Like Music to My Fears: An Appreciation of Horror Composers

Manor Vellum
5 min readJan 6, 2023

By Harper Smith

Art: Andrew Wright

I haven’t put my feet into the ocean in decades. The fear of the unknown is something I have always been terrified of, but to say that my long-standing reluctance to even get remotely close to the water has to do with anything other than 1975’s Jaws would be a flat-out lie. The moment I sat down with my grandmother to watch a movie she said I would adore, I heard John Williams’ iconic theme…and I never looked back. The fear I experienced is something I know as much as I know my own children; the way that the film’s score latched onto my psyche and continues to live there to this very day is something I find myself appreciating more and more as life goes on. I really think the music of horror is what has always brought me back, time and time again, more than the images on the screen, no matter how big or small.

I’ve written countless pieces on my fractured childhood, so I will spare the majority of the details surrounding that time with the exception of one: discovering 1988’s Halloween 4 and the saving grace it brought my life.

Image from Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

Hiding in my local cinema, I was looking for solace, comfort, and an escape. Seeing the poster with the face of Michael Myers, front and center, I had no idea what the film was but thought the poster looked cool, so I walked into a moment that changed me forever. I lost myself in how similar I felt to Jamie Lloyd, feeling judged and looked down on by my schoolmates, feeling like I didn’t fit within the family dynamic I was forced to be a part of. The film spoke to me, regarding enduring trauma at the hands of a monster, but what transported me into that solace and that mood was the comfortable yet eerie quality of Alan Howarth’s score. In that wonderful montage of the opening credits, there’s something both beautiful and dreadful about the way Howarth’s music sets forth a vibe that carries throughout the rest of the film. The way it ebbs and flows caused a younger me to be lost in the quiet moments and shocked by the frightful ones before me. When I asked my mother to rent me the first film in the series that same weekend, I discovered John Carpenter’s original score for his 1978 classic. It was and still is, the most fear-inducing score I have ever heard. Something about the simplicity and repetitive fright found within that perfect theme music, combined with the cues that saw a young Laurie Strode being stalked by a mask-adorned stalker, allowed me to truly be scared out of my mind. I was completely ravaged by that score, so much so that even the hint of the theme was enough to make me cower under the blankets. While the film itself is an absolute masterpiece of horror, we’d be lying if we didn’t say a large amount of the effectiveness of Halloween is found within that simple but enthralling score Carpenter created for it.

I’ve written in the past about how discovering Full Moon’s Puppet Master series allowed me to find escapism as a child and so much of that escapism was found within Richard Band’s wonderful music for the series. I’m still marveled at Puppet Master’s playfully innocent but sinister carnival-like ambiance in its music, a wonder recently realized in a full circle way with my own work on the series as the composer for Puppet Master: Doktor Death. I have so many memories growing up of walking alone, scared by the wolves in the world, but comforted by my Walkman playing film music. As Carpenter, Williams, Band, and many others gave horror fans countless iconic pieces of horror music, those cues served as security blankets to a kid who just wanted to be normal but didn’t know how to be as I suffered from body and identity dysmorphia, while also being a survivor of brutal childhood abuse. Blasting Christopher Young’s score for Hellraiser allowed me to shut out the world and find myself lost in that bombastic soundscape radiating from my headphones.

Image from Puppet Master: Doktor Death

Every weekday morning, I walk my kids to school on what is easily one of the most mundane walks around. As soon as I drop them off, I put in my Air Pods and put on one of those scores, like either Jason Graves’ score for the wonderfully demented video game Dead Space or Colin Stetson’s score for the Ari Aster film Hereditary. Pure magic happens every single time I listen. I am able to conjure up my own power to dictate what the experience is will be for me. I hold the power to make the most mundane walk into something terrifying and exciting. I decide that I hold the power to make whatever I do into the experience I feel most comfortable going through — the magic of music as a conduit to shape an experience into my own agenda.

There’s something so very special about horror film scores. The way we are able to not only experience a film for what it sets out to do but to use each film’s music as a way to invoke our own fears and wonderment into our own life experiences is nothing short of spellbinding. I adore it so very much. I don’t know the first time I scored a basket or hit a home run; I don’t know the first time I rode a bike without falling. What I do know, however, is the first time I felt scared hearing the Jaws theme, and the first time I felt hopeless, listening to the music from Prince of Darkness and how it kept me up at night. I hold those memories as close as anything else in my life and I am forever indebted to the power of a good horror score. Brilliance. 🩸

About

Harper Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, they have annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow them on X @HarperisjustOK and visit their website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com.

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