Alexandre Desplat’s Godzilla (2014), played over a slideshow of the titular monster’s rampages, hits all the right gargantuan horror tones. The French horn is melodic but oppressive and snarly. The “Following Godzilla” cue again spotlights the French horn as brute force.

Dario Marianelli’s The Brothers Grimm (2005) announced the composer’s entry into an elite group of film composers fluent in Gothic romance. Marianelli coaxes uncommonly iron tones from his strings section.

The Brothers Grimm is composed for listeners willing to hear harshness. The “Burning the Forest” cue is the most thunderous on album. Each percussive smash evokes a thick stalk of timber struck down. “And They Lived Heavily Ever After” is musical resolution at its heaviest and densest. Pleasant woodwinds, chimes, and piano give way to orchestral crescendo after smashing crescendo. Never has harp glissando bristled with such intensity.

John Ottman’s score to Apt Pupil (1998) evokes the quashed civility and muzzling militarism of Nazi Germany. In the main title, in the carefully composed beats of the bass drum, one can hear the heavy footfalls of an SS officer. The theme is part waltz, part march.

Film composer Danny Elfman is the new skeleton king, successor to Herrmann. Romance, dark heroism, suspense, Gothicism—they color his musical palette. Since his iconic fanfare for Batman (1989), Elfman has written many scores appropriate for Halloween playlists, including Batman Returns (1992), Darkman (1990), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Nightbreed (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005), Dark Shadows (2012), The Wolfman (2010), and Frankenweenie (2012).

Sleepy Hollow (1999) is one of Elfman’s consistently strong, emotionally diverse scores in the horror genre. On album, the score features back-to-back dark overtures, “Introduction” and “Main Titles.” The second overture includes a ghostly melodic interlude. Cues like “Young Ichabod” and “The Gift” offer welcome calm from the driving horror music. “The Chase” narrates the legendary attack by the headless horseman on Ichabod Crane. The strings section never slows from full gallop.

One of Elfman’s latest scores, The Unknown Known (2013), manages to find frightening notes in a film genre rarely known for its music—political documentary. Oftentimes, documentary scores can amount to glorified elevator music. Little musical power would be expected from a film documenting the political career of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Yet, Elfman opts for an emotional musical narrative rather than an intellectual one. He uses his musical toolbox as a horror master to underline the cost of war. And the music conveys the secrets painted by Rumsfeld.

Perhaps the spookiest cue on album is the electronic-organic cue, “Drones.” The highlight of the piece is a boy singing solo over what sound like video game bleeps. The sadness and strangeness of drone warfare is in evidence.

Hollywood’s film composers truly can create a mosaic of musical horror on Halloween. The cinema may have replaced the concert hall as the prime conveyor of orchestral music in America, but the orchestra remains alive and inspirational as an art form. Woodwinds, brass, choir, strings, percussion—they can communicate what flummoxes rock guitar. An orchestra is what hardware stores call a “precision tool.”