Every time you hear them, they send a shiver down your spine.
They make you want to bury your head underneath the covers, curl up into a ball on the couch and make DAMNED sure your ankles are not dangling off the furniture. . .lest you want something underneath the loveseat to take a gnash out of your calves.
They do not just freak us out, they downright terrify us into mini-comas. These are the aural horrors that make our neck hairs do jumping jacks and our flesh break out into icy goose pimples. Hell, if you have a weak bladder, they may even make you wee a little. These are, unquestionably, undoubtedly, undeniably THE creepiest, eeriest and downright most unnerving musical numbers to EVER be associated with a certain film, television show or video game. Today, we honor (out of incredible fear, of course) the most marrow-freezing, blood-chilling, plasma-solidifying tunes EVER recorded. Prepare yourself, reader, for these are, without a shadow of a doubt. . .
THE TOP TEN SPOOKIEST THEME SONGS OF ALL-TIME!
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
COMPOSER: Johann Sebastian Bach
The first song on our countdown is the kind of selection that is SO obvious that most of us tend to overlook it when debating the creepiest theme songs of all time. Even if you SOMEHOW do not think of Bach s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as being specifically scary, the damn thing s ubiquity as a horror staple merits it an inclusion on the list for that simple reason alone.
Hey, have you ever seen a classic, silent Universal horror film? You know, Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, all that jazz? Well, since those movies did not come with an actual soundtrack, theaters had to get in house organ players to provide the ambience for filmgoers. While those kooky Europeans played modernistic fare like Wagner, we here in the States decided to use Bach s seminal tune to build atmosphere for our horror movie screenings. Why, you may ask? Because simply put, the song is CREEPY AS ALL HELL. Yeah, you can say that it has been played to the point that it has lost all meaning (since it is in the public domain, you have probably heard it everything from Atari games to breakfast cereal commercials), but the fact remains that it is just a downright eerie little medley.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has pretty much become THE official classical musical number denoting horror, spookiness, the strange, the paranormal or the pants-pissing in general. The song is SO correlated with classic horror films that at times, it seems almost impossible to separate the two. I, for one, IMMEDIATELY think of the song every time I hear the word Dracula. . .in fact, a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a vampire pinata, and the VERY first thing that entered my mind was the legendary DUH NUH NA, DUH NA NAAAA opening salvo. In short, Bach s practically-universal composition is the definition of a truly timeless track. . .and the great, great, GREAT grand pappy of all songs intended to scare the beejezus out of you.
Tales From The Crypt
COMPOSER: Danny Elfman
You know, I am going to piss off a lot of angsty, quasi-goth Hot Topic chicks with the following statement, but I utter it regardless: I think Danny Elfman is the most overrated composer in the history of film and television. Go ahead, get those angry e-mails typed up, but I stand by my assertion. Yeah, yeah, he did the theme song for The Simpsons and records a new song every time Tim Burton takes a dump, but I never really got why people thought he was so multidimensional and hyper-talented. I mean, really, can you TELL the difference between a song from Sleepy Hollow and one from Sweeney Todd? Does being in Oingo Boingo really give him more cred than a TV composer like Mark Mothersbaugh (who was in the SUPREMELY influential group DEVO, mind you?) I do not care if the guy gave us the Batman theme - in my honest opinion, the dude that did the theme song for Taz-Mania! Was probably more versatile as a composer than old Elf-y.
Of course, ALL OF THAT being said, I still consider Elfman's work on the Tales From the Crypt HBO series to be one of the downright creepiest things that has ever snuck into my ear. . .and I woke up one time with a firefly in my lobe when I was eight, if that gives the approbation any more merit. A lot of times, a successful theme can be chalked up to HOW it corresponds with the imagery presented on the screen, and I think that the Tales From the Crypt theme is one of the absolute best examples of audio/visual synch up that I have ever experienced. Beginning with the sound of that creaky gate opening and the howling wind, you just KNOW you are in for something sublimely spooky before you hear ONE note of music.
I just love how the sound effects incorporated into the theme are so subtlety posited; if they were just bluntly wedged in there, there is no way, I think, that the theme song would be so effectively unnerving. That is why hearing this song TO THIS DAY makes me mildly apprehensive, while hearing the theme song to something like Tales from the Dark Side or The X Files just makes me think nostalgic cheese. That is really the earmark of an effective theme song (and in a lot of ways, music in general): if it affects you in the current without making you think of WHEN it was originally recorded, you know you are dealing with some well composed music. This is just a masterfully pieced together track, culminating with one of the eeriest concluding moments of ANY opening credit: do not tell anybody, but even now, I simply HAVE to look away as soon as the coffin the Crypt Keeper rests in comes into view.
The 1970s were really the great heyday of the new age music genre. For those of you wondering exactly what new age music was. . .you know, I honestly have a hard time telling you. Basically, it was what happened when soft rock converted to Satanism and bought a synthesizer. Wow, come to think of it, that just about IS the best definition of New Age music I can think of. Anyway, there were a lot of tremendous musicians in that genre at the timeframe, including Michael Oldfield and Tangerine Dream, whom would go on to record a ton of movie scores in the late 70s and early 80s. That said, there was ONE band that was at the zenith of electro-horror-dance-soft-rock-spooky-mystical music, and that group was an Italian outfit known as Goblin.
So you do not know who Goblin is? Well, stop reading this article and go hit up a track or two on the Tube. The band is responsible for crafting the musical score for just about everything Dario Argento was associated with in the early part of his career, from the original Dawn of the Dead to Tenebrae. Despite recording a number of monumental tracks, there is NO denying that their work on the theme song for Suspiria is unquestionably their magnum opus. . .and one of the damned scariest things you will hear outside of hearing a Sasquatch tearing through your garbage bags.
The key with the Suspiria score is its simplicity. The song itself is only a few notes, and you ultimately hear more ambience (like gusts of winds and intentional interstitial of silence) than you do orchestrated music. The tune sounds, essentially, like the most evil lullaby ever recorded, this bizarre, almost indescribable mixture of soft sounds and atmospheric herrings that results in something more terrifying than a look at Jeffrey Dahmer's icebox. Try playing this one while you are driving down a dark, rural road at midnight,and see how long it is before the willies end up taking the wheel.
COMPOSER: Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave
My adulation of the Phantasm series is almost unsettling. A lot of people consider the life work of Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister to be pretentious, under-budgeted, story-less chaos of a franchise, and you know what? That is EXACTLY why I dig the movies so much. I mean, it is right there IN THE TITLE: Phantasm, short for phantasmagoria, which means anarchic dream-like imagery. In a lot of ways, I think the Phantasm films do a better job of exploring the dreamscape / real world dynamic than even the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. If Luis Bunuel and Carl Jung were alive today, I think they would probably be pretty big fans of the movies, too.
The Phantasm movies, especially the first one, hold up so well today due in large part to the main theme song. For my money, the Phantasm theme is one of the absolute best scores ever crafted, in addition to being one of the absolute freakiest. It builds up isolation, and helplessness, and fills you with this overwhelming dread that no matter what you do, no matter where you go. . .The Tall Man WILL find you.
A lot of horror themes try to unnerve you by making you feel like you are being viewed or surrounded by something. When you hear the themes from Psycho and The Shining, you do not necessarily feel alone, but when you hear the theme from Phantasm, you automatically feel as if you are standing in the middle of a deserted small town. As soon as the music starts up, it is just you, the environment, and an unshakable feeling that sooner or later, you will end up getting stabbed in the face by a flying Christmas ornament with a power drill in it only to be transformed into a robed midget to do slave labor on an extra-dimensional planet after your brains have been chewed into a bubblegum. Or, uh, something else bad. No matter how you interpret it, there is no question whether or not Phantasm has an unnerving theme song: heck, even when they did a disco remix of it for the bar scene in the first movie, it was still about 99 times spookier than just about anything else you would hear in the movies or on TV!
COMPOSER: Bill Bodine
Time for my best Sofia from Golden Girls impersonation. Picture it: Fox TV, the early 90s, a Friday night. There is a really, really spooky TV show, about really, really spooky things, and the absolute spookiest thing about the program is its theme song. . .a track so memorably haunting that most people remember the tune even though they cannot remember ANYTHING about the show itself.
Believe it or not, Ripley, I am not talking about The X Files, but the show that the X Files ultimately ended up REPLACING (same network, same time slot, same airing day, EVERYTHING.) As a wee little tyke, my favorite show on TV was Sightings, this long forgotten program on Fox hosted by Tim White (no relation to anybody else on TV also named White, I think) that profiled a number of supernatural phenomena, from alien abductions to curses to werewolves to. . .well, pretty much everything the X Files ended up covering. The only difference is, Sightings was a TV News Magazine program a la 20/20 and A Current Affair, so of course, I ended up thinking that everything on the show was BY GOLLY REAL. And one of the reasons I did so, of course, is because its theme song was so AMAZINGLY terrifying.
If you want to freak people out, the best way to do it is with subtlety. That means giving them noises they BARELY pick up as opposed to loud ass crashes and yelps. The composer for the Sightings theme knew this quite well, and as a result, I swear I can hear the ENTIRE theme song in my head, from memory, note by note. The theme begins with the sound of a wind chime, and then sweeping wind and then this long, drawn out synthesizer beat that loops over footage of ghosts, tombstones and what I figured was supposed to be Frankenstein before concluding with this crescendo that absolutely made me shudder in horror. As much as I loved the program, I literally could not BEAR to hear the theme song because of how creepy it was. . .and our TV did not have a mute button, so my only option was to just sit there, with my hands over my ears, as I anxiously awaited the horror to conclude. In case you could not figure it out, that is about as much praise as you can reasonably give a spooky theme song, amigo.
Those Halloween Sound EFX Tapes
OK, so this one is kind of cheating, but it deserves a spot on the countdown anyway. Surely, at one point or another, we have come across one of these audiocassette tapes in our youth. . .and if you are anything like me, you CURSE the day whoever came up with idea dreamt it up.
I have talked about how many spooky theme songs have used subtlety to freak out the listener. Well, these damn things take the opposite route, and contradictory, I have to say they creep me out just as much, if not more than, the more restrained tunes mentioned earlier.
These cassettes were simple. I mean, insultingly, brain-numbingly, so-on-the-nose-its-stuck-between-two-boogers simple. The tapes generally lasted about an hour or so, and consisted of just ONE track of looping sounds, usually with one beat (I use that term loosely, by the way) that serves as the backdrop of the entire score. I think the thing that really freaked me out most about these things were their bluntness. Every thirty seconds or so, the music would be interrupted by something ridiculously loud, like a thunder clap, a cackling witch, or everybody s favorite, a whirring chainsaw. As a result, you were CONSTANTLY being jolted by the increase in volume, so listening to the tapes made you PHYSICALLY uncomfortable in addition to psychologically distressed. And the worst thing? The things were pretty much inescapable, as on Halloween night, every block you encountered had at least one or two houses playing the freaking tapes at full volume. As much as I loved Halloween, those things were one of the few things on this planet that made me look forward to November 01 every year.
The Castle Stage in Super Mario Bros.
COMPOSER: Koji Kondo
If you grew up in the 1980s, you HAVE to have joyous memories of playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES. Oh, all of these fun, affable and light hearted experiences: hopping on turtles, chasing mushrooms, spitting fireballs at dudes throwing mini-stegosauruses at you from a cloud. And that music! So memorable, so carefree, so blithe and cheery. . .
. . .until you get to the first castle stage. At that point, Super Mario Bros. goes from being a fun, fanciful adventure to being a heart-pounding, sweat-producing exercise in just how much one human being can experience fear before collapsing into the fetal position. That first castle stage was a harder left turn than the boat ride scene in the original Willy Wonka; one minute, you are stomping underground goombas and hopping over Venus fly traps, and the next you are thrust into Satan s castle while fire, flaming dragon breath and death traps galore await you at every corner. And then, there is the music.
It s kind of difficult to accurately describe what those levels in Super Mario Bros. authentically sounded like. Maybe it is just me, but I always thought they had sort of an aquatic sound to them, as if a demonic fish were blubbering the music out of the River Styx. This, however, I think we can all agree upon: that tune was one of the most ANXIETY-PRODUCING tracks ever recorded. As soon as the level begins, you just want to haul ass out of there and be done with it; the track was so nerve wrecking to me that I actually turned the sound OFF of the TV on the stage before to escape from hearing even ONE microsecond of the tune as soon as the next stage began. And buddy, you have not experienced terror until you hear that already horrifying ditty SPED up to almost death-metal velocity as the in-game ticker alerts you that you only have a minute and 33 seconds to GET THE EFF OUT OF THERE. No lie: just THINKING about that at this very moment makes me feel a little fidgety.
COMPOSER: John Carpenter
I will just come out and say it: the only reason Halloween is remembered as an all time classic is BECAUSE of this theme. Now, I am not saying that the movie was bad, by any stretch, it is just that John Carpenter s score was SO pivotal to providing atmosphere to the movie that I do not think it would have anywhere near the same effect if it had a different score.
I always tell people that my favorite musical is Halloween, and I am not being a pretentious, post-modern dill weed, either. To me, that was a film that was absolutely CARRIED by the use of music; the score in that film was so darn effective that, at times, it seemed as if you did not even NEED a visual image to understand what was happening in the story. The music is what carried Halloween to greatness, and this theme song is what carried the entire soundtrack to cinema immortality.
As soon as the credits begin rolling, those staccato notes feel like kitchen knives being thrust into your flesh. As the camera begins zooming in on the jack o lantern, the intensity of the song shifts: sometimes, it has more treble, and sometimes it has more bass. It has a consistent rhythm, but the song, somehow, remains unpredictable, just like a certain escaped mental patient cruising around the suburbs in a jacked station wagon. I really cannot tell you how many times I have heard this song, both watching the movie and just out and about in public (I think a thousand is probably a too-conservative estimate here.) That said, even though I've heard the thing more times than I have purchased gasoline in my lifetime, every time I hear it. . .I mean EVERY TIME. . .it still manages to send a shiver down my vertebral column. This song is not just creepy, it seems to be creepiness personified. Hard to believe that Carpenter based the tune on, of all things, a bongo exercise he tried as a kid, huh?
COMPOSER: Mike Oldfield
Let s say that you are New Age composer Mike Oldfield, circa 1972. You just recorded an album filled with this genre-melding, electro-funk stuff that sounds about as AOR friendly as the latest Cannibal Corpse release. A year later, some movie producer guy comes along and says that he wants to use your work in a movie, for roughly a fajillion dollars. You say yes, and your track becomes immortalized as one of the decade s defining musical works. The only catch? Your haunting, beautiful ballad is remembered as one of the most soul-chilling pop culture artifacts of all time as opposed to the uplifting, existential ditty you originally intended the tune to become.
Of course, it really is not a sad story for Mr. Oldfield, whose Tubular Bells went on to become one of the most distinguishable songs of the 20th century. . .even if that s SOLELY because it was featured in The Exorcist, a movie universally considered to be among, if not THE, scariest movies in history.
Tubular Bells is the kind of track that seems to nail you at the very pit of your soul, very much the same way The Exorcist, as a film, gnawed away at the very core of your consciousness. Originally, director William Friedkin wanted to use some obscure eastern European lullaby for the movie theme, but after hearing Oldfield s work, he immediately contacted him for use in his feature presentation. The song, sort of like the movie itself, finds unfathomable horror in the tranquil: the song is soft and slow tempo, but at the same time, frightening and antagonistic as all hell (yes, pun INTENDED.) The very first time we hear the song in the movie is when Chris is just walking around Georgetown, a banal image if there ever was one. However, the music clues is in on the fact that, amidst all of that apparent normalcy, there is an undercurrent of something that, while undetectable, makes itself present in our marrow. It strikes beyond our reasoning and beyond our empirical knowledge: we cannot see it, we cannot feel it and we cannot hear it, but somehow, we are still able to sense the presence of evil around us. Tubular Bells is a different kind of scary song, in that it does not just make us feel afraid for our temporal wellbeing, but our very souls, as well. Most scary tracks make you feel like something is going to leap out of the bushes at you, while this one makes you feel as if all of humanity is doomed from WITHIN itself. Tubular Bells is a song that alerts us not only to the presence of evil, it makes us FEEL as if that evil is all around us, or perhaps even residing in our very minds. The fact that a song can touch us THAT deeply is every bit as scary as the music itself, I firmly believe.
And in keeping with the theme of suspense, I wanted to take a time out for a bit to elucidate a little on why my number one pick is my number one pick. For the sake of fun, try thinking about the absolute SCARIEST song you have ever heard. Go ahead, rack your brain if you have to. Ultimately, I think that if you grew up in my society and absorbed all of the mainstream pop culture that was around you, there is NO WAY you could have a number one choice other than the one I have listed. Literally EVERYBODY I have talked to that is familiar with the track agrees that it is one of the most unsettling things they have ever heard. . .not only is it an obvious choice for most horrifying theme song of all time, it seems to me to be a unanimous pick for the title, too.
So, what theme song do I consider to be the most horrifying of all time?
Well, if you grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, it is probably the EXACT same theme you consider to be the most horrifying, too. Without further ado, I present what is, without debateTHE ABSOLUTE CREEPIEST THEME SONG EVER. . .
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COMPOSER: Michael Boyd and Gary Malkin
A lot of times, when you try to come up with a top ten list, deciding what the number one selection is going to be is the hardest part of the task. Well, for this specific topic, there was never any doubt as to what the top spot holder was going to be, and I am so sure of my choice that I doubt ANYBODY familiar with the theme is going to argue otherwise.
This song. This freaking song. If Lucifer himself were an Ultimate Fighter, I think this would probably be his walk out music. Not only is this theme the absolute spookiest I have ever heard, it is probably one of the spookiest things I have ever experienced through ANY of my senses. The same way the Benny Hill theme song can make everything hilarious, this song can make anything in this world underwear-staining terrifying.
There is really no trick or reason I can think of as to why the track is so scary. Like a blue sky, it just is, and I do not feel the need to ponder why X is Y in this scenario. This is probably the only song (or sound, for that matter) that I have heard that literally FREEZES me in terror. As soon as you start hearing those creepy ass drum beats, it feels like your organs are about to shut down - if I heard this thing out of the blue one night while in bed, I would probably suffer a five star coronary right then and there. That synthesizer tune, that wailing ambience, those staccato notes that make you feel as if a succubus is draining the very life out of your veins. . .if you ask me, what it accomplishes is absolutely unparalleled in the field of music. Just how effective is this thing at scaring the beejezus out of you? At 25 years of age, I STILL cannot listen to it without plugging my ears. This song did not just scare me. . .it pretty much traumatized me for life.
With an accomplishment like that, I do not think there is any doubts to its official status as scariest theme song ever recorded.
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James Swift is a freelance writer and author of two books, How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks.Follow him on Twitter at JSwiftMedia, or subscribe to his YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/JSwiftMedia